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‘Volunteering for the Know Your Housing Rights Project’ written by Caroline Jixin Gao

By Rose Ireland, on 20 April 2017

Caroline Jixin Gao, a second year Law student at UCL, was one of eight students to volunteer for the pilot project ‘Know Your Housing Rights’, in partnership with Haringey Citizens and Hodge Jones & Allen. In this blog post, she reflects on her experience delivering public legal education on housing law in Haringey and the wider implications of the housing crisis in London.

“Know Your Housing Rights with Haringey Citizens” is a pilot Pro Bono project, which involved us delivering educational workshops. As the name suggests, these workshops focused on giving Housing-related legal advice for residents. For this initiative, we worked with Citizens UK and solicitors from Hodge Jones & Allen. One of the solicitors remarked to us that they believe that Haringey is an “untapped market” for them to offer Housing-related legal advice, given the demographics of this area. As this is a pilot initiative, the conservative workshop numbers meant that we were able to deliver tight-knit interactive sessions. We were able to keep the workshops informal, and cater to the many specific questions posed by the participants. Hopefully, next iterations of the project will see an increase in turnout numbers, but this will also mean that the structure of the workshop has to adjust accordingly.

There were 8 of us, UCL law students, involved in this project. We split into two teams of 4. My team consisted of Sanjit, Diya, Sara and myself. Our first workshop was on Tenancy Rights and Responsibilities, and our second workshop was on Homelessness, Temporary Accommodation and Allocation, both conducted at St Mary’s Priory Catholic School.

My general takeaway from the project is observing how competing objectives in law play out in real life cases. Policymakers often have to impute certain sanctions and limitations to prevent abuse of the system, whilst still ensuring that the individual cases are treated equally and fairly.

The project gave rise to as many questions as there are solutions. Where do you draw the line between a need and want, and balance competing priorities? Will you consider that a disabled person who is immobile will be unable to live in a house without stairs? Or will you simply classify it as a grave inconvenience but not amounting to inability, if that particular disabled person has a carer? What if there is no stair-less temporary accommodation available, and the only alternative is homelessness? In reality, the defining line between needs and wants is rarely clear, and many compromises have to be made.

One way the Council has addressed this dilemma is through its Allocations Policy. In Haringey, Council Housing Applicants are ranked from Band A to C, with those being of immediate and critical need being placed in Band A, and those of moderate need in Band C.  Most applicants will be placed in Band B, which caters to those of a serious need, and this includes the real life case of a disabled husband and his carer wife. It is important to note that, given the severely burdened Allocations system and the limited supply of Council housing, this means that the Council’s noble aims are rarely fulfilled to its entirety. For example, in both 2014/2015 and 2015/2016, no Haringey applicants placed in Band C succeeded in securing permanent Council Housing.

It is tough not to be emotionally stirred by some of the heart wrenching stories, but that sentiment has to be tempered with a perspective for the bigger picture. Often, there may be people out there whom are in even more severe need, and are in more critical circumstances. A Common complaint lodged by the Haringey residents during our focus group was that, no matter how much time they dedicate to bidding for their Housing, there will always be “someone who swoops in at the last-minute, who is more needy than them” (quoting a resident). Over time, this degenerates into a vicious cycle of desperation and resignation. A common sentiment is also that the bidding system is more competitive than ever before, and that a decade ago it was relatively easy to secure Council housing- a revealing sign of the growing housing crisis in London. Rent affordability problems that the City faces has placed unprecedented demands upon state institutions, to provide for the increasing numbers of Londoners that have fallen through the cracks.

Despite systemic inadequacies, I am nevertheless relieved by the fact that the UK’s welfare system seeks to help the most destitute. I am glad that Pro Bono initiatives like ours are able to offer assistance to those in desperate need of legal advice on their housing arrangements.

‘Reflecting On My Experience As A Grassroots Project Volunteer’, written by Ila Tyagi

By Rose Ireland, on 10 April 2017

In this blog post Ila Tyagi, an LLM student at UCL, reflects on her experience volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project and how the education system in the UK compares to the education system in her home country, India.

