On Saturday 11th November the RebLaw conference took place at the University of Law in London. Read on for my experiences at the conference and if I recommend you attend next year (hint: I do).
RebLaw describes itself as: “an entirely student-run conference which brings together students, lawyers and activists determined to use the law for the benefit of marginalised communities and individuals.” This was the second year the conference took place and I went along for the first time.
10:00am – Keynote speech delivered by Jo Hickman of the Public Law Project (PLP)
The RebLaw conference kicked off with a keynote speech by Jo Hickman of the Public Law Project (PLP). The speech really left me feeling inspired by the knowledge that there are lawyers who feel just as strongly about social justice, equality and human rights as I do, who are doing as much as they can to use the law to challenge unfair or unjust actions and whom I could potentially work with in the future. RebLaw gave PLP the following bio:
The Public Law Project (PLP) is a national legal charity which aims to improve access to public law remedies for those whose access to justice is restricted by poverty or some other form of disadvantage. PLP has been responsible for some of the most important human rights challenges of the last three decades, including the landmark case of Public Law Project v Lord Chancellor, in which the government’s proposed Legal Aid residence test was held to be unlawful by the Supreme Court last year.
“Find the injustice that moves you”
In her speech, Jo really highlighted what we have to focus on when we are going about becoming Rebellious Lawyers. The advice that stood out to me the most was her telling us to “find the injustice that moves you” and commit yourself to throwing your energy behind it. I liked that because it showed me that I have to be active in challenging the injustice that I feel the most passionately about because I’m more likely to be effective if my activism has a focused direction and purpose.
Before this I had been feeling like there was so much injustice but I had no idea where to begin! Now I’m going to be really thinking about Jo’s advice and looking to where I can focus my energy. I’ve really been enjoying my work with the School Exclusion Project (read about it here) and I think I’m going to look into how I can become more active with challenging racial discrimination within school exclusions. At present, school exclusions disproportionately affect children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds and I want to see what work I can do to challenge this. So thanks Jo!
“Challenge yourselves as well as the man”
Jo also mentioned to “challenge yourselves as well as ‘the man’, something I thought was really pertinent. Just because you are an activist and you are committed to challenging social injustice doesn’t mean that you don’t also need to challenge your own views and ‘check yourself’. I think this was really good advice because it highlighted how the correct narrative isn’t always our own and we should always make sure we are giving agency to and platforming the voices of others whose experiences we may sympathise with, but not completely understand. Even the most well-intentioned social activist needs to check themselves every so often and challenge their own beliefs. A lot of discussion is going on right now discussing institutionalised and unconscious bias (read: Munroe Bergdorf) and so it’s more important than ever that we are always challenging how we think and the assumptions we make.
My question for Jo Hickman
We also got the chance to ask questions, and I asked Jo about her advice to someone like me, a black woman with a commitment to social justice, who can find it intimidating approaching a career at the Bar where I might be perceived as someone too ‘radical’ or ‘different’. My question was should I conceal the part of myself that is committed to social justice as I work towards my future career in case it might prejudice me and my chances of success. Jo’s answer was essentially that different chambers and firms have different cultures. Some may well be very welcoming and open towards those of us who feel as committed as I do and when I’m approaching them I should be aware of what the culture is within that particular chambers. She did acknowledge that there may well be places that someone with ideas like mine may not ‘fit the mould’ per se, but I should do my research first and make sure I target my applications accordingly.
11:30 am – Breakout session #1 – Privacy and Protest in a Surveillance State
There were four different breakout sessions at 11:30: Making Refugees Welcome, Privacy and Protest in a Surveillance State, Challenging Disability Discrimination, Access to Justice and the Fight for Legal Aid. I chose to go to ‘Privacy and Protest in a Surveillance State’ because I’ve been really interested in media and information law and I did an entire module on secret intelligence in the final year of my degree. The speakers were Silkie Carlo of Liberty, Owen Greenhall of Garden Court Chambers and Brian Richardson of Nexus Chambers. The discussion focused on the use of surveillance upon the public in the context of demonstrations and protests, and each speaker brought new insight into historical incidents of unlawful surveillance and subversion by public authorities and the new technology and methods of surveillance that are threatening civil liberties and rights to privacy today.
Brian Richardson on the legacy of secret British political policing from the 1970s onwards
Brian’s talk opened with a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 and he described it as an eloquent illustration of the spirit of rebellion and protest at the time. He acknowledged how this spirit of protest has persisted throughout the decades and all across the world to South Africa’s Lesbian and Gay Liberation movement during the fall of apartheid to the NFL #TakeaKnee protests launched by Colin Kaepernick to address police brutality towards unarmed and innocent black men and women in the United States.
