In 2020, barriers to accessing the justice system were thrown into sharp relief. Legal aid was slashed at the same time as coronavirus exacerbated existing inequality in society. Legal recourse is vital for protecting the rights of the vulnerable – including housing rights and the right to access eduction.
As the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the world, the legal system itself was also questioned. How can we challenge racist and classist systems? How can we build a system in which everyone is equal in the eyes of the law?
These changemakers used the courts to challenge injustice, fight for the vulnerable and reform the justice system.
77. Alexandra Wilson – barrister
Alexandra [pictured above] became acutely aware while studying at Oxford University that she was one of only a few classmates that attended a state school. Now, as a junior barrister, she sees firsthand how crucial it is to have diversity at every level of the legal system. Her book In Black and White, published in August, details her experiences as a young mixed-race barrister navigating a racist and classist justice system and reveals how much needs to change before everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.
78. The Good Law Project
The Good Law Project is a not-for-profit body that fights abuses of power, inequality and injustice through the law. Director Jo Maugham QC tells us why 2020 was such an important year for the organisation.
The Big Issue: Can you tell us about some of the work the Good Law Project did last year?
Jo Maugham: We brought three cases in the education space: a claim against the government in relation to its refusal to offer free school meals during the summer holidays, a claim in relation to its failure to make provision for online learning for children who didn’t have internet access and a claim in relation to its flawed A-level algorithm. We’re also in the process of pursuing litigation in respect of the failure of the NHS to make provision for the healthcare of trans young people. I think we’re best known at the moment for the series of cases we’ve brought against the government in relation to its mishandling of procurement of PPE.
How has Covid-19 influenced the cases you’ve taken on?
The way in which we work is to use the law to increase pressure on government to do the right thing, both legal pressure and political pressure. What that means in practice is that we have to be responsive to the world around us in making decisions about the particular cases we choose to bring. The defining event of 2020 has been Covid-19, and so almost all of the work that I’ve just described has been shaped by the pandemic.
Why has it been so important to hold the government accountable?
We seem to be on a slippery slope in the UK towards less and less democracy. I think that process began with Brexit, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated the government’s natural inclination to autocracy. There are a number of really alarming features of the political landscape at the moment. We think the use of proxy votes by government, wherein MPs increasingly aren’t voting themselves, is worrying and effectively denudes them of their role as representative of their constituents. The proposed clampdowns on judicial review and the Human Rights Act remove further controls on an autocratic government. There is also the suggestion that government may clamp down on one’s right to protest. In a way, that’s the most troubling of all.
In November, the Good Law Project sent a letter to the Home Office warning their plans to remove foreign rough sleepers from the UK was unlawful. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
We put together a very powerful coalition of political interests, including the Mayor of London, because we thought that it was profoundly wrong to deport rough sleepers full stop. The situation is particularly egregious in circumstances where people have accommodation that’s tied to their employment. If you lose your job because of the pandemic, you’re also losing your accommodation, and now government says you’re going to be deported. That feels to us to be extraordinarily morally objectionable.
What did you learn in 2020 and what are the Good Law Project’s priorities heading into 2021?
We need to have both the desire and capacity to respond quickly to changes in the conduct of our democracy. The decay of democracy in the UK is a very polite type of decay. We don’t think of ourselves as having a government that is capable of doing profound wrong. But if you look at the objective evidence, in particular Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament when it became inconvenient to him, you can see that we have a government with autocratic instincts. We want to be there throughout 2021 to do whatever we can to protect democracy.
79. Green and Black Cross
Independent grassroots project Green and Black Cross offers help and legal advice to protesters and activists in the UK. Although contact with other households must be limited due to the pandemic, the George Floyd protests in the UK by Black Lives Matter organisers in 2020 highlighted the importance of allowing the public to hold demonstrations. With police powers expanded under the Coronavirus Act, the project says it’s more important than ever that the right to protest is protected.
80. Olivia Loveridge
It might be easy to assume that the pandemic has had no effect on prisoners, for whom the term ‘lockdown’ is familiar. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as their access to libraries, gyms and recreational activities has been restricted even more. Olivia Loveridge and her charity Give a Book seek to ensure that prisoners retain access to reading material, providing titles that cover a range of abilities. Running in more than 70 prisons, the charity also arranges virtual reading groups and provides books for parents to read with their children over the phone.
81. Josh Babarinde
Josh pounced on that gap in the market with his social enterprise Cracked It. It gives at-risk young people an entrepreneurial route away from gangs, crime and antisocial behaviour through learning how to repair mobile phones. During the lockdown, the team also began delivering refurbished phones to older and more vulnerable people to keep them connected with their families while shielding.
82. Rose Arnall
Rose Arnall is a solicitor for homelessness charity Shelter who worked tirelessly in 2020 to stop the unjust practice of DSS discrimination against private renters, securing landmark victories that pave the way for fairer policies.
The Big Issue: What is DSS discrimination and why is it so dangerous?
Rose Arnall: DSS Discrimination is any practice or policy that excludes tenants who are in receipt of benefits, even when the properties are affordable for them. To come across barrier after barrier, completely limiting your choice of a new home, despite the fact you know you can be a good tenant is devastating. It can actually lead to homelessness, because they just can’t find anyone that’s willing to even give them a chance.
Tell us a bit about your work to end housing discrimination.
We’ve been working on it for two years now. We first needed to understand why landlords and estate agents were doing this and remove any of the barriers that they had, for example, restrictions on their mortgages or concerns about arrears. Even after we had dealt with all of the rational reasons, however, we still saw it going on. Change just wasn’t coming and so we decided we were going to have to prove in a bigger way that this was not just morally wrong and hurting people, but actually unlawful. We started taking cases to court. It was really down to some incredibly brave and determined clients who were willing to put their neck out and have their story publicly told.
Have you seen a change since you won these landmark cases?
We do see the practice continuing, but the larger online portals like Rightmove and Zoopla have got rid of DSS discriminating adverts as much as they can. Since the cases have been publicised, we’ve also seen a lot more people who are affected by this come forward to try and understand how they can challenge it themselves. I’m hoping that the cases have been informative, not just for landlords and agents, but for tenants, so that they know what their rights are.
What can people do if they are being refused tenancy because they receive benefits?
Make sure you’ve got all of your documents in order so that you can show the agent that you would have been able to afford that property. Then you can use our template complaint letter on our website. The agent or landlord doesn’t have to have explicitly said “No DSS”, if they use euphemisms like “working professionals only” or “couples only”, you can try to challenge that as well.
83. Public Interest Law Centre/Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London
The Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) challenges injustice via legal representation, litigation, research and education. In November, it unveiled plans to take the Home Office to court over new immigration rules that would enable non-UK nationals to be deported on the grounds that they are rough sleepers. Acting on behalf of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London, the campaign raised more than £5,000 from the public in 24 hours. The PILC successfully challenged a similar policy in the High Court in 2017.