When I first entered the state school in Eastlea, I couldn’t believe the kind of amenities and infrastructure a publicly funded school in UK could afford. Such facilities are not available even in some of the wealthier schools in India. We were required to pose for a photo-id for record keeping purposes. But much before that was a thoroughly conducted Disclosure Barring Services Check to ensure that the volunteers did not have a criminal record or a history of violence towards children. To conduct such procedural formalities for ensuring the safety of children was very impressive to me.

While undergoing the training for the Grassroots Human Rights Project, we were told to encourage participatory learning. This meant that we were required to assist the children in coming up their own answers and gently guide them towards the correct answer. The fact that we were not allowed to be dismissive or critical was remarkable to me. This progressive and inclusive approach helps to ensure that little or no harm is inflicted upon a child’s mental well-being and self-esteem during his/her formative years. These formative years are crucial in shaping who the child becomes as an adult and as such it is important to acknowledge that shaming or berating the child for answering a question incorrectly may adversely impact his/her confidence and estimation of self-worth.

I know that I am stating the obvious but shaming and criticising a child for giving the wrong answer is common across the lower-rung of schools in small-town India (which is to say a majority of schools across India). Some schools even believe in corporal punishment despite it being illegal in India. I remember being slapped for failing to attempt a math problem correctly, and being hit on my knuckles with a wooden ruler just because the teacher felt like hitting every child in the class that day. But to be fair, that was when I was studying in one of the worst schools in a small town in India. I will concede that there are many modern and progressive schools across the bigger cities in India and the government has enacted a law to ban corporal punishment in schools. But the law is poorly implemented especially in the Indian hinterland.

While teaching the children, I found it difficult to engage in a proper discussion of the issues at hand. Perhaps, it was to do with my own inability to assemble too many opinions at one time. It could possibly be attributed to rarely ever being taught like that in school. I admired the skill with which my colleagues could gather different opinions and present a succinct conclusion at the end of their presentation. The students were so impressed with one of my colleagues that they gave her a loud round of applause after she finished presenting.

But what was more surprising and clearly the highlight of my volunteering experience was the ability of these adolescents to engage in a meaningful discussion about human rights. Not only were they able to ask intelligent and rhetorical questions highlighting that there was no real difference between active and passive euthanasia, but they were also able to support their arguments in favour of or against the topic of discussion with sound logic and good reason. For example – when asked whether a murderer should be sentenced to death they counter questioned us by asking what if the murderer was suffering from a mental illnesses, could he not then plead the defence of insanity? To me this was surprising because I did not even know that mental health problems or a defence of insanity existed when I was their age.

Perhaps the students’ critical and analytical reasoning abilities could be attributed to the emphasis placed on the value of an individual’s opinion in the UK. The fact that we were not to disregard a child’s opinion during our training session is illustrative of the importance given to developing an independent opinion in the UK. Indeed, this is what our lecturers talk about when asking us to write essays for our assessment. This is something that I truly struggled with when I first came to study in the UK. It was difficult for me to assemble various pieces of information in my head to present a logical opinion or any opinion at all. May be this can be attributed to a system of teaching in India that suffocates independent thought and analysis. Many schools across India expect us to regurgitate the textbook in the exam without any analysis. At my previous university (which is one of the top universities in India), we were instructed to present a neutral answer in the opinion-based essay questions in order to avoid offending the examiner through our opinions. I think this practice hinders the development of the reasoning skills necessary to deal with the complexities of our professional life. The right to opinion is a necessary underpinning of a democratic society and perhaps the world’s largest democracy could learn something from one of the world’s oldest democracies on this matter.