Taking us back to the 1970s, Brian drew a timeline of Britain’s legacy in what was called ‘undercover’ policing but in effect was ‘secret political policing’ that starts around the 1970s, an era of tension, protest and rebellion. He told us about the case of PC Mark Kennedy who, under the alias of Mark Stone, secretly infiltrated Environmental activist groups. Kennedy, along with other undercover officers, engaged in sexual relationships with people involved with the groups and some even had children with women involved under their false aliases. Some already had their own families outside of their private secret lives. Brian has worked with the women who were victims of this undercover operation and has been involved in the subsequent inquiry into undercover policing.
He went on to tell us about his work with the family of Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in a racially motivated attack in 1993. The police were seeking intelligence to smear the family as they took action to challenge their son’s wrongful death. This was part of a worrying pattern of subversion of justice by the police. Brian also discussed his involvement with the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, an organisation which has formed a campaign against police injustice. His talk was eye opening and emphasised how important it is to challenge injustice by public authorities. Brian also encouraged us to stay engaged and take proactive steps to involve ourselves with groups and organisations fighting against injustices and for people’s rights to privacy and security.
Silkie Carlo on surveillance, protest and facial recognition
Silkie talked with us about the current developments in digital surveillance technology, particularly the rise in use of facial recognition technology. She told us about how such technology was used recently at Notting Hill Carnival this August, and the police had planned to used it again that weekend as people gathered for Remembrance day. Silkie’s talk really highlighted how important it is to be careful with protecting yourself online and how vulnerable we all are to having our personal information (even our faces) monitored and stored without our knowledge or consent. She pointed us towards Liberty’s campaign against the ‘Snoopers charter’, their extensive work helping people learn how to protect themselves and also their general position as a voice against clandestine surveillance that infringes on citizens’ rights to privacy.
Owen Greenhall on Police evidence gathering and protest
Owen discussed Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs) who are groups of police officers present at protests and demonstrations who film and photograph those gathered there. They are obvious in their approach and their presence can be used as a way to intimidate or dissuade protestors and demonstrators from gathering. Owen broke the impact of these FIT teams and this style of data gathering into four main components:
- FIT teams have a psychological impact on demonstrators, who can feel intimidated or ‘psyched out’ by the presence of these officers who get close to demonstrators when they are filming or photographing them.
- They restrict social interaction at demonstrations, as demonstrators feel concerned about who they are recorded standing near or talking to.
- They reduce the autonomy of demonstrators who feel limited in the choices they can make at protests. For example demonstrators may be wary of saying certain things, or promoting a certain message for fear of repercussions.
- Finally, they limit collective action and unity at demonstrations, as there can be a division between those who don’t mind being surveilled and those that don’t.
Owen’s talk was brilliant and it highlighted the important distinction between people/general members of the public taking pictures at a demonstration versus police taking pictures and filming at a demonstration. Ultimately, this type of surveillance is undermining the principle of freedom to protest and demonstrate and is being used to intimidate and deter protestors.
14:15 pm – Breakout session #2 – Using human rights to eliminate poverty in Foodbank Britain
There were another four breakout sessions at this point: Communicating with vulnerable clients, Using human rights to eliminate poverty in Foodbank Britain, Towards transgender legal equality and Strategies for effective prisoner re-entry. I decided to attend the talk about using human rights to eliminate poverty in ‘Foodbank Britain’. I chose to attend this session because of the raised status of Foodbanks in recent years as more people struggle to eat and also due to my experience volunteering at Citizen’s Advice where I would administer food vouchers to homeless people. The speakers were Jamie Burton of Doughty Street chambers and Just Fair, Ndjodi Ndeunyema from Oxford University and President of Oxford Africa Society and Anna Taylor OBE the Executive Director at Food Foundation.
