Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

17Jul 2020

COVID-19 and the need for a Public Inquiry.

17th July 2020|

On the 9th July 2020 on behalf of the Law Centres Network, and with the support of Amnesty International and over 70 grassroots and civil society organisations, we wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that a Public Inquiry is called to urgently consider lessons that can be learned from the Government’s handling of COVID 19.  

On the 15th July 2020, and in response to a question from the leader of Liberal Democrats – Ed Davey MP regarding the need for a public inquiry the Prime Minister said: 

“As I have told the House several times, I do not believe that now, in the middle of combating the pandemic as we are, is the right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry, but of course we will seek to learn the lessons of the pandemic in the future, and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened.” 

Whilst we welcome the commitment to an independent inquiry, important questions remain.  

What type of Inquiry does the Prime Minister have in mind? 

Any independent inquiry needs to be a statutory public inquiry and be chaired by a Judge sitting with a panel of experts in public health, race, disability and social care.  

Central to such an inquiry must be the families who have lost loved ones. It must involve health and public sector workers, and their trade unions. It must also hear from civil society organisations including law centres, campaign groups, and others on the frontline. 

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s statement, an Inquiry cannot wait. Echoing the demands of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families Justice Group, we call on the Government to: 

i)      Convene an immediate public inquiry within the next 3 months into the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Such an Inquiry is necessary to prepare for a potential second wave of the virus, to learn lessons and ensure that the necessary steps are taken to prevent a further crisis in health and care provision;  

ii)     Commit to a longer-term, independent public inquiry in order to adequately address the many concerns not only outlined in our letter of the 9th July 2020 but also those raised by the groups and organisations who have supported it, as well as the Covid-19 Bereaved Families Justice Group; and 

iii)   Finally, both the immediate and long-term inquiry must be independent, properly resourced and chaired by a Judge, but also employ a panel of experts with a wide range experiences of understanding surrounding issues of racism, disabilities, frontline and low paid work as well as public health and social care. There would need to be full and frank disclosure of all the evidence, including statements and live evidence from Ministers so that they may be properly held to account. 

We are not convinced by the Prime Minister’s vague promise of an Inquiry at some point in the future. Not only is his statement lacking in detail, but crucially lacks the urgency that is required in order to ensure that lessons are learned, and adequate measures are put in place to prevent further unnecessary loss of life prior to a second wave.

23Jun 2020

Important win for homeless families in Lambeth

23rd June 2020|

Lambeth Council agrees to amend a housing allocations scheme that had resulted in hundreds of vulnerable families being removed from its social housing register 

Lambeth’s Temp2Settled Policy 

Since 2014 Lambeth Council has been encouraging its homeless families to withdraw their homelessness applications, and to move into temporary private sector accommodation, by offering them higher priority for social housing. However, in very many cases, the deal that Lambeth was offering actually prevented these families from staying on the social housing waiting list at all.

Under the ‘Temp2Settled’ Scheme, those approaching the council as homeless were told that if they agreed to forego their rights under the housing and homelessness legislation, they would be placed in Band B (rather than Band C) and therefore have a ‘much better chance’ of successfully securing council housing or housing association tenancies. 

However, what these families were not told was that if they were placed outside the borough (as hundreds were) they would almost certainly be removed from the housing register altogether before they were able to bid successfully for social housing and be rehoused. That was because they would lose their ‘local connection’ to the borough after two years. 

These families never had any real prospect of securing permanent accommodation, as the average wait time for securing permanent family-sized accommodation in Band B has always been more than five years. We therefore suspect that Lambeth council may have designed the policy with a view to denying applicants their housing rights.

Other consequences – suitability of accommodation and eviction 

Apart from being removed from the housing register and losing their local connection, these families also felt the wickedness of Lambeth’s policy in other ways. 

