Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

17Dec 2020

School attendance for C(E)V households in Covid-19

17th December 2020|Covid-19|

After requests from parents and campaigners, we are publishing the government’s response to our pre-action letter.

We have had a brilliant response to the briefing note on school attendance for vulnerable households during Covid-19, which we published on Tuesday.

The response makes clear that many parents, schools and local authorities were unaware that there was any local discretion in these sorts of cases.

We have therefore decided to publish the government’s response to our pre-action letter. We hope this will help vulnerable households when liaising with schools and local authorities.

The full response can be read and downloaded here. Parts have been redacted for confidentiality reasons.

What does the government’s response mean?

There are two parts to the letter.

Part 1: The government justifies the current guidance

Pages 2-3 of the letter restate the government’s guidance on infection control (i.e. the steps that schools should be taking) and school attendance during Covid-19. The Secretary of State restates his expectation that children should attend school even if parents are shielding/vulnerable.

The response seeks to justify that view by reference to medical evidence and guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England.

Part 2: The Government makes clear that, contrary to the published guidance, authorising absence during Covid-19 is a matter of local discretion

This is a really important concession. Previously it was believed there was no flexibility or room for local discretion in this area.

Pages 4-5 of the letter make clear that:

  • Whether leave of absence should be granted is determined by each individual school headteacher or local education authority. This is a matter of local decision-making and is made on a discretionary basis.
  • A child’s absence can be authorised beyond the examples set out in the government’s guidance. The categories of authorised absence contained in the Government’s guidance are therefore not ‘closed’. They are non-exhaustive examples.
  • None of the national guidance from government overrides local discretion and flexibility. Schools have the final say.

This applies to cases involving both clinically vulnerable (CV) & clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) parents. (The response refers to ‘the situation of [our] client’. One of our clients who received this response was a CV parent. The other, who received the same response, was a CEV parent.)

 What can CV and CEV parents do?

  • You can write to your child’s school and/or your local education authority requesting that they exercise discretion and authorise your child’s absence. Ask them to take into account any vulnerabilities and the impact school attendance is having/would have on your family. If possible, you should include supporting evidence, e.g. GP letter
  • You should make clear in your letter that the question of whether leave of absence should be granted is ultimately determined by each individual school head teacher and not central government. Authorising absence is a matter of local decision-making
  • You should also make clear that the government’s guidance does not override the existing school attendance provisions. Absence can be authorised beyond the examples noted in the guidance and can cover your situation (as a CV or CEV parent). You can cite the information outlined here, our briefing note and/or the government’s response to our letter.

The headteacher or local authority may, of course, decide not to exercise discretion in your case and may refuse to authorise your child’s absence. If that happens, their decision may be open to legal challenge.

What are we doing now?

The government is continuing to defending its current guidance, which states that vulnerable parents should still send their children to school. It has failed to make clear that schools and local authorities have discretion.

We will now be pushing the government to:

  • Amend its published guidance to reflect its official position on local discretion in such cases, so that schools can be made aware that their hands are not tied.
  • Change its guidance on school attendance and vulnerable family members. In our view the guidance is irrational and in  breach of our clients’ basic rights.

We will continue to provide updates about our legal challenge.

Thank you very much for all your support!




24Sep 2020

Judicial review under attack

24th September 2020|Judicial review|

With an ‘independent’ review of judicial review underway, PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron blogs about the need to defend access to justice from ideological attack.

The government is at war with public law.

On 27th August, the Home Office complained that ‘activist lawyers’ were ‘delaying and disrupting’ the operations of the UK immigration system. The claims, made in a video that was later deleted, came in response to judicial review challenges brought on behalf of desperate migrants to prevent their potentially unlawful removal from the UK.

Even the Law Society, so often a poodle to the Ministry of Justice, was forced to yelp, reminding the Home Office that:

[s]olicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by Parliament. To describe lawyers who are upholding the law as ‘activist lawyers’ is misleading and dangerous. We should proud that we live in a country where legal rights cannot be overridden without due process, and we should be proud that we have legal professionals who serve the rule of law.

The government does not seem to agree. By announcing a review of judicial review, it has signalled its intention to reel back access to justice by further limiting the power of the courts to hold public bodies to account.

Some believe this is the government’s revenge for the Supreme Court’s interference with Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament over Brexit. But while that may be a factor, it is not the only reason why judicial review is under attack.

