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Welcome to the Public Interest Litigation Update

September 2020

This newsletter is created for you every month by the PILS Project.

Each edition of the Update gathers together a selection of public interest law issues, current cases and recent judgments. We'll also include news, articles, podcasts or upcoming events that might be of interest to you, on both COVID-19 issues and other legal topics.

We hope you find this mix of information useful.

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Quick Links
PILS Project News 
Growing our network
If you are a regular user of LinkedIn, you might have noted some new public interest litigation-related posts in your feed over the past few weeks.

The PILS Project have joined LinkedIn and will be using the platform to keep in touch with our members and spread the word about public interest litigation in Northern Ireland.
Follow our page here!
New Pro Bono Register service open
In response to COVID-19, PILS extended the services of our Pro Bono Register.

Watch our quick explainer video and if your organisation is interested in using the service - get in touch with the PILS team today!

We are adding to our usual pro bono legal advice services to better match what our members need.

Cases - net neutrality
First ruling on the Open Internet regulation delivered by CJEU
The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that so-called ‘zero tariff’ mobile data contracts breach the EU’s regulation designed to ensure net neutrality. Regulation 2015/2120 enacted the principle, aiming to ensure the all internet traffic would be treated equally and that access to online services would be provided in a non-discriminatory way.

In the first ruling on the net neutrality regulation, the CJEU found that the use of zero tariff contracts by the Hungarian mobile network Telenor were inconsistent with the regulation. Under its MyChat and MyMusic contracts, Telenor users could access specific apps and websites without running down their allotted data allowances. They were also able to access these apps after their data allowance was completely used up, while other sites and online services were blocked.

After the Hungarian regulator found both contracts to be in breach of Article 3(3) of the 2015 Regulation, Telenor appealed and the Budapest High Court referred a series of questions to Luxembourg for a preliminary ruling. The CJEU assessed how to apply Article 3(1) and Article 3(2) when interpreting the non-discrimination clause included in Article 3(3). On 15 September, it decided that zero tariff contracts restricted internet traffic enough to be considered an interference with the rights of end users and that such tariffs were not included in the descriptions of acceptable traffic management listed in Article 3(3).

Consequently, the CJEU found that both the Telenor contracts were inconsistent with the 2015 Open Internet regulation. The decision suggests that mobile operators across the EU will have to review their own offers in line with the CJEU’s findings.
News in brief

Reaction to UK government plan to break international law ‘in a very specific and limited way’
Former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox QC called it ‘unconscionable’, an article in The Justice Gap termed it ‘disaster constitutionalism’, and it prompted Lord Chief Justice of NI Sir Declan Morgan to make his disappointment public in a TV interview with BBC NI. NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis’ response to a question from Sir Bob Neill MP during a debate on the Internal Market Bill on 8 September drew widespread criticism, from the legal profession, academics and human rights campaigners alike. While the bill did pass a Commons vote on 29 September, its progress through the House of Lords is somewhat less certain.
  • The Bar of NI and the Law Society of NI both issued statements on the importance of the rule of law in response to the comments.
  • Update readers may be interested in watching a discussion on the Internal Market Bill as part of a ‘Brexit, Devolution and Rights’ webinar, with the Human Rights Consortium’s Kevin Hanratty sharing the NI perspective. 
Stormont announcements on child poverty and safeguarding
Since the last edition of this newsletter, the NI Executive has issued updates on its Child Poverty Strategy and forthcoming safeguarding legislation. On 10 September, Minister for Health Robin Swann indicated that his department would be consulting before Christmas 2020 to inform the contents of a new Adult Safeguarding Bill. An Adult Safeguarding Transformation Board will oversee this work; the minister's announcement was welcomed by Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch as "long overdue".

The following day, on 11 September, the Department for Communities confirmed that the term of the Executive’s Child Poverty Strategy was being extended until May 2022. (The previous term ran from 2016 – 2019 but expired while Stormont was not sitting.) Speaking as their latest report was launched, Lorna Ballard (the NI director of Action for Children UK) said that the charity’s keyworkers were reporting that NI child poverty levels are currently “at the worst they can remember”.