However, what struck me was that the students were involved in a campaign against Donald Trump for Amnesty International. When asked why they were supporting the campaign, the students answered by saying that it was because he was racist and had no respect for women. I was amazed to see how much these thirteen year olds knew about issues like racism and sexism. I am of the opinion that Indian schools should incorporate raising awareness about racism and sexism in their curriculum considering the attitude of many Indians towards their fellow dark-skinned Indians, the African students studying in India and people from northeastern parts of India. On the issue of respect for women, India has infamously made international headlines for the many instances of sexual violence against women that take place regularly across the country. However, I would like to emphasise that there is a growing class of Indians who respect women and abhor racism but they are in the minority. I truly believe that education is the best way to solve such problems in India.

I believe that if India truly wants to emerge as the superpower it so desires to be then a starting step would be to reform the education system to promote critical reasoning and logical thinking rather than regurgitation because good education aids both personal development of an individual and the collective development of a society. India needs to act big and act soon before her demographic dividend turns into a demographic disaster. Perhaps, India could start by modeling its education system roughly along the lines of the one in UK.

In conclusion, volunteering for the Grassroots Project was an eye-opening experience. It compelled me to question the merits of the education system in my own country. It helped me to analyse my own weaknesses and learn from my colleagues and the students that I was teaching. It prompted me to reflect on my educational experiences and compare them with those of my students. It was a great learning experience for me. Grassroots Human Rights Project was different, refreshing and definitely more worth my while than I was expecting it to be.

To find out more about pro bono opportunities for law students at UCL, please visit the CAJ website.

‘Human Rights as a Western Construct: India as an Example’ written by Ila Tyagi

By Rose Ireland, on 10 April 2017

In this blog post, LLM student Ila Tyagi argues against ‘universal human rights’ as they are typically understood, drawing from cultural relativist arguments and using India as an example.

In many developing countries, human rights are often considered to be western concepts imposed on them by foreign governments and treaties. The problem lies in the narrow and egocentric definition of human rights[1]. There are many arguments against the universality of human rights. This essay aims to explain some of the arguments against human rights and presents a solution to universalise human rights.

Critics of human rights argue that the human rights system mirrors the ideas of good governance that are grounded in the “common historical experiences” of the western countries[2]. Such a system could only successfully prevail in countries with abundant wealth, resources and good social order. [3] While looking at the history of human rights, it becomes clear that the precursors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights of Man. This historical fact helps to crystallise the critics’ view human rights are indeed a western concept. However, this simplified view overlooks the fact that a majority of the countries involved in the formation of UDHR were non-western countries like India and China[4].

There is also a cultural argument against human rights, which suggests that it is impossible to adopt universal human rights in a world where there is plurality of cultures[5]. They further argue that western culture is centered on the rights of the individual whereas most African and Asian cultures value the community[6] and believe in collective rights[7]. For example in the Indian culture, rights are subordinated in importance to duty[8]. Moreover, many African societies believe in enforcing collective rights over individual rights[9]. It is difficult to impose the concepts of women’s rights on societies like India where society believes that a woman’s behavior is crucial to the preservation of its honour[10]. Therefore, there is clash of civilisations between the western developed world and the non-western developing world. The latter perceives the imposition of international human rights treaties as an act of cultural imperialism because the theory and practice of human rights exhibits an act of hubris similar to the civilisational missions the western countries undertook in the past[11].  It is viewed as an attempt to impose alien western cultural values on them[12] and as a facade to intervene in their internal political affairs[13].

There is also an argument claiming human rights are a barrier to rapid economic development. According to a study compiled by researchers at the Centre for Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness in India, most Indian youths demonstrated “authoritarian leanings” and were skeptical about the advantages of democracy[14]. This is largely because some Indian youth believe that relinquishing human rights is a small sacrifice for bigger results like economic development [15]. These authoritarian inclinations can also be attributed to rampant corruption[16] in the government organisations and indecisive coalition governments. Furthermore, the Indian politicians often engage in divisive politics based on caste and religion in order to amass votes from the minorities and people from their communities. This practice has led to people voting their caste rather than casting their vote.  The youth perceive the presence of too many regional and communal interests in the parliament as a hindrance to the achievement of a supreme national goal i.e. economic development. Many Indians believe that a benign dictator or a strong central government is the only means of achieving India’s ambitions. This desire for a stronger central government is what fuelled the rise of Bhartiya Janta Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power. It is common amongst Indians to compare India’s achievements with those of China in the fields of infrastructure building, economic growth and even Olympic medals (of which China has plenty and India just a handful).