Unlike the accommodation provided under the homelessness legislation, there is no statutory requirement for  ‘Temp2Settled’ accommodation to be ‘suitable’, and there is no right to challenge the suitability of the offer of accommodation by way of statutory review. Families therefore often found themselves in unsanitary or uninhabitable living conditions and forced to stay there as they were unable to challenge private sector accommodation that was unconstrained by suitability requirements. 

Given the unstable nature of the accommodation, many families faced threats of eviction from private landlords. On top of all this, having been placed many miles outside the borough of Lambeth, some had no choice but to travel long distances in order to retain their support networks and to get to and from work or school. 

The legal challenge 

The Public Interest Law Centre, with support from Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), brought a legal challenge on behalf of four families affected by the ‘Temp2Settled’ scheme. Each client had either faced eviction or felt forced to reside in unsuitable or uninhabitable living conditions. In many cases this led to them and their children suffering a deterioration in their mental wellbeing and physical health. 

As a result of the challenge, and not long before the case was due in court, Lambeth agreed to amend its policy and reinstate the four families to its housing register with immediate effect. Applicants who opted for the Scheme (only to be placed in private rented accommodation outside of the borough and removed from the housing register after two years) are also to be reinstated. 

Barristers Nick Bano and Liz Davies (Garden Court Chambers) and David Wolfe QC (Matrix Chambers) were instructed.

Quotes:

Elizabeth Wyatt from HASL says:

“Our members told us they were tricked and deceived by Lambeth council when they visited the housing office as homeless. More and more people were coming to the group telling us they had been removed from the waiting list with no idea why. This allowed us to build our legal challenge, but there are still hundreds of households who have been struggling alone. 

Lambeth’s Temp2Settled scheme is yet another example that so-called homeless prevention which pushes families into the private sector does not work and is not fair. 

PILC and HASL have successfully challenged it here and we will continue to do so wherever these schemes fail to act in the best interests of homeless people. 

Real homeless prevention is safe, secure, high quality council housing in our communities, and a welfare system accessible to everyone that ensures a dignified life free from poverty.”

Helen Mowatt, solicitor at PILC, says:

“This case is an important victory for the hundreds of families who have been affected by the  ‘Temp2Settled’scheme, and we hope sends a message to councils – that it is not acceptable to place targets above the needs of the community. We know that there is a culture in housing departments that regardless of how vulnerable you are, the ultimate goal is to get the numbers down. Schemes like ‘Temp2Settled’ are adopted to further the gentrification agenda, as it is in the commercial interests of councils to get as many homeless and low-income families out of the borough as possible. 

Of course, this mentality trickles down from central government and is linked to the limited housing stock and to a decade of austerity measures. But councils need to be pushing back against this—and not taking it out on homeless families who approach the council for support. We must continue the campaign to ensure that those families no longer feel forced to reside in uninhabitable living conditions, are protected from eviction, and have access to secure council-owned accommodation.”

One of the four claimants had this to say:

“I first encountered Lambeth council’s ‘Temp2Settled’ Scheme when I became homeless in 2017 and was at my most vulnerable.  The council officers sugar coated the nature of the Scheme and persuaded me to agree to enter into it – they told me that it was the best option for myself and my baby as we would be provided with permanent council accommodation in our home borough within a matter of weeks. However, I later discovered that relying on this advice had put myself and my daughter at great risk. The conditions of the property I was placed in were very poor and it was not safe for us to live in. I have also been threatened with eviction on several occasions. 

My intention has always been to do right by my daughter and to do the best for her. I believe that Lambeth Council took advantage of this and of me when I was at my most vulnerable and when I had no choice but to place my trust in them. When given the option of a stable and secure home for my daughter, of course I was going to take that – even if it meant living away from our home borough for what I was told would be a short period of time. 

My daughter is now 3 years old and at the crucial age of starting nursery and settling down for the starting of her educational life. This should be an exciting time for us, but the consequences of the council’s scheme (the suitability of accommodation, threats of eviction and being forced away from the place I call home) had impacted us both greatly – causing so much stress and anxiety. Not knowing what my future for my daughter looked like and whether we would be able to return to our home borough, made making important life decisions for me very hard. 