Concerns raised in NI over new Job Support Scheme targeting ‘viable’ jobs
A new package of supports was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on 24 September. Commencing on 1 November 2020, the Job Support Scheme will replace the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and will run for six months. While the JSS is open to businesses who haven’t availed of the previous furlough scheme, larger employers will have to meet a financial assessment test before being deemed eligible. The announcement was greeted with trepidation by the Law Centre NI’s policy team who say the measures do not go far enough. Jack Gibson stated that “…it seems clear that the rate of redundancies is closely linked to the level of support offered. Since the new Job Support Scheme offers a much lower level of support to employers than is currently in place, we believe redundancy rates will rise sharply as a result…”. The Law Centre NI have also pointed out that the number of queries the NGO’s advice line is receiving on redundancy issues has doubled since July.
Pandemic effects continue to be felt in NGO sector
According to a recent survey by NICVA, over 60% of organisations said they expected their ability to deliver services would reduce over the next year. The community and voluntary sector in NI have also highlighted their combined need for capacity building, training in online communications and increased mental health support for their staff. This NICVA survey news comes as the Frontline Network published the results of their own assessment. Their survey included 40 responses from NI in an UK-wide review of frontline staff supporting people at risk of homelessness. 92% found it difficult to access specialist accommodation and 94% had difficulty supporting clients while they waited for their first UC payment.  
  • The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), along with Nottingham Trent University and Sheffield Hallam University, are currently surveying community and voluntary organisations to assess how they are being impacted by COVID-19.
UK Pro Bono Week launches new website in advance of 2020 events
From 2 – 6 November, legal practitioners across the UK will celebrate Pro Bono Week 2020. This series of events, now in its 19th year, acknowledges the contribution made by volunteer lawyers across the UK to a range of pro bono activities. This year’s events will be organised around the theme of ‘Pro bono: Through the pandemic and beyond’, with planning committee chair Toby Brown commenting that “…in this year of unprecedented challenges, for both the voluntary and legal sectors, the role of pro bono legal assistance has never been more important…”. The full event calendar for the Week will be available online at the new website (which will be updated with NI-specific events!):
Rock stars, young activists and Mums for Lungs focusing on climate cases
Our natural environment, the standards used to measure its health and international agreements to limit future harm are all at the centre of potential legal challenges initiated recently.
  • Within the past month, The Good Law Project have publicised two potential judicial reviews on UK air quality and river quality in England. The first of those cases sees the Project’s founder Jolyon Maugham QC partnering with several campaign groups - Mums for Lungs, Students for Global Health and the UK Youth Climate Coalition – asking the UK government to review its existing Clean Air Strategy in light of COVID-19. The latter of the judicial reviews also involves the Good Law Project, this time in a challenge involving former Undertones frontman Fearghal Sharkey against DEFRA and the Environment Agency’s management of rivers in England.
  • In addition to this, six young people from Portugal filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights on 3 September. Supported by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), the young people contend that 33 Council of Europe member states are in breach of their Article 2, 8 and 14 Convention obligations by failing to make emission cuts required to meet Paris Agreement commitments. A blog by the activists’ legal team is featured on the PILA website. 
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you…”
US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on 18 September. Her legal career, marked by cases seeking to dismantle inequality and discriminatory treatment, concluded with 27 years on the US’s highest court. Even her dissenting opinions became compelling reading, seeing Justice Ginsburg make the cross-over into popular culture, spawning many memes and a ‘notorious’ nickname. The Pro Bono Institute’s obituary recalls Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments on pro bono work at an event in 2018, while the UK Human Rights Blog compiled a list of some of her most memorable cases.
New opportunities
Law Centre NI
The Law Centre NI are currently recruiting for a number of positions. The Head of Immigration Law will lead their specialist immigration law services, represent clients before tribunals and other courts, as well as identifying strategic legal issues in immigration law. Applications must be received by Friday 2 October. The two Legal Officer roles will provide legal advice and training on employment law and immigration law respectively; the closing date for both of these fixed term posts is Wednesday 7 October. All the applications forms are available here

Amnesty International NI
The Campaigns Manager (maternity cover) role is being advertised on a fixed term basis. The successful applicant will lead specific campaigns in the Amnesty UK NI office, manage relationships with key media and political contacts, and act as a spokesperson on a range of campaign issues. Closing date for this post is Sunday 4 October.

Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland
A selection panel has been established to make appointment recommendations for a Court of Appeal vacancy. Chaired by Lord Justice Treacy, the panel is now inviting applications from suitably qualified candidates. The closing date for submissions is Monday 12 October.
Promoting positive mental health and wellbeing among the legal profession is the focus of the Law Society NI’s Wellbeing Day on Friday 9 October. Solicitor members are encouraged to register for the full range of activities from online pilates classes, mentoring sessions and resilience training here.

The Legal Geek conference on 13-14 October features everything from facilitated networking, live hacking sessions and interactive workshops on legal technology and innovation. The first 10,000 tickets are free and available online.

The role played by women in peacebuilding initiatives, human rights and security work will be highlighted at an online event on 14 October. Organised by the NI Women’s European Platform UN, the 'Women Can't Wait!' event marks the 25th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and will feature a keynote speech by Mary Robinson. Contact NIWEP to book a place.   

The PILnet Global Forum has made the move online in 2020, connecting public interest practitioners, academics and pro bono initiatives in virtual sessions. The ‘Protecting Our Future’ event will run from 19-21 October and include conversations on pro bono in times of COVID, addressing systemic racism and using the law to protect our planet. Register here.
As mentioned in the News in Brief section of this Update, UK Pro Bono Week will be taking place from 2 – 6 November. An events calendar is already online and more events will be added very soon – watch this space!
Reading material
  • Section 98 of the UK’s Coronavirus Act 2020 included provisions for a review of the legislation every six months. As the Act’s six-month anniversary approached, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights carried out a review of the human rights implications of the government’s response to COVID-19. The report listed a number of areas that concerned the Committee, including the privacy and the government’s test and trace system, confusion around the lockdown regulations, the rights of people in detention and access to justice.  A summary of the report is available here, while the text can also be downloaded in full here
  • In the wake of the Home Office’s public condemnation of ‘activist lawyers’ last month, solicitor Maria McCloskey has written an opinion piece for View: Digital. In her reaction to the Home Office animation, the chair of the Law Society’s Human Rights and Equality Group commented that she felt the Home Secretary’s subsequent remarks attempted “…to cast a shadow over those of us representing people in the immigration and asylum system…”.
  • Research carried out by the Women’s Regional Consortium has revealed the specific impact that the introduction of Universal Credit has had on women in Northern Ireland. Following a series of focus groups, online questionnaires and phone interviews, WRC has compiled a report that uses the perspectives shared in the survey to shape a series of policy recommendations. 
  • The voices of older people on the COVID-19 pandemic are captured in a new report from Age NI. ‘Lived Experiences’ shares the views of older people, highlights their key concerns around support, communication, isolation and coping with loss - as well as providing an update on how Age NI proactively re-shaped their services during lockdown.
Podcast alert
  • Catherine Barnard, Professor of EU Employment Law at the University of Cambridge, named her podcast after the 2019 date that the UK were due to leave the European Union. In the latest instalment of her 2903cb series, Professor Barnard examines the (by now infamous) Internal Market Bill, why it has attracted so much controversy and the current state of the Brexit negotiations.
  • While the COVID-19 pandemic may have led to a reduction in international travel and littering, periods of lockdown have also led to an increase in online activity - with knock-on effects on greenhouse gas emissions.  The Oxford Human Rights Hub podcast hosted a compelling discussion between Kira Allmann and Michael Oghia on the internet, climate change, and human rights, showing why working from home might not be as ‘green’ an activity as you initially thought.
Pro Bono Register
The PILS Project has a register of legal practitioners who are interested in undertaking pro bono work with the PILS Project.  Opportunities range from writing an initial opinion to involvement in a test case, contributing to publications on public interest cases/issues and delivering training and talks to NGOs and legal practitioners.
  • If you would like to join the PILS Project’s Pro Bono Register or get more information, please email
Create change - become a PILS member
The PILS Project works with its membership to advance human rights and equality in Northern Ireland. Through their daily work, both the NGO and solicitor members are well-placed to identify legal problems impacting vulnerable and disadvantaged people that could potentially lead to public interest litigation.

Membership is free and members are under no duties or obligations. More information on the criteria and application process is available on our website:
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