In order to illustrate my point, let us compare the development of an infrastructure project in a democratic developing country like India and a developing country based on authoritarian capitalism. In the authoritarian country, building an airport would probably take a few months because the government would not be hassled by issues of compensation, eviction and protestors. However, in a democracy like India where there is freedom of association, free press and the freedom to protest; the government would have to seek people’s permission in order to evict them. Many people would refuse to evict their houses and rightfully so if adequate compensation is not paid to them. Various interest groups would protest for the rights of the vulnerable people who are affected by the project. The free media would highlight the negative environmental impacts of building an airport. Some interests groups may even commence public interest litigation against the government and the corporate entities involved in the project. Thus, it might take years to complete the project. This would mean the democratic country might develop at the slow pace of an elephant as opposed to the swiftness of the authoritarian dragon.

In addition, the governments of many developing countries argue that the right to development is more important than the right to political liberties[17]. Some countries with higher crime rates might argue that the need for right to security justifies the harsh enforcement measures used to protect this right[18]. Many countries justify the use of torture techniques used in prison interviews as necessary to solve the case[19]. The fact that most developing countries do not have well guarded prisons is also used to support using harsh interrogation methods and prison sentences[20]. Under the human rights laws, the developing countries are required to incorporate major institutional and behavioral changes while the western countries can maintain their status quo. The developing countries are now facing challenges that the West had encountered in a distant past[21] when its own human rights credentials were stained by practices like slavery, racial segregation and anti-Semitism[22].

In conclusion, a distinction must be drawn between the universality of human rights and the uniformity of human rights[23].  In order to promote a universal approach to human rights the West needs to recognise the failures of current human rights system in promoting human rights in the developing world and rectify its policy accordingly[24]. Perhaps a policy of opting in and opting out of certain provisions may serve the interests of those societies that do not agree with all the provisions in various human rights declarations[25]. However, coercive practices like female circumcision and subjugation of women in various cultures should be condemned because no rights exist when one is coerced to adopt certain cultural beliefs or practices[26]. The new model for development should be inclusive and not alienate vulnerable groups of people. We should strive to assert human rights in accordance with each country’s histories and traditions rather than as a rigid foreign concept[27]. The one-size fits all approach should be abandoned in favour of a flexible approach to suit the needs of our diverse world.

[1] Stephen Kinzer, ‘End Human Rights Imperialism Now’ The Guardian (London 31 December 2010) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/dec/31/human-rights-imperialism-james-hoge >accessed 26 February 2017

[2] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

[3] Ibid.

[4] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[5] Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7] Clancy Wright, ‘ Western Human Rights in Diverse World: Cultural Imperialism or Relativism?’ (E-International Relations Student, 25 April 2014) < http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/> accessed 25 February 2017

[8] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[9]Clancy Wright, ‘ Western Human Rights in Diverse World: Cultural Imperialism or Relativism?’ (E-International Relations Student, 25 April 2014) < http://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/> accessed 25 February 2017

[10] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[11] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

[12] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[13] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

[14] Kanishk Tharoor, ‘Why Many Indians and Americans have Authoritarian Leanings?’ Hindustan Times (New Delhi 30 December 2016)<http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-many-young-indians-and-americans-have-authoritarian-leanings/story-zSizwsoDPJKvOm5vSKmnUJ.html > accessed on 26 February 2016

[15] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

 

[16] Kanishk Tharoor, ‘Why Many Indians and Americans have Authoritarian Leanings?’ Hindustan Times (New Delhi 30 December 2016)<http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/why-many-young-indians-and-americans-have-authoritarian-leanings/story-zSizwsoDPJKvOm5vSKmnUJ.html > accessed on 26 February 2016

[17] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Shashi Tharoor, ‘Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[23] Ibid.

