Authors:Jo Hickman
Last updated:2023-11-08
“Our strategic priorities are intended to reflect the enormity of the challenges ahead.”
Marc Bloomfield
This is the first regular PLP column. For those of you who don’t know us, the Public Law Project, or PLP, is a national access to justice charity, concerned with access to public law remedies (tribunals, complaints procedures and judicial review (JR)) for disadvantaged groups. We work through a combination of research, training, policy initiatives and casework, including public interest litigation.
The intention of this column is to share information. We want to improve dialogue with others working on similar or related issues, and build on our common understanding. We have a new, shiny website, and will shortly be launching a new, shiny blog. And we are currently recruiting to the new, quite possibly shiny, post of communications director.
These are interesting times, and our strategic priorities are intended to reflect the enormity of the challenges ahead: to promote and preserve the rule of law; to ensure fair systems; and to improve access to justice.
We recognise that these are big themes, and so, to get to the detail, we are focusing our efforts on five interrelated areas:
access to JR;
benefit sanctions;
legal aid; and
the online court and tribunals.
In this first column, I thought it might be helpful to say a little more about our activities and plans in those areas.
Access to judicial review
We are exploring how best to consolidate and develop our networks with the advice sector and with wider civil society and working on various partnership initiatives aimed at expanding access to JR. JR is accessible in principle more often than it is in practice: we want to change that. We are particularly interested in supporting initiatives in the context of in our substantive focus areas, and in the South-West and Wales. Please do get in touch if we could work together.
We continue our established training programme – including the introductory ‘How to do judicial review’ – and to design specialised or tailored training programmes where needed. We’re also scoping or undertaking research on the costs in JR, regionalisation and public interest litigation. We’re happy to discuss proposals for training or other research partnerships or initiatives.
Benefit sanctions
This focus was selected in light of evidence of systemic unfairness in benefits decision-making. Large numbers are affected – consequences include hardship and even homelessness – while the removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid has decimated access to justice in this sector.
PLP’s caseworkers have assisted many individuals facing punitive measures, and are developing a national training and advice project to support advisers and front-line staff. If you or your clients are impacted by unfair sanctions decisions, do get in touch with our sanctions team.
One consequence of Brexit will be an unprecedented transfer of power from the legislature (parliament) to the executive (ministers). This has potentially profound consequences for the rule of law. We have developed a dynamic new research project, which, with typical love for a good acronym, we call SIFT (Statutory Instruments: Filtering and Tracking).
We want to ensure, post-Brexit, that power can be held to account on behalf of the marginalised. It would be deeply regressive were case law to develop only in the context of privileged and commercial interests. In one example, PLP lawyers are acting for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in a challenge to Home Office proposals for the ‘settled status’ scheme.
Legal aid
Of course, legal aid is a key means by which the state meets its obligations to facilitate access to justice. Post-LASPO, PLP set up an initiative intended to mitigate its impact on the vulnerable. We have brought or acted in a series of test cases that have improved the administration and scope of the scheme, and have published training and guidance.
Of particular interest to us at the moment are the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 SI No 480. We have been working with the Law Society to explore the extent to which the current eligibility rules may hinder or prevent access to the court. Do please send us case studies of people who are ineligible for legal aid but can’t practically afford legal advice.
We also remain alert to the practical functioning of the exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme. We have partnered with the University of Exeter to set up an immigration ECF clinic, and would be happy to explore similar initiatives and collaborations with other institutions.
Online court
Last but not least: the online court. It will transform the way millions of people interact with the justice system, and we are interested in all aspects of its operation, including the extent to which it improves access to justice. We’ve published a report, The digitalisation of tribunals: what we know and what we need to know (2018), to inform our modest goal of ensuring the system operates fairly and lawfully. If you have thoughts about how we might achieve that, please let us know.
We are very aware that this piece is peppered with requests for information and potential for partnership. Collaborative working is key to PLP’s approach, and we are keen to share what we are learning and to learn from others – please do get in touch!