Rebellious lawyering in a pandemic – RebLaw UK goes virtual
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Marc Bloomfield
RebLaw UK is a fixture in the calendars of aspiring, and more seasoned, ‘activist lawyers’. The student-run public interest law conference will be back on 14–19 November 2020 for a week of online events focused on using the law as a tool for progressive change and protecting the vulnerable in a pandemic.
RebLaw UK is the sister conference to Yale Law School’s RebLaw, the largest student-run public interest law conference in the US. The conference, grounded in the spirit of Gerald P López’s ‘rebellious lawyering’,1Gerald P López, Rebellious lawyering: one Chicano's vision of progressive law practice, Westview Press, 1992. seeks to build a community of law students, practitioners, and activists striving to work in the service of social change movements and to challenge hierarchies of race, wealth, gender, and expertise within legal practice and education.
The conference was brought to the UK in 2016 by Ollie Persey, who was a BPTC student at The University of Law at the time. Ollie had been unable to attend the American version while studying for an LLM there. Frustrated at having missed the original, Ollie worked with Yale’s organising committee and law school classmates to set up a UK version.
The conference has been a knockout success since its launch. In the first year, it sold out in days. In the second year, it expanded to be a weekend-long event, and it sold out in hours. Due to how in demand tickets are, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Glastonbury’ of legal conferences.
The first conference was held the week after Donald Trump was elected US president. There was a pervasive feeling that activist lawyers would be needed more than ever. That proved to be right. Over the past four years, the conference has explored some of the most pressing issues facing society, from challenging climate injustice and protecting trans rights to the fight for housing rights in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Ever since Just for Kids Law’s Shauneen Lambe opened the conference with a call to arms to use the law to challenge injustices, RebLaw UK has inspired. It has proven an effective forum for building a community that is energised about using the law for good. It has led to collaboration – for example, Sue James (one of our keynote speakers this year) met Annie Bannister at last year’s conference and there are now advanced plans to set up a Law Centre in North Wales. It has even led to a further spin-off conference, RebLaw Scotland.
Every year, RebLaw UK is delivered by a student committee from The University of Law. Continuing the tradition in 2020 are co-chairs Frank Bowmaker and Esther Berry-Benton. Frank first crossed paths with RebLaw UK in 2018:
I was so fortunate to discover RebLaw just as I was deciding to make the switch to a career in law. That year, I went to see the opening keynote by Dr Leslie Thomas QC of Garden Court Chambers. The energy in the room was incredible. Spanning poverty, inequality and justice, and with a special focus on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, his talk made clear that the time to fight for social justice was now. Bringing about progressive change means challenging hierarchies of power and, while this is no easy task, Thomas’s determination was infectious. It was a pivotal moment in my journey to a career in law, and everyone left the room feeling empowered to use the law for good. Of course, I am particularly excited to see how this year’s speakers will inspire others to join us in the fight!
As this year’s conference approaches, it is hard to look back and pinpoint a single moment that has defined 2020. The death of George Floyd, perhaps, which sparked the biggest protest movement in decades as Americans and people across the globe took to the streets to demand justice and an end to police racism. Or maybe, for many, it was standing outside their homes, clapping to support the NHS staff risking their lives in a pandemic; a nationwide show of solidarity for a health service that has been brought to its knees by a decade of austerity.
As we write, counting for the US presidential election is in progress. The UK teeters on the edge of crashing out of the European free market. The British public are battening down the hatches as we enter a second national lockdown.
Our everyday lives have changed dramatically over the past 12 months, and RebLaw 2020 looks different too: a completely online, virtual conference, free to attend by anyone across the globe.
Delivered in partnership with Garden Court Chambers, RebLaw 2020 will see three keynote speakers welcomed for the first time. Allison Munroe QC of Garden Court Chambers will kick off Saturday’s activities with an ‘in conversation’ discussion of this year’s theme. On Sunday, Sue James (Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre/Justice Alliance) and Spike Mullings (Edwards Duthie Shamash/Justice Alliance/HLPA) will open the day.
Alongside this, panels of lawyers and activists from Garden Court Chambers, Leigh Day, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and more will discuss some of the biggest questions that face us in 2020, including:
challenging the hostile environment during a pandemic;
using the law to mitigate the homelessness crisis;
the power of protest and resisting racial policing; and
protecting rights in a pandemic.
Dr Leslie Thomas QC’s keynote is one of many contributions by Garden Court Chambers’ barristers since the inception of the conference in 2016. Chambers’ mantra, ‘do right, fear no one’, speaks to the ethos of rebellious lawyering upon which RebLaw UK is founded, and it is a privilege to join forces in 2020 to deliver the most ambitious agenda yet.
 
1     Gerald P López, Rebellious lawyering: one Chicano's vision of progressive law practice, Westview Press, 1992. »

About the author(s)

Description: Esther Berry-Benton - author
Esther Berry-Benton is a student at The University of Law and a co-chair of the RebLaw UK 2020 committee.
Description: Frank Bowmaker - author
Frank Bowmaker is a student at The University of Law and a co-chair of the RebLaw UK 2020 committee.