[24] Eric Posner, ‘The Case Against Human Rights’ The Guardian (London 4 December 2014) < https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights> accessed 26 February 2017

[25] Shashi Tharoor, ‘ Are Human Rights Universal? World Policy Journal 2000 vol 26 < http://www.worldpolicy.org/tharoor.html> accessed 25 February 2017

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

Volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project, written by Clement Cheung

By Rose Ireland, on 3 April 2017

Clement Cheung is a first year Law student undertaking the UCL Dual Degree Programme with Hong Kong University. The mandatory Access to Justice placement, organised and overseen by the CAJ, forms an important part of the first year of the programme. Here, Clement talks about his experience volunteering for the Grassroots Human Rights Project.

Perhaps this blog post can begin with how disappointed I was initially, when assigned to the Grassroots Human Rights project. I considered approaching one of the CAJ members to request a switch, but recalling from a seminar that ‘the more I put in to my experience, the more I can get out of it’, I did my best to approach the experience with a positive attitude. Now that I have experienced the full spectrum of tasks involved in the project, I have gained insight into many issues of society and learnt valuable skills. I cannot imagine not having completed this project, and I am grateful that this experience was more meaningful than simply doing research and teaching children, as I first thought it would be.

My journey began with a research task for a new seminar, the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’, and I was responsible for the ‘Quotas Debate’ – whether universities should impose quotas to increase the number of state school students admitted. This involved researching laws on positive discrimination/action, the legal status of quotas, and gathering background information about the debate. Having only been in London for a few months, this was a challenging task, as I was unfamiliar with the types of schools in the UK and past news, such as the admissions controversy of the University of Bristol in 2003. Thanks to the internet and Rose’s guidance, I compiled some useful information which was suitable for the lesson plan.

The most meaningful moment of this research task was when Rose prompted me to think about the almost paradoxical wider picture. Financially well off families who can afford to send their children to fee paying schools can receive a higher quality education, and enter prestigious universities. Such qualifications allow for a relatively high income job, and thus can have their children attend fee paying schools too. This cycle repeats itself – those from a disadvantaged background who attend state schools and cannot compete against excellent A-level grades of their fee-paying school counterparts, may be denied a university place and remain relatively disadvantaged. Seeing my research in this light motivated me to plan the lesson well. Bringing up the idea of university and getting young people to think about it is one of the objectives of Grassroots, and is a starting point for improving societies. At this point, I also realised similar education and wealth gap problems are present too in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries, potentially to an even greater extent. While the state and fee paying school distinctions are present too, this is complicated by the wide presence of tuition centres or ‘cram schools’. These are additional classes outside of normal school which teach exam techniques and help students ‘cram’ knowledge. Since many students enrol, those who cannot afford to attend or cannot afford the best tuition centres are at least somewhat disadvantaged from their wealthier peers. These thoughts of tackling the wealth gap encouraged me to deliver this lesson well, and think about what further contributions I can make in the field of education, even after leaving London.

After planning the lesson and attending training sessions, my teammates and I taught the first two seminars to a class of Year 9 students. I felt comfortable with the human rights material I was to present, but I was shocked to find the class uninterested and unresponsive. I adapted quickly by breaking the class into smaller groups and joining each group to discuss broader questions (instead of giving a lecture on human rights history). After the lesson, I felt I failed to bring the slightest positive change to their lives, and even felt somewhat remorseful for not capturing their interest. Despite this moment of disappointment, I learnt important lessons, which prompted me to make changes for the next session. Most importantly, I learnt that how much I know becomes irrelevant if I cannot communicate it to my audience. Part of this requires simplifying technical points and avoiding jargon; the other element involves maintaining their interest.

