Using the Law in Campaigning – are we missing an opportunity?

Ask a campaigner about the intricacies of Parliament, and the likelihood is that they’ll speak at length about the role the APPGs, PQs and EDMs can play in campaigning.
But move the topic of conversation to the role of the Law Courts in campaigning and the conversation is likely to be much shorter!
Despite the judiciary being at the heart of our political system, we seem to see far few campaigns using legal routes to achieving change.
But as Mark Lattimer writes in The Campaign Handbookthe law’s authority can be invoked to constrain government action, check abuse and generally make life difficult for those who govern’ so it could be a powerful tool to use.
Indeed in recent week, we’ve seen 38 Degrees turn to legal opinionto get another view on the proposed Health Bill that was going through Parliament, and use it as a tool to challenge some of the lines that the government was putting out in the media and inform its campaign communications.

Atticus Finch - A great campaigning lawyer

While at the end of last year, the Fawcett Society challenged the Government’s emergency budget on the ground that it hadn’t been drawn up in accordance with the law, and in particular the legal requirement to consider the way in which different measures impact differently on men and women.
Both are excellent example of how campaigners can make use of the law, so what might be stopping campaigners making more use of legal routes?
Cost – It’s an area where specialist legal training is more often than not needed, and unlike other campaigning activities it’s hard to get far without having to draw on this advice. Most campaigners can learn ‘on the job’ about how to write a good e-action or organise a stunt but that option doesn’t exist, and because of the high cost of professional help that can be prohibitive for many campaigns, plus off-putting to a CEO counting the pennies!
Speed – In an environment when campaigns want to win victories quickly, the deliberative nature of the law can mean that decisions that do or don’t support a campaign can take months or years to come, for example the Fawcett Society’s case took 3 months to be heard by the High Court (and that was quick!). 
Knowledge – As campaigners, were just not as familiar with the legal system. We might have an understanding of how to use Freedom of Information or certain Environmental Information Laws but that’s about it. Most campaigning courses don’t spend long looking at using the law, plus add to that the legal environment is often changing with new laws being passed and judgments being handed down and it can be hard to keep up.
But given the examples of 38 Degrees and the Fawcett Society what  resources are available to those campaigns looking to consider this?
Mark Lattimer’s The Campaign Handbook has a whole chapter devoted to ‘Using the Law’ although I’d suspect that some of it is now a little date, while Campaign Central has a section devoted to ‘The Law and Campaigning’ although much of it focuses on what campaigning you can and can’t do because of charity law.
Specialist groups exist to help provide advice and undertake pro-bono work for charities and other groups. I’ve been able to make use of Advocate for International Development, who title themselves as ‘lawyers ending poverty’ and provide support for development NGOs.
What other resources exist for campaigning looking at using the law? Should we make more use of legal routes in our campaigning?

3 thoughts on “Using the Law in Campaigning – are we missing an opportunity?”

  1. Hi – and great post! Yes, I think we miss an opportunity. The most effective and inspiring case I remember was
    WDM successfully defeated the government on its use of aid to promote its arms exports. DFID might have its faults, but aid was a very different beast those days – and this case arguably did more than any other single thing to change it. The world today would probably be very different had it not been for that campaigning use of law. (And… you often get to know in advance when the verdict will be announced – so WDM were able to have a nice ad and membership form on the front page of the Guardian the same day…)

  2. I just came across this workshop, which I thought was rather timely given your blog – Litigation for Campaigning Organisations and NGOs
    Date: Thursday 29 September 2011 from 18:30 to 20:00 (£25)
    This seminar is designed to provide non-lawyers with a guide to using litigation as a tool in campaigning.
    Many NGOs and charities have successfully used litigation to raise awareness about important issues or achieve a positive outcome for their constituencies. The purpose of this seminar is to equip third sector workers with a lawyers toolkit when planning campaigns.

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