Neo-liberalism and the law

The justice system does not operate in a vacuum. Law operates under the same socio-economic pressures as society as a whole. We live in an era of neoliberalism, during which access to justice has come under severe threat along with a range of other democratic rights.

Since the late 1970s, most of the Global North has moved from a position where state ownership undergirded national economies to one in which market forces hold sway. Under Thatcher and Reagan, radical economic reforms stripped away state support for industry while protecting private interests on behalf of the 1%. In the UK this meant bringing to heel the power of the trade unions. Collective bargaining and the closed shop were among the targets of a concerted assault on the power of organised labour. Over the past forty years, privatisation and deregulation have been the keynotes of economic policy in the UK, leading to mass unemployment, poverty, and a huge increase in the gap between rich and the poor.

Neo-liberalism was, and is, a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class in reaction to the growing political power of the organised working class and other progressive forces. Its success as an economic and social ideology has been underwritten by counter-reforms and regressive legislation.

It is no accident that welfare provision, wages and the ability of the working class to organise have been simultaneously assailed.  Capitalist economics forms the foundation upon which legislative reform is based, as well as providing the framework within which it operates.

Defending an imperfect system?

The current system is far from perfect. The law courts are unfavourable terrain for socialist and progressive movements. To cite just one example, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postal workers, recently had a democratic strike ballot overturned.

But the courts have been a vehicle for small and significant victories. In 2017, the Gureckis judgment overturned a policy that targeted EU rough sleepers for deportation, with the High Court finding it to be in breach of EU and human-rights law.

Perhaps in response to such challenges, the 2019 Conservative manifesto had judicial review in its sights:

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

Judicial review in its current form provides a fairly minimal check on the powers of government. Yet the government is apparently intent on reducing its influence further.

The terms of reference for the review of judicial review are as follows:

The review […] will consider whether the right balance is being struck between the rights of citizens to challenge executive decisions and the need for effective and efficient government.

The move delivers on a manifesto commitment to ensure the judicial review process is not open to abuse and delay.

Specifically, the review will consider:

  • Whether the terms of Judicial Review should be written into law
  • Whether certain executive decisions should be decided on by judges
  • Which grounds and remedies should be available in claims brought against the government
  • Any further procedural reforms to Judicial Review, such as timings and the appeal process

The review will be conducted by a nominally ‘independent’ panel, but there are doubts about how independent this panel will actually be. It is chaired by Lord Faulks, a Tory peer who was a justice minister during Chris Grayling’s catastrophic tenure as Justice Secretary. Lord Faulks has written critically on the subject of the role and power of the courts, including an attack on the Supreme Court’s ruling on the unlawful prorogation of parliament.

The panel also includes two barristers from 39 Essex Chambers, who have historically acted for the government in Judicial Review cases. Where are the barristers from Garden Court or Doughty Street, who typically act for claimants?

Judicial review in its current form is imperfect and exclusionary. There are major risks involved in bringing a case against a public body. Access to legal aid is severely restricted, with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) carefully scrutinising what they perceive as  ‘political cases’. The issue of costs can be prohibitive.

Judges, meanwhile, are often biased—not a great deal has changed since Ralph Miliband wrote, in 1969, that:

the judicial elites, like other elites of the state system, are mainly drawn from the upper and middle layers of society: and those judges who are not have clearly come to belong to these layers by the time they reach the bench. Moreover the conservative bias which their class situation is thus likely to create is here strongly reinforced by the fact that judges are, in many of these systems, also recruited from the legal profession, whose ideological dispositions are traditionally cast in a highly conservative mould.[1]

Reform of the legal system is long overdue. But the government’s ‘independent’ review is not being conducted with the aim of increasing access to justice. Any changes that come out of it are likely to hinder the work of social-justice lawyers while failing to protect claimants from excessive costs.

We must keep a watchful eye on the government’s review of judicial review— and be ready to fight, not in defence of an imperfect system, but for the expansion of access to justice for all.