Jamie Burton – The human and economic costs and consequences of the ‘benefit cap’
Jamie’s talk discussed the ‘benefit cap’ and cuts to welfare propagated by the Tory government under David Cameron’s premiership and the real threats that these cuts posed to the most vulnerable people within our society. In particular he focused on The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) which issued an important (and incriminatory) report on the UK’s compliance with international human rights law. The report was published on in June 2016 (around the time that Britain voted to leave the European Union) and declared that the cap on benefits and other austerity measures were in violation of citizens’ human rights. The report also underscored the correlation between the reductions in inheritance and corporate taxes as well as the failure to challenge tax evasion as a direct redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
The timing of the report was significant. There has been an association with support for the ‘Leave vote’ and failed austerity measures as the growing pressure on public expenditure created the opportunity for divisive, xenophobic and anti-European political discourse to permeate regions most hard-hit by austerity measures. Jamie’s organisation Just Fair has been instrumental in pressuring and challenging the Conservative government on austerity measures and their impact on fundamental rights.
Jamie emphasised the fundamental role that human rights can play in challenging the real threat to people’s lives that unchecked austerity measures can bring. By highlighting the enforceable nature of human rights it is hoped that the most vulnerable in our society can hold government to account for breaches of their human rights. This in turn can change the discourse around austerity, making the relationship between poverty and austerity a human rights concern rather than allowing austerity to be presented as ‘sound finances’ (per David Cameron).
Ndjodi Ndeunyema – Foodbanks elsewhere (Namibia), Food poverty and economic rights and Foodbanks in Britain.
Ndjodi took us across the world to Namibia, discussing the role that Foodbanks have played in Namibian society. Food banks have been used a means to support Namibians living in poverty and the example was given as a demonstration that Foodbanks (as well as the economic and political issues surrounding them) are by no means exclusive to the UK. He discussed the issues with Foodbanks in Namibia, namely the inconsistent approach to provisions as they depend on the goodwill of the active government. As a result, there is unequal access to Foodbanks as certain communities find themselves vulnerable to political preferences.
Ndjodi then looked at the relationship between economic rights and food poverty to discuss the ways in which we can challenge food poverty by moving towards a culture of human rights and state obligations (echoing the correlation between human rights and austerity from Jamie’s earlier talk). He highlighted how at present there is no expressly recognised right to food in the UK and there exists a Western tradition of rejecting enforceable and justiciable socio-economic rights. The main emphasis of Ndjodi’s talk was that we should move towards enforcing food as a right and not a privilege.
Anna Taylor – The Food Foundation
Anna OBE the is the Executive Director at Food Foundation . The organisation describes itself as:
“…an independent think tank that tackles the growing challenges facing the UK’s food system through the interests of the UK public. We provide clear analysis of the problems caused by the food system and the role of policy and practice in addressing these. We develop and articulate food policies that support and guide the UK public to make choices that improve their health and well-being and we inform and generate demand for new and better public and private sector policy and practice.”
Anna discussed the difficulty in gauging a figure of how many people in Britain are going without food as there is no national measure. She pointed us towards End Hunger UK’s campaign to push for a bill to achieve this and encouraged us to all get involved and support the bill. At present we know that demand for food banks has increased significantly to a record high and that there needs to be a concerted focus on determining a figure in order to continuing challenging the government and push for action.
Anna also highlighted a clash of narrative between hunger and obesity as a national concern. The rhetoric surrounding obesity dominates the narrative around food and health (the BBC recently reported an increase in rates of obesity amongst British children) and this has made it harder to gain political traction around the issue of food insecurity. She emphasised that there is no reason why both narratives cannot coincide. Often a problem for those struggling to make ends meet is a reliance upon cheap and unhealthy food with childhood obesity shown to be statistically more prominent in less privileged areas. Ultimately, the emphasis upon a lack of choice around food challenges the popular discourse that obesity is always because people are ‘lazy’ or don’t know how/don’t want to cook (discussed in this guardian article).
16:00 pm – Breakout session #3 – Racial profiling and police accountability
The day ended with four more breakout sessions: Housing rights after Grenfell, Racial profiling and police accountability, Modern slavery and the supply chain and Campaigning toolkit. I chose to attend the session on racial profiling and police accountability because I have been passionate about challenging racial discrimination and racially motivated police brutality. The #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement is one that has been close to my heart since its inception, and I was interested in learning more about taking action against the police. The speakers were Una Morris of Garden Court Chambers, Corey Stoughton of Liberty and Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennet from United Families and Friends.
Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennet from United Families and Friends.
Unfortunately I was running late and missed the beginning of Stephanie’s talk. However, everything that I heard from her convinced me that she was one of the most inspirational and dedicated activists I have had the honour to hear speak. Stephanie (who has a professional background in Law) has been campaigning against unlawful deaths in police custody since her twin brother Leon Patterson was found dead in police custody 6 days after being arrested. Stephanie is part of a campaign group called United Families and Friends which describes itself as:
“…a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody, supports others in similar situations. Established in 1997 initially as a network of Black families, over recent years the group has expanded and now includes the families and friends of people from varied ethnicities who have also died in custody.
