Seeking social justice: People, power, and the law

By Mushfik Khan 7 January 2022 4 minute read

A recent virtual panel discussion, People, power, and the law, hosted by NPC in partnership with The Baring Foundation, brought together organisations representing marginalised communities that had been deeply affected by discriminatory policies and decisions enforced by those in power. The discussion was chaired by lawyer, Shauneen Lambe, and included panellists from the self-organised campaigning groups, An Untold Story-Voices and Refugees for Justice, along with the national charity, Friends, Families and Travellers. The groups highlighted the various legal approaches they have taken, including the hurdles they have had to overcome, when using the power of the law to seek social justice and achieve their campaign goals.

The law touches on every aspect of our lives and serves numerous functions within any given society. One of the most fundamental functions of the law should be to protect the rights of individuals in the face of arbitrary decisions from those who hold power.

When our rights are being threatened or where we face negative consequences as a result of adverse decisions, it becomes crucial to be able to use the power of the law to seek social justice. But what does using the power of the law entail? And, more specifically, how do marginalised individuals and communities, who are often far removed from the legal world, use the law to achieve social justice?

Routes to seeking social justice

The panel discussion was kicked off by campaigners, Emma Crick and Amanda Hailes from An Untold Story-Voices, a collective of women, some of whom have lived experience of street sex work in Hull. The group has been campaigning since 2015 against Hull City Council’s use of Section 222 orders under the Local Government Act 1972, to issue injunctions against street sex workers in Hull. The injunctions, which were enforceable by the police, effectively criminalised street sex work by prohibiting activities relating to it, including loitering, and soliciting for the purpose of prostitution. Unsurprisingly, this caused major problems for Hulls street sex workers, who now found themselves taking bigger risks by working in darker streets without CCTV to avoid police arrests and fearing for their wellbeing due to the injunctions exacerbating existing social stigma surrounding sex work. 

Despite the group’s many attempts at dialogue with the council, the injunctions were issued and renewed without consulting them and with a disregard to the repercussions they were having on street sex workers. In 2020, as a last resort, the group decided to take legal action and applied to court for a judicial review. The judicial review involved examining Hull City Council’s decision to exercise its powers under Section 222 and challenging the lawfulness of the procedures followed.

The High Court judgement resulted in a lifting of the Section 222 order. As part of the settlement, the court ordered the council to consult with An Untold Story-Voices before making any future decisions that could affect street sex workers. The group’s use of the law allowed them to gain a ‘seat at the table’ where their voices were finally being heard and further led to the development of a multi-agency working group centred around lived experience. The working group, made up of An Untold Story-Voices and other interest groups such as National Ugly Mugs, now work in collaboration with the police and Hull City Council to form new strategic policies in relation to street sex workers.

Other legal approaches mentioned during the panel discussion included those taken by the group Refugees for Justice, a refugee led campaigning group based in Glasgow. Panellist and Director of Refugees for Justice, Dylan Fotoohi, explained that the group was established in 2020 following the forcible eviction, during the pandemic, of around 300 asylum seekers from their flats into crowded hotel accommodation, against public health guidance. The decision, taken by the Home Office, forced them to endure the cramped conditions for over a year, with limited access to nutritious food and a cut in financial support during what was supposed to be a temporary measure. This treatment worsened the psychological distress that many asylum seekers were already experiencing, with catastrophic consequences. One asylum seeker committed suicide after his calls for help went unanswered and another asylum seeker was shot dead by police after having committed knife crime.

Following these incidents, the group was galvanised into taking legal action and are currently in the early stages of their journey towards social justice. Refugees for Justices are seeking to challenge the lawfulness of the decision taken by the Home Office. They have so far instigated collective as well as individual claims for judicial review by those within the group who were directly affected and witnesses to the incidents that occurred at the hotels. Alongside their application for judicial review, the group have also requested that the UK government conduct an Article 3 compliant public inquiry to investigate the conditions that were present in the hotels leading to the deaths of two asylum seekers. From this investigation, the group hopes to ascertain what went wrong, who is accountable for the decisions made and what needs to change to ensure it does not happen again.

Obstacles on the road to social justice

Whilst the examples above paint a picture of some of the legal approaches available to individuals and communities seeking social justice, the reality of taking legal action is not as simple as it may seem, but rather, involves overcoming numerous barriers before reaching the finish line. As Amanda from An Untold Story-Voices put it, ‘hold onto your knickers because it really is a roller coaster ride.’

Accessing legal instruments, understanding legal requirements, and generally navigating through the legal labyrinth were all problems that the two groups faced, and are part of a much wider problem in relation to access to justice.

Funding the litigation was perhaps the biggest hurdle the groups faced and is often the greatest hurdle that small, self-organised groups like them face on their journey to seeking social justice. Legal aid is now severely restricted due to legal aid cuts brought into effect by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). In this case, the groups relied heavily on the generosity of funders and charities such as The Lankelly Chase Foundation and The Public Law Project (PLP) to provide cost protection and pro-bono services.

The groups also struggled to understand the legal jargon. As Amanda expressed during the discussion, ‘I needed to be able to understand it to be better able to fight it.’ However, the inaccessible legal language not only made it difficult for the groups to make effective use of the law, but it also made it difficult for them to seek the justice that the law was in place to provide. Yet again, the groups found themselves turning to charities such as The Public Law Project for support in understanding legal documents. Dylan from Refugees for Justice acknowledged that having individuals and charities with legal expertise by his side made all the difference, but it raises the question, should it really be this hard for individuals and communities that have been wronged to seek social justice?

Open access to justice

The legal system exists to protect the rights of ordinary citizens. If it is easier for those with power to enforce harmful and discriminatory policies than it is for those who are being wronged to seek social justice, then this brings into question the power of the law. Therefore, removing barriers is pivotal to improving access to justice for all.

To remedy this, public authorities must firstly give due regard to their duties under the Equality Act 2010, which stresses the importance of integrating the consideration of equality and good relations into any decisions they make. One of the ways in which public authorities can do this is by meaningfully engaging in discussions with individuals and groups, particularly with those who have lived experience in a particular matter and are likely to be affected by their policies and decisions. As detailed by the panellists at the recent event, bad decisions have real negative consequences and so ensuring that individuals with lived experience play a central role throughout the decision-making process is key to avoiding future repercussions.

Furthermore, panellists argued that these types of interventions are only available if funders adopt more flexible grant-making processes. These include making quicker decisions, being willing to fund legal action, and covering costs if the case goes against them.

Lastly, lawyers and charities need to work collaboratively to create change and innovation in the legal system. Charities should seek to develop relationships with lawyers and think about how lawyers and clients will work together, allowing individuals with lived experiences to take the lead rather than allowing lawyers to lead reluctant clients. Lawyers in turn must be willing to take the time to understand the dynamics between the parties to litigation and the client’s broader aims outside of litigation. Lawyers must also work with charities to ensure that the law is accessible to those who need it.

How can charities use the power of the law to achieve their campaign goals? This blog details the legal approaches charities can use and the hurdles that lie in the way: Click To Tweet