[1] Ralph Miliband – ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ p124 (Quartet 1973)


27Aug 2020

PILC report reveals human cost of NRPF

27th August 2020|Housing, Migrants' rights|

PILC, along with the Institute of Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton, Project 17, ASIRT and Migrants’ Rights Network, has published a report into the support provided by English local authorities to people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our key research findings were as follows:

  • There was a lack of information available for people with NRPF on how to access support during the pandemic
  • People with NRPF who contracted Covid-19 were particularly likely to die or become seriously ill
  • People with NRPF struggled to access food and shelter during the pandemic, with local-authority ‘gatekeeping’ continuing to be a major issue

Local authorities have statutory duties towards two categories of people with NRPF: families with ‘children in need’ and adults with care needs. But there are significant variations in how these duties are implemented. Many migrants in need of support were unable to access their entitlements before Covid-19.

During the pandemic, local authorities were called upon by central government to provide support to a third group of people with NRPF who would not normally be eligible for assistance: single homeless adults without care needs. Our research shows that, while some councils put in place effective emergency support for this group, the England-wide response of local authorities was frequently characterised by confusion, a lack of information about support options, and gaps in essential provision (e.g. food).

Our research focuses on the period during which the UK was in ‘lockdown’. But the problems highlighted in our report continue. Local authorities continue to be underfunded and many people with NRPF still live in destitution.

It is unclear what will happen to homeless adults with NRPF who have no statutory entitlement to support as public-health concerns subside. No new legislation or statutory guidance has been introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic to amend the entitlement to local-authority support of people with NRPF who would not ordinarily be eligible.

The effect of the absence of new legislation or statutory guidance has been twofold. Firstly, the support provided to this group has been inconsistent and unpredictable both within and across local authorities. Secondly,  it has been difficult for individuals or their advocates to effectively challenge local authorities in cases where single NRPF adults have been refused support or accommodation or where the accommodation or support offered has been inadequate.

Our research indicates that while some local authorities are trying to respond in a way that respects people’s rights and dignity, others do not want to continue to support people with NRPF, with a number planning to resort to so-called ‘voluntary returns’ or ‘reconnection’. In the view of many of our research participants, only an urgent end to the NRPF system can adequately address the problems that have been highlighted by COVID-19.

18Jun 2020

Local councils must take a stand against NRPF

18th June 2020|Housing, Migrants' rights|

Today we are joining more than a hundred charities, campaign groups, lawyers and councillors in urging local councils not to evict homeless people with NRPF from accommodation provided through the Covid-19 homelessness response.

An open letter has been coordinated by PILC along with Haringey Migrant Support Centre, Museum of Homelessness and others. The letter asks local authorities to commit to never sharing homeless people’s information with the Home Office without their consent.

Finally, we are asking councils to publicly lobby Home Secretary Priti Patel for an end to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) regime.

If the government won’t protect migrant lives during a public health crisis, local councils must take a stand and offer sanctuary!

11Jun 2020

Another step towards justice for the Shrewsbury 24

11th June 2020|Miscarriages of justice|

With the criminal convictions of members of the Shrewsbury 24 set to be challenged in the Court of Appeal, PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron narrates the legal history of a decades-old miscarriage of justice.

Photo: Jess Hurd /

On May 26th 2020 the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the convictions of Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

Ricky and Arthur are two of the Shrewsbury 24. This was a group of ordinary trade unionists who were arrested for their involvement in the national builders’ strike in 1972. In 1973 Ricky, along with Des Warren, was sentenced to prison for unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray.

The Public Interest Law Centre has been instructed by Ricky and Arthur to act for them at their forthcoming Court of Appeal hearing. We have instructed Piers Marquis at Doughty Street Chambers on their behalf.

In addition to Ricky and Arthur, the following cases were also referred by the CCRC on May 26th: Alfred James, Samuel Roy Warburton, Graham Roberts and John Kenneth Seaburg. All four men are deceased and applications to the CCRC were made on their behalf by relatives.

Earlier, on 4th March 2020, the cases of John McKinsie Jones, John Malcolm Clee, William Michael Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Patrick Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams, Kenneth Desmond, Francis O’Shea and Dennis Michael Warren were referred to the Court of Appeal.

This new legal challenge to the convictions of Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and their fellow trade unionists would not have been possible without the herculean work of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign.

The National Builders Strike, the Shrewsbury 24 and a miscarriage of justice.

In the 1970s, working conditions on building sites were both unpleasant and dangerous. Basic facilities were lacking. Health and safety measures were conspicuously absent. On average one building worker died every day in the UK because safety equipment was either not provided or its use not properly enforced.[1]

Attempts by workers to organise union activities or raise health and safety concerns were frequently met with dismissal. Blacklisting was a common practice.[2]

This combustible combination of poor pay and horrendous working conditions led to a national builders’ strike.

