The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, with support from the Baring Foundation, put together a brilliant conference on using the law for social change last Thursday – it was a fantastic day, in a room full of campaigners and advocates buzzing with ideas and questions.
Before attending, I’ll be honest in saying that I’d not spent a lot of time thinking about how the law could be used in my campaigning, despite being very aware of the rise it as an approach, and the success of campaigners, like Jolyon Maugham QC, who have used to law to good effect around Brexit.
So I walked away in with an open mind, and away with some key takeaways;
1. Legal advocacy is an approach that has firmly entered the campaigning toolkit, and if you’re not already using it you should be considering it. A number of the speakers throughout the day referenced the fact that legal advocacy had helped to reboot or push forward their campaigning whilst other approaches had floundered.
As one speaker reflected that for years, they’d been chipping away at trying to get reform to elements of criminal law, but using equalities legislation has forced much more significant change.
In an age, where many of the traditional paths to change, working through Civil Servants and government can feel harder than before, legal advocacy could provide an alternative route. More on how others are using it here.
2. It’s doesn’t just have to be about taking your case to court – although many campaigning organisations do end up using approaches that end in a day (or days) in court, the conference was a reminder that other forms of strategic litigation are available – from using legal arguments in correspondences with a target, from raising the prospect of a judicial review to – and sometimes just the publicity brought about by considering a case can help to bring attention or progress on a campaign issue. This new publication from the Baring Foundation has lots of case studies of different approaches to take.
3. The best legal approaches are integrated approaches – presentation through the day highlight how you shouldn’t approach any strategic litigation in isolation – your legal goal needs to help to contribute to a wider policy goal – from the End Violence Against Women coalition using a legal case to help to engage MPs and decision-makers to advance their advocacy in Parliament, or Dignity in Dying driving up engagement from supporters around Noel Conway’s case on assisted dying.
4. But if you want your approach to be successful you need to be ready in advance – legal advocacy can cost (a lot of) money, can be time-consuming, doesn’t always lead to quick results and can come with reputational risks, but often has to be responded to quickly when an opportunity arises.
So any organisation looking to approach legal advocacy need to have spent time preparing for how they’ll approach the risks, including working with trustee boards who’d most likely need to sign off any approach.
5. Losing a case isn’t losing a campaign – often the aim of your legal advocacy isn’t to win the case, but to use it to drive wider political demand for change, by using the publicity and support you can build from your case to push politicians to act further, as the adage goes ‘winning in the court of public opinion’ is as important as ‘winning in the court of law’.
To coincide with the day, the Foundation also released a really useful 101 guide for using the law for social change – more at https://smk.org.uk/law/