The group aims to proactively challenge the rate of unlawful deaths in police custody and prisons and push for further reforms such as a better funded and more effective independent system of investigation.
Stephanie told us about her work across America with the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement, as well as her work in the UK with families who have lost relatives after they were in prison or police custody. She really emphasised how important it is for us to actively involve ourselves with groups and community organisations campaigning for change and learn from those affected how we can best work to challenge these injustices. Stephanie also emphasised the value of educating people about their rights when facing the police, particularly those groups who are disproportionately over policed (such as young men from Black and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds). For example, she told us about the YStop app which educates people on their rights in relation to stop and search and also allows you to record your interaction with the police without the video being able to be destroyed. Video evidence, Stephanie stressed, is essential to placing police conduct under scrutiny. Currently, body cameras do not record continuously and can be turned on and off by the officer, making them an unreliable source of evidence.
Stephanie left me inspired to involve myself in more work within local communities and with families and individuals who are first-hand victims of violence/unlawful conduct by the police. Her talk really moved me and helped me become even more committed to challenging unlawful actions of public authorities such as the police.
Una Morris – Garden Court Chambers
Una Morris is a barrister specialising in actions against the police and she gave us an in-depth introduction to her legal practice and the work she does for her clients. Una’s clients seek to hold the police accountable for a range of actions, for example failure to investigate a death. She frequently supports her clients through inquests and inquiries.
Una took us through the various routes by which you can challenge the police. Following a complaint against the police, some are internally investigated by the police themselves (via the Independent Police Complaints Commission). The outcomes of these investigations are disciplinary proceedings and in some cases it is possible to gain prosecution. If there is no action following an investigation, the next step is to appeal the decision. The only remedy following a failed appeal is Judicial Review against the IPCC or the Chief Constable of that particular force. At judicial review level, you can seek a decision for reconsideration, to quash the findings of an internal investigation or to stop/compel the police to take certain action. Distinguishing between inquests and inquiries, Una told us about how inquests are not a court of blame but a court of record and inquiries are where evidence needs to be challenged and assessed in a closed session attended only by those authorised to view the material.
Una also highlighted some prominent inquiries, including that into the death of Azelle Rodney, an unarmed black male shot by the police in 2005. The inquiry found that there was no lawful reason for the police officer in question to shoot Azelle (the officer discharged 8 shots in under one minute). Following the findings, the police officer in question was prosecuted but ultimately found not guilty of his murder. In the final part of her talk Una discussed the claims you are able to bring against the police and the avenues left to challenge the police since the decision in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  AC 53 limited the range of possible actions against the police (and public bodies/authorities in general) for breach of duty of care. Finally, she discussed the significance of human rights in actions against the police and the avenues they have created to hold the police accountable.
Corey Stoughton – Liberty
Corey’s talk discussed ways in which we can use data to challenge the police and push for positive change in policing. She discussed the role that data can play in achieving effective police reform. Originally from the United States, Corey reflected on data collection by police forces and the lack of data transparency in the context of ‘crime prevention’ in the States. She told us about the ‘gangs matrix’ where some forces are using social media and location tracking to target known and suspected members of gangs. But the lack of accountability around this data monitoring by the police highlights a key issue for organisations such as Liberty and Amnesty international, who are challenging policing that specifically targets certain community groups (namely those from BAME backgrounds).
Data, Corey told us, can fuel a movement for police reform and is much a tool to be wielded by activists as it is a tool whose use by the police should be challenged and scrutinised. Corey reflected upon how effective policing reform requires both engagement from the wider community and cannot be overly lawyer-centric and that effective reform requires active engagement and support from within law enforcement.
Final thoughts – REBLAW17 has inspired be to become a Rebellious Lawyer
Overall, my time at the REBLAW17 conference was incredible. It has made me even more focused and determined to challenge social injustice in my future career at the Bar but that’s the long term goal. Focusing on the present, the conference made it clear to me how important it is for me to engage myself with community activism and involve myself with challenging social injustice on the ground and learn from the people who are fighting against injustice in their local communities and for justice for themselves or their loved ones every day.
I encourage anyone who wants to use the law to challenge social injustice to attend this conference in the future. I can honestly say it changed my understanding of what it means to be a Rebellious Lawyer and also what kind of activist that I hope to be.