The Builders’ Charter Group, a rank and file organisation, was crucial to construction workers’ organising efforts. It pioneered a strategy to organise builders for national action and helped galvanise the main trade unions, UCATT (Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians) and TGWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), for action.

As a result, a National Joint Council was organised to make demand better wages and working conditions.[3] When these demands were rejected by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, a national strike was called for May 1972. Eventually, on September 14th 1972, a settlement was reached with the employers for an immediate increase in basic rates of pay.

The Shrewsbury pickets

Between May and September 1972, building sites were picketed as striking workers sought to force the issue.

On 6th September 1972, during the final stages of the dispute, builders from north Wales were asked to go to Shrewsbury to help on the picket line. Coaches were organised and activists visited a number of sites to ensure the strike was solid.

Union activists behaved appropriately in appealing to workers to shut the sites. Des Warren wrote in his account of the strike: “Toward the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook my hand and congratulated me on the conduct of the meeting we held. He made no complaint about the activities of the pickets.”[4]

Arrest, Court and Conviction

Despite the words of the senior police officer on duty, some of those involved in the pickets were later arrested. These arrests took place months later, apparently as the result of pressure from then-Home Secretary Robert Carr[5] and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, both of whom were keen to send a warning shot to the labour movement.[6]

Unusually, the trial of the Shewsbury 24 was split into three:[7] 

Trial 1 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 3rd October 1973. Des Warren, Eric Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones convicted of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray and sentenced to three years, two years and nine months of imprisonment respectively.[8]

Trial 2 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 15th January 1974. Nine trade unionists were charged with unlawful assembly and affray. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were found guilty of both charges and were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for affray and four months for unlawful assembly.

Trial 3 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 26th February 1974. A further nine building workers stood trial on charges of unlawful assembly and affray. Several defendants were given suspended prison sentences.

Initial appeals

Appeals against the sentences were submitted immediately. Applications for bail were initially refused by the courts, but later granted. The convictions for affray were quashed. However, the substantive offences were heard by the Court of Appeal.

In October 1974, the Court of Appeal heard the appeals against the convictions for conspiracy to intimidate. The appeals were dismissed. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were returned to prison. On 3rd December 1974 the Court of Appeal considered further applications for leave to appeal to the House of Lords but refused to refer the case.

The unsafeness of the convictions

There are at least three reasons why the convictions of Arthur Murray and Ricky Tomlinson might be considered unsafe.

  1. Lord Hailsham, the Conservative Lord Chancellor, abolished the right of peremptory challenge of jury members on the basis of occupation just weeks before the Shrewsbury trial.
  2. A TV programme, entitled Reds Under the Bed, was shown on ITV during the trial. This was highly prejudicial to the case.
  3. Original witness statements were destroyed and this fact was not been disclosed to the defence.

Further appeals and challenge to the CCRC

In 2012 the CCRC received applications from Patrick Butcher, John Clee, John McKinsie Jones, Arthur Murray, Kenneth O’Shea, William Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Warren and Bernard Williams. The CCRC was asked to review the case and refer the convictions for appeal.

In October 2017, the CCRC refused to refer the case for appeal. But following a successful Judicial Review challenge, brought by the law firm Bindmans, the CCRC agreed to revisit its decision.

The matters to be considered by the Court of Appeal

i) new evidence, consisting of a note dated 17 September 1973 and revealing that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note, nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial

ii) new legal arguments relating to the screening of The Reds Under the Bed during the 1972 trial, including an analysis, applying modern standards of fairness, of the way the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge.

We hope that the Court of Appeal will reward the valiant efforts of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign by correcting a decades-old miscarriage of justice.


[1] Ricky Tomlinson, Ricky, Time Warner, 2004, p131

[2] Des Warren, The Key to my Cell, Living History Library, p11

[3] Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted: The secret war between big business and union activists,  New Internationalist, 2nd ed, 2016, pp56-57

[4] Warren, p18.

[5] Warren, ch.4 ‘The attack on picketing’

[6] Smith and Chamberlain, p59

[7] ibid, p62

[8] Jim Arnison, The Shrewsbury Three, Lawrence & Wishart, p51 onwards

28May 2020

Covid-19 and the domestic abuse crisis

28th May 2020|Covid-19, Domestic abuse|

What can we expect from the government’s £76m funding pot to support survivors?

