by | Oct 25, 2017

The Social Change Project: Use of the Law in Pursuing Social Change

Last week The Social Change Project held the first of a series of events on it’s defined ‘burning issues’. We brought together an interested group to look at using the law to pursue social change.

These are some key questions arising from this discussion:

  • Are we sometimes too quick to reach for the law? How do we judge when it is the best tool to use?
  • With a range of different uses for the law beyond litigation, how can and should we be making more creative use of the law?
  • Some campaigners talked about difficulties in knowing how and when to use the law. How easy is it to get good advice? Do we need more ways of signposting and connecting?
  • How can be secure better access to legal remedies?

We have summarised the discussion for those who are interested in this conversation.

There is much to learn from how the law has been used to pursue social change. Some key examples to learn from include the work done on prisoner sentencing, equal marriage, and Hillsborough to name but a few. There is also important work to learn from at the local level, particularly around individual cases and legal education, key examples include the work of law centres and Participation and the Practice of Rights in Northern Ireland initiative.

Dr Lisa Vanhala sets out some of the ways we might use the law to bring about change in her paper Framework for Better Use of the Law by the Voluntary Sector.  These include using the law to empower, using the law to inform or persuade and using the law to challenge or enforce. (Figure below taken from Barings Report).







We posed a series of questions to the group to help us better understand how the law can be used to effect change.

Could we be using the law more?
The general feeling was yes we could, but perhaps we should think more broadly about how to use the law. It was felt that people tend to go straight to strategic litigation rather than using the law in softer ways notably, ensuring people are aware of and have access to their rights. As one participant said  ‘there is no doubt whatsoever that there are groups of people whose rights are being disregarded, and yet if we had the resources to secure those rights we could create enormous transformative effects in people’s lives’.

It was also pointed out that securing legal change is for nought if it is not fully implemented so strategic planning needs to include resource to follow through from any legal win to ensure it actually secures the change it seeks.

There is also undoubtedly a gap between campaigners and legal professionals, and it was felt it was difficult for campaigners to find good legal advice for potential legal remedies to the issues they work on.

Is it ever counterproductive to use the law for change?
The point was made that when using the law to bring about change (and seeking change more broadly) it is absolutely right to put the individual(s) at the centre, but in doing this there is a danger of missing those structural factors which underpin issues. This is an inherent risk we need to consider in any work we do.

There is also a need to be aware of the potential consequences, there were examples given of cases which were ‘right’ (such as prisoner voting rights or the extradition of Abu Hamza) but led to a change in narrative or had unintended impacts elsewhere.

Are we using the law well?
There were a number of points raised which could be summarised as a list of good practice which included; collaboration and finding people with shared objectives; locating people at the centre of the work; knowing what the story is; understanding the change you are trying to bring about (systemic vs symptom); and having wider understandings of context and potential consequences.

What are the barriers and enablers to using the law?
Unsurprisingly money. The cost and financial risk associated with a legal approach prohibits many from using the law. Linked to this is the risk of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ which many groups face if they look to bring a legal challenge or even speak out against the status quo.

The changes to legal aid which have contributed to the undermining of the principle of access to justice was also raised as a barrier. Interestingly some considered how the role of crowdfunding for justice might be further contributing to this.

Finally, the previously highlighted disconnect between many change-agents and the legal world leads to many lost opportunities.

So with our first event over this discussion has helped us move The Social Change Project to a better understanding of the role of the law in bringing about social change as well as throwing up some new questions for us to explore. If you have any thoughts or insights you would like to share about this conversation or any of the work of the project please get in touch.


Rachel Nye



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