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26 October 2020

Legal action in a pandemic: four stories

Harriet Lowe
How are legal organisations supporting people during the pandemic? Last week, Foxglove, JustRight Scotland, Public Interest Law Centre and COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice told us about their work this year.
Strengthening Civil Society

Like civil society as a whole, grantholders in our Strengthening Civil Society programme had to pivot their work this year to respond to the pandemic. Earlier this week, we heard from four organisations who told us about the legal work in very different areas they have been undertaking to support people whose lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19 or the raft of new policy associated with it.

Foxglove is a new tech justice organisation. Co-founder Martha Dark presented on two cases they have taken during the pandemic – one on the lack of transparency and safeguards in the Government’s decision to outsource management of NHS COVID-19 Datastore to three private companies; and the second on the use of the infamous algorithm by Ofqual to award A-level grades this summer.

JustRight Scotland is a human rights organisation that uses legal approaches to achieve change in a broad range of areas. Founder and partner, Jen Ang, described their COVID-19 response in three of these: women’s justice, migrant destitution and street homelessness.

Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) specialise in public law actions – at this event, Izzy Mulholland presented on their successful campaign to get the Government to ring-fence funding for safe accommodation for women fleeing domestic violence during lockdown.

COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are a group of c. 1,000 families campaigning for a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of COVID-19. Co-founder, Jo Goodman, lost her father to COVID-19 and gave a moving account of what had driven her and others to action. They are planning a legal challenge with their legal team.

All four presentations were inspiring – here are some of the points that emerged during the conversations and subsequent discussion.

There has been huge demand for legal support during the pandemic

JustRight report that demand for advice particularly from their Scottish Women’s Rights Centre had been phenomenal, seeing a huge increase in calls relating to domestic violence. They increased their helpline capacity, started offering email advice, and used incoming enquiries to produce online resources addressing particular issues in the new context of lockdown.

Their founder, Jen Ang, observed that while the long-standing erosion of legal advice had already increased demand for the services that remain, the problem was exacerbated in this period as many partner organisations on the ground who might have been able to resolve some queries often weren’t able to open their offices.

Partnerships are always important, and vital in a crisis

Partnerships are a central part of JustRight’s operating model – with each of their centres developed in partnership with usually a non-legal organisation. These partnerships came to the fore during the pandemic; partners were key, for example, to helping people get on to zoom calls to access surgeries and sometimes physically hosted places where clients could come, with some risk to themselves.

“Remote advice wouldn’t have been possible, rapidly changing our models wouldn’t have been possible, if we didn’t have that trust and collaboration with frontline workers.” Jen Ang, JustRight.

PILC have an ongoing relationship with Solace Women’s Aid and Southall Black Sisters, and initiated the legal challenge on their behalf to challenge the Government’s lack of support for women fleeing domestic violence.

Foxglove worked on the NHS COVID-19 Datastore case with journalism platform, openDemocracy – among the benefits of this partnership, is that journalists have better information rights.

Jo Goodman of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said she had been surprised by how many other charities and NGOs have offered support – but also that you find friends in unlikely places. Two Conservative Chairs of Select Committees have invited the group to speak to their Committees, for example, even though the Government has not been open to the request for an Inquiry.

Legal capacity building of frontline workers is an important tool to achieve change, and perhaps becoming more so. It is also a two-way street

During lockdown, PILC were approached by Solace Women’s Aid who – having set up a crisis accommodation centre for women fleeing violence – found that the local authority was preventing women from moving out of the centre and therefore new women coming in. PILC drafted letters for women to take to housing offices; they also drafted email templates that advocates could use in every scenario they were encountering.

“Advocates need legal tools more now than ever before – it hasn’t needed to be part of their professional capacity before, but unfortunately we are seeing that unless they use the law they are less likely to get results for their survivors.” Izzy Mullholland

JustRight worked with lawyers in allied areas like housing to help all asylum seekers across Scotland apply for Section 4 support, and they also trained homelessness outreach workers to help them recognise problems with a potential legal solution when meeting people out on the streets.

However, it is important to recognise that all parties bring expertise.

“There is an unearned deference to our expertise! When a lawyer is stepping into a space with a partner – we need them to tell us how this should be delivered and what we don’t know. Then we can rationalise a co-delivery that actually works!” (Jen Ang, JustRight Scotland)

Overall, legal action is just one tool in the toolkit

The legal ‘tail’ should not wag the dog! (Jo Goodman, COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice).

All presenters see taking legal action as ‘one string to their bow’, as PILC’s Izzy Mulholland put it, alongside other tools such as campaigning, political influencing, and media work.

Jo Goodman reflected on her journey from ‘the law can fix it all’ to a recognition that the law is a tool which can support but not drive the campaign strategy.

For PILC, the wider public campaigning around the demand that government ring-fence funding to support refuge accommodation was perhaps the most effective element, although the pre-action letter and promise of legal challenge played their part too.

That use of the law is a tool in a toolkit for campaigners was true before the pandemic and widely recognised; however, Jen Ang of JustRight feels that the unstable environment we are in makes less traditional approaches like public campaigning and pushing resources to frontline organisations, alongside traditional legal casework and policy work, even more necessary.

And finally and not least: we need to look after staff wellbeing and our own

Jo Goodman of COVID-19 Bereaved Families spoke of the importance of self-care when working on an issue that is personal and close to your heart. Jen Ang of JustRight spoke about the difficulty for their lawyers/case workers dealing with traumatic casework – with the added tension of that now being in their home space, and the time needed by leadership to manage those issues well.

From the Baring Foundation’s perspective, we had been disappointed to cancel – and never rebook – our 2020 Grantholder Day back in May. It is one of the highlights of the year for us. However, it was great to see new connections being made in this session, as well as to bring together people from all four nations of the UK in this way.

Find out more about the Strengthening Civil Society programme’s COVID-19 related funding this year.

Find out more about the future priorities for this Programme.