A decade of austerity has led to a severe lack of funding for domestic abuse services and a shortage of safe accommodation for those who flee. Specialist organisations have been pushed to breaking point. For survivors, the risk of ill-treatment and even death has increased as a result.

As the UK went into ‘lockdown’, the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector raised concerns about the increased risk of domestic abuse and the urgent need for funding to ensure effective access to safe accommodation during the pandemic. The sector also raised concerns about the disproportionate impact on disabled, working-class, BME and migrant women.

A flurry of open letters were sent to government demanding additional money for domestic abuse services and accommodation. PILC, Solace and more than fifty other organisations wrote to MHCLG. Southall Black Sisters (SBS), Solace, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and others wrote to the prime minister. SBS and Compassion in Politics coordinated a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Finally, the Step Up Migrant Women campaign, a coalition of more than 40 specialist BAME and migrant frontline services, domestic abuse services, social-justice and human-rights organisations, wrote to Priti Patel calling for emergency support to help migrant victims of domestic abuse during the pandemic.

When it became clear that no adequate response was forthcoming, PILC, acting on behalf of Southall Black Sisters and Solace, launched a campaign and legal challenge against the government’s failure to support domestic abuse survivors during Covid-19. Over 750 people sent emails to Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick in support of our campaign.

On 2 May 2020, apparently in response to this sector-wide campaign and the accompanying threat of legal action, the government announced an  additional £76m to support survivors of abuse.

How the £76m breaks down

In total £10m has been allocated to safe accommodation services, with £25m going to help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse access services during the pandemic. £0.7 million will support organisations that provide support to kinship carers, foster carers or to adoption and care leaver provision.   £3m per year until 2022 will fund the work of Independent Sexual Violence Advisers, and a further £3.8m will go to community-based domestic-abuse and modern-slavery services and charities.

The Home Office has also promised £7.8 million in emergency support for charities helping vulnerable children who have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, including children at risk of sexual abuse and criminal exploitation. The Department for Education has pledged more than £26.35 million to support vulnerable children, which will go towards supporting the families of disabled children and work to safeguard groups including care leavers and children in the early years.

This funding commitment is a welcome concession. But the fight is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the £10 million allocated to safe accommodation services will be sufficient to cater to the ever-increasing demand, or whether the government will prioritise those organisations that need it most, including BME and migrant-specialist organisations.

Will the government provide adequate funding for services led ‘by and for’ BME women? Or will these vital services be overlooked as they so often are by current funding streams?

Domestic abuse impacts women across society. But those without the financial or physical means to leave are disproportionately affected. BME and migrant women face structural barriers to accessing support when they experience domestic abuse. As a result, they experience higher rates of domestic homicide and are three times more likely to commit suicide than other women in the UK. Some 50% of BME and migrant-women victims of violence experience abuse from multiple perpetrators.

Survivors with insecure immigration status are often prevented from accessing safe accommodation. Women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) are not eligible for most refuge provision. Under usual circumstances, migrant women on spousal visas can apply for the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC), allowing access basic benefits and social housing. But under pandemic conditions, accessing the DDVC will be practically difficult, especially for those women forced to self-isolate with perpetrators. Women with NRPF who are not on spousal visas are barred from applying for the DDVC altogether.

Insecure immigration status is also a significant barrier to the disclosure of domestic abuse. Many migrant women are justifiably fearful that if they report abuse to the police or seek medical assistance, they could be penalised, detained or even deported. This allows some perpetrators to use their partner’s immigration status as an additional form of coercive control.

We know from discussions with specialists BME and migrant organisations that, behind closed doors, the Home Office has acknowledged  the NRPF requirement to be a structural barrier preventing migrant women seeking protection and support when they experience domestic abuse. If that is the case, the government’s lack of protection for migrant women in the context of Covid-19 is even more scandalous.

The £76 million pledged by the Home Office is a step in the right direction. But on its own this money it will do nothing to ensure that all migrant women who suffer abuse can access safe accommodation, regardless of their immigration status. We must continue to fight to ensure that the government prioritises those organisations that need it most, and BME- and migrant-specialist services in particular. We must also push hard for the abolition of NRPF so that nobody’s life is put in danger for want of the right papers.