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15 December 2020

Strengthening Civil Society: a year in review

Jannat Hossain
As we bid farewell to 2020 with the hope that next year will be better for all of us, we take a look back at our work over the past year to support civil society to use the law to achieve change.
Strengthening Civil Society

It’s been a rocky year for the 7.8 billion people on the planet as we found ourselves in an actual unprecedented crisis, throwing us into varying degrees of tumult. As the year draws to a close, here’s a look back at what’s been what for the Strengthening Civil Society (SCS) programme in 2020.

A plan…

We began the year in strategy development mode, having had the programme evaluated at the end of 2019 (which feels like a lifetime ago!). We changed the focus of the SCS programme back in 2015 to increase the legal literacy of civil society organisations (CSOs) so the sector can better use the law or human rights based approaches to tackle discrimination and disadvantage. The independent evaluation gave us lots of useful insight into our approach, and the assurance to stick with our focus on increasing the sector’s legal literacy.

We selected three strategic pillars to take us forward:

  • Access to public law – protecting and promoting access to public law remedies;
  • Geography – recognising and supporting strategies in different parts of the UK; and
  • Leadership – creating opportunities to develop collective leadership on legal action.

…And then a change of plan

The new strategy was signed off by our Board in March, literally the day before our office closed. As the government announced the first national lockdown, we regrouped in our new virtual offices to discuss the best way we could support our grantholders and the wider sector. We decided to redirect the bulk of our available resources to support organisations to respond to the pandemic. We made clear distinctions between the support we were offering our existing grantholders and the funding available for those outside of our portfolio.

We were able to offer our grantholders a small grant of up to £5,000 to help overcome the adverse impact on their operations of having to move online-only at such short notice. This covered things such as laptops, equipment to make homeworking less stressful, and increasing the hours of part-time staff to help respond to an increase in demand for services. We also awarded grants of up to £30,000 to eight ‘hub’ organisations – expert legal organisations who were experiencing an increase in requests from CSOs for advice on issues relating to the pandemic.

We had an open round of funding for organisations using the law to challenge government responses to the pandemic which further exacerbated discrimination and disadvantage. We awarded 17 grants totalling just under £580,000. Organisations we awarded grants to include Pregnant then Screwed, for their work challenging discrimination arising as a result of the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme; Children’s Law Centre NI, for their collaborative approach in challenging the impact of the pandemic on children’s rights; and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, for their work to empower civil society and parliamentarians to influence Covid-19 legislation through rule of law-based scrutiny.

Alongside this work, we renewed our partnership with OpenDemocracy to investigate and report on unlawful public decision-making during the pandemic and how civil society is using legal action to address it. To round off our Covid-19 response for the year, this week we awarded a grant of £100,000 to the Access to Justice Foundation, to support the work of the Community Justice Fund, which was set up to help the legal advice sector deal with the immediate calamity of the pandemic.

Keeping the longer term work going

In addition to our Covid-19 response, we committed to continue supporting proactive work to ensure we weren’t complacent on wider issues. We had already launched a new pilot fund in November 2019 to support organisations who have been involved in successful strategic litigation to undertake implementation activities to ensure the judgment in their case materialised into change for ordinary people. We awarded nine grants through this fund, supporting organisations such as the Childhood Bereavement Network to ensure bereavement benefits are extended to parents raising children when their long-term partner dies.

In 2019, we began exploring a contribution to work tackling racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system. To this end, we gave a grant to the Black Training and Enterprise Group to equip POC-led/focused frontline organisations with the confidence, knowledge and legal tools to deliver greater race equality across all areas of policy and practice within the criminal justice system.

We also made a contribution to the Justice Together Initiative, a new funder collaboration hoping to build a diverse and knowledgeable community of people and organisations to transform access to justice in the immigration system. We awarded Deighton Pierce Glynn a grant to continue their innovative work to train and support frontline workers to use Pre Action Protocol letters to realise rights for the people they serve.

We will always be committed to protecting and promoting access to public law remedies. To help more people understand the importance of this, we gave a grant to the Public Law Project to develop an evidence-based response to, and influencing strategy in respect of, proposals to restrict Judicial Review.

In total this year, under our Strengthening Civil Society programme, we awarded 55 grants totalling just over £1.73m.

Looking ahead

Like everyone else, we have no idea what 2021 will bring the world. We cheered along with everyone else about the news of a vaccine but we know there is still a long way to go. And with Brexit on the horizon, the UK is facing an uncertain future, unique to our island. We are in the extremely privileged position of being able to take the first six months of 2021 to stop and reflect on our activities this year, to learn from our funded work, and to talk to more people about the use of legal action to achieve change in the coming months and years. We’ve been thinking about our approach to racial justice in the past year and will develop a concrete strategy for this work in this time too.

We’ll be increasing our spend for the programme in 2021 and by June, we’ll outline how we’ll be using our resources in the year. Whatever the parameters of the funding we are able to offer, we hope to welcome new organisations into our portfolio. We also hope to get more funders thinking about the potential of the law in achieving change.

We think it’s important to protect the democracy we so value by ensuring the mechanisms for holding that democracy to account is not fragmented piece by piece. We’ll keep an eye on the independent reviews into administrative law and the Human Rights Act, and respond in helpful ways. We’ll keep the conversation going with our peers and galvanise civil society to protect civic space.

With over 1.6m deaths globally and over sixty-four thousand here at home (at the time of writing), I’d find it hard to believe that there are people out there who have not been affected by a Covid-19 death or the impact of seeing a loved one deal with the emotional and physical distress of the virus. As the year comes to an end, still with a lot of uncertainty, I hope we can all take a moment to remember the people lost to the virus, whether we knew them or not, and honour them in our own way. I’ll be lighting candles in my parents’ garden and thanking all the people we lost this year for the love, joy and care they no doubt brought in to many people’s lives.

Whatever your plans for the winter break, I wish you rest, joy and hope. See you in 2021.

You can see the grants we awarded this year here, and for updates on the programme and new funding opportunities, you can sign up to our newsletter here.