Without HASL and the Public Interest Law Centre, who dedicated their time in helping us not only get justice, but also to expose the way me and others were treated, this would still be happening undetected, and Lambeth council would be able to continue to treat families in this way without any accountability for their actions. 

I am proud of myself and of all the other residents who stood up to the council and I hope this sends them a message that council officers cannot continue to treat us like we are just numbers which they need to reduce at any cost. We are human beings and have families, just like they do.”

10Jun 2020

Interim findings from NRPF research

10th June 2020|

PILC has been working with the Institute of Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton, Project 17, Migrants’ Rights Network and ASIRT on a research project investigating local-authority support for people with NRPF during the Covid-19 pandemic. The research is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

The data collected so far makes for disturbing reading. Some headlines are below:

  • Before the pandemic, most local authorities did not provide easily-accessible information or guidance on support options for people with NRPF
  • Most local authorities have not published any Covid-19-related information or guidance for people with NRPF
  • People with NRPF appear to be particularly likely to die or become seriously ill if they contract Covid-19
  • Many people with NRPF have struggled to access food, shelter and subsistence support during
    the pandemic, despite the government’s apparent promise to ‘bring everyone in’.

Our interim findings are out now and can be downloaded below. The full report is due in July.

8Jun 2020

The protests of the last two weeks

8th June 2020|

A statement from the PILC team on George Floyd and the protests of the last two weeks

The use of lethal force by state agents against people of colour is nothing new. It should not have taken George Floyd’s murder to show that racial injustice and police brutality are deeply embedded in the institutional, economic and social fabric of the United States, a nation founded on white supremacy. The structural racism and anti-blackness we see in America today reflect an unbroken tradition stretching back to colonialism and slavery.

The past and present of our own country are equally implicated in this tradition. Systemic racism pervades our politics, economy, culture and society. We encounter this truth every day in our work defending victims of police surveillance, survivors of domestic violence and those at the sharp end of the UK border regime.

Racist structures deprive young people of access to education, deny safety and shelter to women fleeing violence, and expose people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) to destitution, exploitation and abuse. Austerity and dispossession have hit communities of colour hardest through mass evictions, social cleansing and the sale of public land and community assets.

Our criminal justice system is rigged against people of colour. Black men in the UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched, rising to as high as forty times when a Section 60 notice has been issued removing legal protections. Black men are more than twice as likely to die in police custody. While black people make up 3% of the English population, they make up 12% of our prison population.

The protests taking place across the world are a response to decades of state violence and racist law enforcement. The racist roots of our societies seep through into all of our institutions, including the legal profession.

The law under capitalism has never been a neutral tool. It operates to legitimate and reproduce systems of domination and oppression.

We cannot begin to fight injustice in and through the legal system unless we properly address racism in our own circles. Law firms are rife with prejudice and attitudes are not changing. Just 8 percent of partners in large law firms, 8 percent of judges and 7.2 percent of QCs are from BME backgrounds. The Law Centres movement, and our own workplaces, are not immune from these issues.

Expressing solidarity is not enough. The legal profession must do better. Where we remain neutral or silent, we are complicit in the oppression that many of us came to the law in order to challenge.

We cannot dismantle structural racism if we do not acknowledge that our current system of laws is not only broken but has been designed to preserve racial inequality. We must not be afraid to unsettle and disrupt the legal system, even as we work within it.

We hope the current protest movement will spark a new wave of struggle. Lawyers must do their part in resisting not only police brutality, but also the violence done to communities of colour by the poverty and inequality that are essential features of life under capitalism.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter.

 “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Angela Davis.

#BlackLivesMatter

16Apr 2020

PILC fact sheet on DV and student finance

16th April 2020|

On 13 February 2020 the High Court held that the student finance regulations discriminated against domestic violence survivors. As a result of the case the student finance regulations have been amended. PILC has written a fact sheet on the new eligibility criteria for survivors of domestic abuse.

