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Welcome to the Public Interest Litigation Update

March 2020


Who could have predicted the social, medical, legal and financial changes that we would collectively witness in March 2020?

As we look back on this life-changing month, PILS wanted this edition of our Update newsletter to strike a balance.

It includes information specifically related to the COVID-19 situation (to help readers adjust) but also articles on other topics (to reflect the ongoing, continual nature of human rights and equality work).

We hope you find this mix of information useful. Take care, the PILS team
Quick Links
PILS Project News 
PILS members, don't face the current legal challenges alone!
The global nature of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak makes it a surreal and unpredictable time for us all.

The PILS Project want our community of NGO and solicitor members to know that we are still ready to step in to assist you.

PILS members, please let us know what information or assistance would be the most useful for your organisation right now.
Click here to tell us what you need
The short survey will take 2 minutes and we can work together to tackle the public interest legal problems you are facing.
Cases - charity law
Court of Appeal rejects NI Charity Commission challenge on its decision-making authority
The Charity Commission of Northern Ireland’s functions cannot be discharged by a member of the Commission’s staff acting alone. According to a recent Court of Appeal decision, CCNI only has authority to make decisions when it meets as a complete body and this authority cannot be implicitly delegated to staff members.

CCNI and the Department for Communities had appealed an earlier High Court judgment (delivered in May 2019), but the Court of Appeal upheld the previous decision.

In delivering the appeal judgment, Lord Justice McCloskey noted (at paragraph 47) that the “… business of administering and overseeing charities in Northern Ireland is a matter of significant public importance, engaging a public interest of some potency…”.

(Eagle-eyed Update readers will note that this judgment was handed down in late February 2020, not March. However, as the February edition of the Update was sent out a little earlier than normal, it is included here for readers’ information!)
 
News in brief
Cake case involving Ashers Bakery reaches communication stage at Strasbourg
A well-publicised case involving NI LGBTI activist Gareth Lee was communicated by the European Court of Human Rights on 23 March. The Strasbourg-based court has now referred three questions to the parties in Lee vs United Kingdom.

Gareth Lee had placed an order for a cake, iced with a slogan supportive of marriage equality, with Ashers Bakery in May 2014. While initially accepted, the order was later cancelled and refunded by the bakery. Ashers stated that they were a Christian business and in hindsight should not have taken the order. Mr Lee lodged a complaint with the Equality Commission and subsequently initiated legal proceedings on the grounds of sexual orientation discrimination.

In October 2018, the UK Supreme Court overturned the previous decisions of Belfast County Court and Court of Appeal and ruled that the bakery’s refusal of the order did not amount to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The case was referred to the European Court of Human Rights in August 2019.

Coronavirus and how it is changing our courts

The outbreak of COVID-19 is impacting many workplaces and communities around the world, and the court system is no different. During March, several authors examined the impact that changes to the way the justice system operates in the UK could have in the longer term.
  • Judith Townend’s latest piece for the Justice Gap magazine looks at the context in England and Wales. Her article notes the unprecedented pressure on courts and tribunals and poses questions around how open, democratic systems can be maintained in the coming weeks as digital tools become more common. The piece also quotes concerns raised by the Public Law Project around the capability of existing technology in courts. Covid-19, the UK’s Coronavirus Act and emergency ‘remote’ court hearings: what does it mean for open justice? is available to read here.
  • The Law Gazette reported another perspective on the question of open justice, as it covered the launch of the new Remote Courts Worldwide Initiative. Professor Richard Susskind, the initiative’s founder, commented: “…We must seize the moment and come together to accelerate the development of new ways of delivering just outcomes for court users…”. Remote Courts Worldwide will be hosted by the Society for Computers and Law, funded by the UK LawTech Delivery Panel, and supported by Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service.
  • According to The Independent UK, the criminal justice system was already coming under intense pressure even before the coronavirus outbreak resulted in stays and court closure. Figures from the Criminal Bar Association indicated that over 37,000 criminal cases were outstanding at the end of 2019. CBA Chair Caroline Goodwin QC told the Independent that the association would be “…holding the justice secretary to his commitment made to parliament this week to fully reopen the courts once the pandemic is over… justice delayed is justice denied and we all pay the price for unjustifiable delays…”.

Education Authority apologises over ‘unnecessary and undue delays’
The Education Authority, the non-departmental public body with responsibility for the provision and delivery of education and youth services in NI, apologised publicly to families of pupils with special educational needs in early March.

The EA assesses children who may need extra support at school and provide an statement outlining what additional help they might need. The EA’s target for this process was 26 weeks, but figures from the Department of Education revealed that the average waiting time was 40 weeks.

During an appearance before Stormont’s Education Committee, chief executive Sara Long apologised for the “distress and worry” this has caused families. The EA had carried out an internal audit of its SEN supports after a whistle-blower had approached BBC Radio Ulster with their concerns.
Reading material
In order to make sense of the ever-changing legal and social landscape, many organisations have already created guides and legislation summaries.

PILS have compiled a list of resources from our members and contacts that our Update readers may find useful. (As the situation in relation to COVID-19 is changing rapidly, please note the publication date of any of the guides included here.)
  • @JudiciaryNI – the official Twitter account of the Lord Chief Justice’s Office – is a useful source for quick updates on the current guidance for NI courts. There is also a specific COVID-19 section on the Judiciary NI website with a list of updates from LCJ Sir Declan Morgan and continuity arrangements.
  • On 27 March, PILS NGO member the Law Centre NI launched a dedicated COVID-19 section on their website. This gathers together the Law Centre’s latest NI-specific resources on immigration, employment, self-employment, social security and community care.
  • A similar page, focused on housing law, has been created by another of our NGO members. Housing Rights’ website has information tailored for housing association tenants, people facing homelessness, people in private rented accommodation and more. (The Housing Rights advice line is also running again but is experiencing high call volumes, so live chat/email advice requests are encouraged.)
  • The Women’s Policy Group NI issued a statement last week, highlighting the gender-specific issues caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. It also contains detailed calls for action with desired short, medium and long term responses.
  • Social welfare law information hub Rights Net (UK) have started to publish open access summaries of changes to social security law, with announcements from the UK government, legislation and guidance. This content is reviewed daily.
  • Global public interest law network PILnet have published a list of resources supplied by international law firms. These guides cover current legal concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and the site also includes links to global grant opportunities.
Events
While many in-person events are being postponed to be held at a later date, some have been able to go ahead, reimagined as virtual gatherings.

Much of the 2020 edition of the NI festival of ideas and politics - Imagine - ended up being streamed online. Many of the videos are still available to watch on the Imagine website. Catch up here.
Podcast alert!
  • In a more light-hearted moment, Rights Net (the social security advice site created by welfare and tech charity LASA) put together a working-from-home playlist, featuring everything from Bette Midler and Joy Division to Destiny’s Child. A potential Spotify soundtrack for your revised work environment?
 
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 sarah@pilsni.org
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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