Mothers fleeing domestic violence, families facing homelessness and refugees could be left with no way to seek legal help if government plans to clamp down on judicial reviews go ahead.
Boris Johnson has pledged to cut “abuse” of the judicial review process – a legal mechanism by which the decisions of public bodies can be challenged.
The PM’s actions are seen by some as a swipe at anti-Brexit campaigners, who used judicial review to fight his bid to prorogue parliament. They were described as being rooted in “revenge, not reform” by leading activist Gina Miller.
But lawyers rely on them to fight the corners of some of society’s most vulnerable. A family entitled to NHS care wrongly charged eye-watering hospital fees and a woman told she couldn’t be reunited with her refugee daughter after the girl was raped were just two of the cases we were told about.
“Many of these people have been forced to choose between paying their rent arrears or buying food, so have simply not eaten,” said Pamela Fitzpatrick, the director of Harrow Law Centre – which offers free legal advice and representation to about 1,000 north London residents every year.
“More than ever before, and certainly more in recent years, we are seeing people who have lost access to benefits and who literally have nothing come to us for help.
“It’s truly shocking and not what you expect to see in the UK in 2020.”
Part of a network of law centres across the country, the facility is paid for partly by legal aid and partly through a collection of smaller grants and direct fundraising efforts.
Solicitors at Harrow, who specialise in welfare benefits, housing and immigration issues, use the judicial review process on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
“We have seen people with serious diseases, including cancer, who have had their benefits stopped due to bad decisions being taken by the authorities,” said Fitzpatrick. “The appeal process for a claim can take a year – many would be dead by then.”
The first step in the judicial review process involves a lawyer sending a “letter before claim” to the relevant body – which can often prompt a reversal of the original decision. This work is usually done free of charge, as lawyers cannot be funded through legal aid until a judicial review is given the green light to proceed through the courts.
The number of judicial review applications fell significantly after the coalition government tightened processes around legal aid in 2013.
“Often the threat of judicial review is enough in cases where, for example, the Home Office has made a wrong decision on an asylum case, or a housing association is trying to evict a family unlawfully,” Fitzpatrick said.
“It’s something that can be relied on when you are operating in the shadow of the legal system on a vulnerable person’s behalf, and it’s often the last hope for people who have been left with literally nothing.”
One case dealt with at Harrow concerned a breastfeeding mum who had been left homeless, with no access to benefits. An EU national, her claim for settled status was wrongly rejected, despite her having lived in the UK since she was a toddler.
“She came into our office and she hadn’t eaten for days. She was obviously still feeding her baby and it was starting to affect them too. Before we could even start on helping her with her legal issues, we had to have a whip-round to get her some food,” Fitzpatrick said.
“Luckily her benefits appeal was accepted second time around, but if it had been rejected we would have been relying on the judicial review process.
“Other judicial review cases we’ve taken on involved a schoolboy who came home one day to find his family’s housing association had changed the locks.
“Another saw an EU national come to us after his wife had a baby and he was presented with a bill for several thousands of pounds from the hospital, despite having rights to live, work and access healthcare in the UK.
“It had got to the point where bailiffs were involved and the hospital would not back down. If we hadn’t sent a letter before claim, he would still be being chased for a huge debt that he never owed in the first place.”
Cases dealt with by other law centres across the UK included a refugee who was separated from her young child while fleeing Somalia 17 years ago – a girl who was later found living in a camp in Uganda.
“Her child had been raped and had a child herself as a result,” a spokesperson told HuffPost UK. “We sought to have the family reunited, but the Home Office refused – because her daughter had a child of her own she was no longer considered to fall within the definition of family member.
“We started judicial review proceedings and the Home Office backed down. Our client was reunited finally with her daughter after 17 years, and met her grandchild.”
Another case saw a woman fleeing domestic abuse who was told she didn’t qualify for emergency housing even though her violent ex-partner kept breaching his bail conditions and turning up at her home, in one case breaking in. Thanks to judicial review she was offered a new home in the same borough.
The relentlessness of the work can be depressing, Fitzpatrick said, but the pay-off is worth it when centres are able to change lives, and Harrow keeps a running commentary of its successful cases on its Twitter feed.
But simply sourcing the means to keep the centre afloat day-to-day is a full time job, Fitzpatrick admits.
“We could expand and expand and not be able to keep up with how much demand there is, and that’s only going to get worse,” she said.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is currently overseeing the constitutional review promised in the Queen’s Speech, expected to examine the role of British judges and the use of judicial review. The PM promised the review would “come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.
Gove will reportedly work alongside justice secretary Robert Buckland and newly-appointed attorney general Suella Braverman, and a Cabinet Office spokesperson said further updates would be made “in due course”.
But Harrow Law Centre, and others like it, remain unconvinced and believe those most in need of help are the ones who will suffer.
“This is undoubtedly a political performance which will just harm the most vulnerable people in our society,” Fitzpatrick said.
“They come to us because they have no other options.”