Background

Our client’s ex-partner had withheld her immigration documents. This led to her spousal visa not being renewed in time. Our client ended up being unlawfully in the UK for nearly a year through no fault of her own.

Without student funding, our client incurred significant debt with her university and was forced to withdraw from her studies.

Change in the law

A student who has been granted indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom as a victim of domestic abuse is now eligible to receive a student loan straight away.

This case is an important victory for migrant women who experience domestic violence. Access to student finance will make it easier for women to leave and rebuild their lives independently. The full judgment can be read here.

31Mar 2020

Urgent action for DV survivors during Covid-19

31st March 2020|

PILC and others have written to the Secretary of State for Housing to demand urgent action is taken for survivors of domestic violence during Covid-19

In light of the current Covid-19 outbreak, the Public Interest Law Centre and Solace Women’s Aid, along with many other specialist VAWG organisations, charities, pressure groups and lawyers, have written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to demand that urgent action is taken for survivors of domestic violence.

The current outbreak is having a disproportionate impact on survivors of domestic violence who are unable to leave violent homes. We are demanding that separate funding be allocated to local authorities to enable them to adequately house survivors of domestic abuse in hotels or other safe and suitable accommodation.  

In the letter we highlight that ‘lockdown’ measures will cause rates of violence and abuse to increase. The impact will disproportionately fall on women due to the disproportionate number of victims of domestic violence that are women. If the government fails to increase funding available for safe accommodation for domestic abuse survivors, it will not be able to mitigate the disproportionate impact of ‘lockdown’ on women.

Despite assurances by the government that it will deliver safe accommodation in cases of domestic abuse and protect the most vulnerable in society from the impact of Covid-19, adequate measures have not been taken on behalf of domestic abuse survivors.

We demand a separate emergency fund for local authorities to ensure they are able to adequately house survivors of domestic abuse in hotels or other safe and suitable accommodation, and to publish clear information to make survivors aware of the additional support. This is paramount if the government is going to effectively protect survivors of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The letter can be read and downloaded below.

26Mar 2020

Suspension of right to asylum in Greece

26th March 2020|

PILC has joined 255 other organisations in signing a joint letter to the Greek government and the EU opposing the the suspension of the right to seek asylum for all people entering Greece. We are joining the call for Greece to withdraw its illegal and unconstitutional Emergency Legislative Decree and immediately stop returning people to states where their lives and freedom are at risk. As the letter states, EU member states must also re-establish mechanisms for the relocation of refugees and asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries.

The joint letter can be read in full here.

19Mar 2020

PILC during the pandemic

19th March 2020|

Due to the coronavirus pandemic PILC staff will be working remotely until further notice.

We are still answering our main phone line and EEA advice line. If you can’t get through, please leave a message with your contact details and someone will call you back within 24 hours.

If contacting us at office@pilc.org.uk or through our online form, please be clear about why you are contacting us so that your enquiry can be allocated to the relevant member of staff.

Staff have access to their e-mails. Clients can contact their solicitor or caseworker by phone or email.

If you are sending us something urgent by post, please email or call us so we can keep an eye out for it.

We will provide further updates soon on how we are working during the pandemic.

8Mar 2020

Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay – the battle against the poll tax

8th March 2020|

Thirty years ago the struggle against the hated poll tax was reaching its peak. It was the biggest civil-disobedience campaign of the twentieth century. 

In a normal year in the 1980s the number of cases (summonses) brought before the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales was about two million. Between April 1990 and September 1993 the number of cases of unwillingness, or inability, to pay the poll tax totalled an additional (and staggering!) 25 million.

It is estimated that up to 14 million people were involved in resisting the poll tax, with many receiving multiple summonses. That’s just under one-third of the entire adult population. The sheer volume of cases overwhelmed the legal system and the enforcement of the poll tax was made impossible. What had once been described as Margaret Thatcher’s ‘flagship’ policy was sunk. 

