RebLaw 2019 conference: questioning the roles of society and pursuing change
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Marc Bloomfield
RebLaw 2019, which took place on 23–24 November 2019, was the fourth student-run conference under the RebLaw UK banner. It was as radical, innovative and energetic as ever, bringing together students, practitioners, academics and campaigners to discuss current social justice law topics.
As well as those mentioned below, there were sessions on abuse of non-disclosure agreements, post-Brexit immigration status, destitution and the law, the hostile environment and the health service, youth crime, animal rights, protest, campaigning, HIV and the law, women and the criminal justice system, prison reform, homelessness, sex workers and the law, and special educational needs. There were also networking opportunities and the foyer featured stands from the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Legal Sector Workers United and LAG, as well as our own Justice Alliance banners.
Satbir Singh is the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. His keynote speech was the perfect opening to RebLaw 2019. Illustrating the iniquity of the British immigration system, he reminded us that injustice is not random but is created by rules and procedures that make some winners and others losers. Injustice happens because people make choices based on the idea that certain people’s suffering is not important. Things will only change when those people have power. Satbir inspired by reminding us of the transformative effect lawyers can have on people’s lives and rallying us to go out and fight injustice, and give power back wherever possible.
RebLaw aims to highlight the latest developments in social justice law and this year, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah took part in a session entitled ‘Tackling pollution discrimination in the UK’. The health impacts of air pollution have been recognised as a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation, with around 90 per cent of the global population enduring toxic outdoor air.19 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, but more countries are taking action’, WHO news release, 2 May 2018. No one is more aware of this than Rosamund, whose daughter Ella tragically passed away from a rare form of asthma. The family lived close to the busy South Circular Road and a fresh inquest has been ordered after new evidence of local air pollution levels came to light. This session evidenced the vital legal work needed to bring justice to families affected by pollution, but also to consistently challenge decisions to ensure environmental factors are in the minds of every decision-maker.
In a plenary session, Edward McGowan of APPEAL wowed the crowd with energy and the persuasive skills of an American attorney, pointing out not only the oddities and quirks of our legal system, but also its inherent problems. How do we assert the presumption of innocence when the defendant is in a cage at the back of the court? How can we effectively represent clients when the split profession means that those arguing on behalf of someone’s liberty may never have met them? It feels appropriate that, with its international roots, RebLaw UK gave a platform to an outside view to reveal the nature of justice in the UK. Edward explained it could not be clearer that investment and reform are long overdue in our criminal justice system.
Day two’s keynote speech was delivered by Dr Laura Janes, legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform and LAG chairperson. Detailing all of Laura’s work in key organisations in law and social justice would use up our word count, but suffice to say she brought a wealth of experience in campaigning and lawyering to bear on a speech that was generous in imparting valuable wisdom to the next generation of social justice lawyers. Harnessing outrage, following a sense of justice and fairness, even when the odds are stacked against you, persistence, a holistic approach and always making sure to go back to the first principles of statutory law were just some of the virtues that Laura espoused.
RebLaw UK tackles subjects that are controversial and excite strong views. In Sunday’s ‘The Shamima Begum effect’ session on deprivation of citizenship, Tayab Ali, a prominent solicitor working in this area, did not hold back from letting us know exactly how bad some of the people he represents are. But, as he said: ‘We need to be responsible for our people. Even if you hate the ISIS soldier or sympathiser, what issue do you have with the children in the camps?’ A common view at the student-led conference was elucidated by Tayab when he said: ‘You are the most important people in this debate.’
The conference ended on Sunday evening with a plenary session discussing 70 years of legal aid, but more critically asking: what next? As well as endorsing a call from the floor for unionisation in the sector, the lawyers on the panel were keen to talk about the need for social justice lawyers to be empowered to deliver holistic services, echoing Laura’s speech at the beginning of the day, and they had a trenchant message for the Legal Aid Agency: because of its failings, it has to go. Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett described her experience of having to deal with the inquest into her brother’s death at the hands of the state without legal aid, a double injustice done to her by the government. ‘We are paying for police officers to be represented,’ she said, ‘but who is representing us?’ In this final session of the conference, the lawyers and lawyers-to-be in the room were cheered by Stephanie’s parting injunction: ‘Go out there and make me proud!’

About the author(s)

Description: Justice Alliance - author
Justice Alliance is a campaigning group working around legal aid, court reforms and other social justice issues.