You only have to look at some of the headlines from the past 18 months to get an understanding of why public law is so important. It is the tool by which we, as ordinary citizens, are able to challenge decisions or behaviour of public bodies, including central government.
As many readers will know, Public Law Project (PLP) assists marginalised and disadvantaged groups through research, policy work, training and casework. Often, PLP’s work has a strategic impact and leads to changes and improvements impacting on large numbers of our beneficiaries.
I joined the casework team in June 2021 after a number of years working in private practice. Moving from private practice to working in-house in a legal charity has been fascinating, albeit slightly unusual, as much of my time so far has been spent working remotely. There feels like no better time to have joined such an important organisation than in a global pandemic, while the country navigates leaving the EU and a myriad of other constitutional changes.
PLP works in a collaborative way internally, with casework, events/communications and research teams working together. Externally, we work with other NGOs and practitioners, and also with our funders, to represent marginalised and disadvantaged people and promote the rule of law. PLP sets organisational priorities. At the moment, these are to: prevent regressive constitutional reform; promote and preserve the rule of law; ensure fair systems; and improve access to justice. We aim to meet these priorities through focusing on specific areas, which are currently: access to judicial review; benefits sanctions; Brexit; legal aid; and technology in public law.
Why is this collaborative, focused approach so important? One reason PLP’s model is so unique is that we use different tools to influence decision-makers. For example, over the years we have worked extensively on trying to protect and promote the accessibility of legal aid through research, engagement, campaigning and litigation. PLP’s commitment to legal aid is one of the main reasons I wanted to join the organisation. Many will know the work we did on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, including litigation and our exceptional case funding project. More recently, we undertook the successful case of R (GR) v Director of Legal Aid Casework  EWHC 3140 (Admin)
and a further case
,1See also February 2021 Legal Action 18.
which changed the legal aid rules for homeowners on low incomes. Of course, in typical PLP fashion, since that litigation we have been working on training the sector to ensure that the rules are applied fairly, as well as conducting linked research.
As well as this extensive work around legal aid, PLP continues to work on unfair systems that impact our beneficiaries. For example, we recently spent months gathering systemic evidence, alongside external partners Zacchaeus 2000 Trust
, the Royal National Institute of Blind People
and Law for Life
, which showed that disabled benefit claimants who had appealed a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) decision were being called and encouraged to accept less than they were entitled to. The DWP was calling claimants directly, even when claimants made it clear that they had representatives who should be contacted first, and they were not being told about appeal rights. After a legal challenge by our client, K, the DWP settled the case in the days before trial. The DWP agreed
to change its practice of pressuring disabled benefits claimants into accepting less than they are legally entitled to, rewrite its policies and retrain its officials. The case was brought to us by Law for Life, which had spotted the issue. The extensive evidence gathered in support of K’s case was made possible by the partnership between PLP and external NGOs, a clear example of why collaboration is so important.
The casework team and the charity as a whole have grown significantly over the past few years. The casework team now numbers 15 people – an impressive cohort for a small NGO. The team benefits from in-house barristers as well as solicitors, all from a range of backgrounds, including immigration, civil liberties, community care and the civil service.
PLP has set up unique, specialist hubs providing free support and advice to NGOs, charities and front-line organisations on public law and welfare rights
, particularly benefit sanctions, and the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS)
. This project allows PLP to work collaboratively with other organisations, assisting them with supporting vulnerable members of society. It also works to protect society at large by helping to highlight trends in policies and procedures that may require improvement or could be unlawful.
It is clear that PLP’s work is more important than ever. PLP encourages and embodies a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to public law. In a world that can feel so disconnected, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, it is inspiring to work alongside so many people from a multitude of disciplines who come together with the common purpose of preserving the rule of law.