A new book, Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay, edited by Eric Segal, secretary of the South East Kent Trade Union Council, outlines the struggle against the poll tax in Kent. Eric was an organiser of the anti-poll tax struggle in Kent and was sent to prison as a result of his refusal to pay.

Our Paul Heron contributed a chapter to this book. His chapter, entitled How Labour councillors fails us and why they shouldn’t, makes links between the poll tax struggle and the contemporary political situation. Heron highlights the need for Labour councils to set a no-cuts needs budget and stop passing on cuts to working-class communities.

Copies of Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay can be ordered by e-mailing office@pilc.org.uk

13Feb 2020

Stop press: important victory for migrant women!

13th February 2020|

High Court rules that student finance regulations discriminate against domestic violence survivors

The High Court has today ruled that a survivor of domestic violence was unlawfully refused a student loan and that the current student finance regulations discriminate against victims of domestic violence.

Our client’s ex-partner had withheld her immigration documents. This led to her spousal visa not being renewed in time. Our client ended up being unlawfully in the UK for nearly a year through no fault of her own.

She was later granted indefinite leave to remain as a victim of domestic violence. But the gap in ‘lawful residency’ caused by her ex-partner’s abuse led to her being precluded by the current education regulations from obtaining a student loan

Without student funding, she incurred significant debt with her university and was forced to withdraw from her studies.

As a result of the case, brought by Helen Mowatt of PILC with Dan Squires of Matrix Chambers acting as counsel, the student finance regulations have been amended. A student who has been granted indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom as a victim of domestic abuse is now eligible to receive a student loan straight away. The new rules are due to come into force on 13 February 2020.

This case is an important victory for migrant women who experience domestic violence. A thick web of unfair immigration and other regulations help keep survivors trapped in abusive relationships. Access to student finance will make it easier for women to leave and rebuild their lives independently.

The full judgment can be read here.

8Feb 2020

Undercover Policing Inquiry – update

8th February 2020|

Prior to Christmas 2019 we were instructed by Richard Chessum to act for him in the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). He had already secured core participant status in December 2017. We have now been designated as his legal representative.

Richard was an activist in the Troops Out Movement (TOM) which was formed in 1973 following the attacks by the British soldiers on the minority Catholic/Nationalist population. TOM set out with its major aim to secure the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland and self-determination for the Irish people as a whole.

Linked to that central demand were calls for the demilitarisation of the local police and paramilitary police support – the B specials – as well as opposition to UK Government policies that set effectively set in law discrimination against Catholic people in areas such as elections, housing, education, cultural pursuits, jobs and social welfare.

Richard was spied on by undercover police from the Special Demonstration Squad. He was targeted by an officer called ‘Rick Gibson’ who had targeted Richard, TOM and the socialist group ‘Big Flame.’

The UCPI is due to open on the 1st June 2020 where legal representatives from many of the 200 core participants are due to provide opening statements. This will then be followed by core participants providing witness evidence to the Inquiry.

4Nov 2019

Joint open letter about Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS)

4th November 2019|

Public Interest Law Centre, Migrants’ Rights NetworkLiberty and twelve other organisations have today written a joint letter to London local authorities about the Home Office’s Rough Sleeping Support Service.

The letter, which can be read online here, calls on local councils not to participate in the Rough Sleeping Support Service until serious concerns about how the scheme operates have been addressed. The signatories are asking councils not to participate in any scheme that involves council employees or commissioned services (including charity workers) passing on personal information about rough sleepers to the Home Office without their fully informed consent at every stage.

The letter also calls on local authorities to cancel service-provision contracts with voluntary-sector organisations that have a track record of passing on personal information about rough sleepers to the Home Office without their fully informed consent. Finally, the signatories ask local councils to make a detailed commitment to funding independent, specialized accommodation, advice and support services for migrant and refugee rough sleepers in their area.

For reference, the letter from the GLA referred to in our open letter can be found here.