During the team meeting in preparation for the next teaching session, we made changes to the ‘Right to Life’ and ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar plans to suit our class better. Since they were quiet in whole class discussions but more active in small groups, we planned to spend more time with a volunteer leading discussions in each group. The students also seemed tired and uninterested in the first session, so we selected short videos as introductions to each discussion topic, such as extracts from Terry Pratchett’s documentary on euthanasia. A day before the seminar, Donald Trump made his so called ‘Muslim ban’ executive order, and we decided to discuss this as an introduction to the ‘Right to Freedom from Discrimination’ seminar.

Although the lesson was imperfect again, our changes improved the experience for everyone. The group discussions seemed effective, especially since the topics this session may have been more interesting (death penalty). The students were more active and some discussions became quite passionate and heated! I particularly enjoyed challenging the views of students who seemed certain of their stance, as some had ‘eureka moments’ which gave them more ideas, or left them considering arguments from both sides. After ending each discussion, the students appeared less sure of their response. This made me feel more successful, as I believe my task was to expose them to differing views and teach them to evaluate before coming to their own view – a valuable skill regardless of what they grow up to do.

The video also proved to be excellent introductions to each topic. After discussions of the death penalty, the video was a good transition tool which recaptured their attention while giving time to rest. In the next seminar, articles on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ made students surprisingly excited for the ‘Right to be Free from Discrimination’! Leading this seminar, I capitalized on their interest by encouraging the students to apply the content, such as the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination, to the executive order. This worked well and I believe the students genuinely enjoyed this part of the lesson and gained something from it.

Unexpectedly, the university ‘quotas debate’ was difficult to execute. I was shocked that the Year 9 students did not know the distinction between state and fee paying schools. They were also unaware of the existence of top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and after talking to the students, most have not considered attending university. After the lesson, the teacher explained that around 80% of the students were entitled to free school meals, and many may be the first generation of their family to even graduate from high school. This was the moment which affected me the most – I felt helpless. Education is immensely powerful, and if these young people cannot even afford to think about university, how can they bring changes to their families and communities? On one hand, I could have shared more about my university life and stories to inspire them, but on the other, I think the ‘quotas debate’ was a good starting point for them to think about university, being in Y9 and thinking about GCSEs. I feel we planted the seed which will hopefully grow in the future, but it is a process that unfortunately none of us can accelerate.

If I were to repeat the placement, I would be more of a friend than a teacher. The students have many teachers, but may have lacked a role model they could be inspired by. Regrettably, I focussed too much on delivering content and teaching them, and missed chances to connect with them on a personal and emotional level. The teacher noted it often takes time for students to trust a ‘guest teacher’, but I could have tried to learn names and make sessions more informal. I also followed seminar plans too rigidly, and should have used them as guidelines instead. To improve experiences for everyone, I wrote some brief notes and comments to the next volunteer group which should help them with their planning – I feel continuity by communicating like this will help in the future.

These lessons I learnt will be useful for my future and are transferrable skills. As mentioned, I have learnt to communicate effectively, and there is no better audience for practicing this than a class of impatient young people going through puberty! Even outside the classroom, I can use analogies, anecdotes, and current affairs to communicate a message effectively. This is likely to be helpful when working as a lawyer for example, as I might need to explain complex law in a way ordinary people would understand.

The Grassroots Human Rights project was a truly valuable experience, and I now see far more meaning in it than simply teaching children. I plan to participate in this again next year to improve the experiences of students, and to learn more life lessons in the classroom.

The Impact of Brexit on Human Rights in the UK, written by Ila Tyagi

By Rose Ireland, on 25 January 2017

In her second blog post Ila Tyagi, an LLM student in International Commercial Law at UCL, writes about the human rights implications of Brexit.

Introduction  

A hard Brexit would have a significant impact on the human rights framework in the UK. This is because UK derives a large portion of its human rights from EU law. Post-Brexit, the UK would not be required to comply with the various EU laws concerning human rights [1].

 The Issue of Residency Rights 

Residence rights of EU nationals in the UK and those of UK nationals in the EU member states are perhaps the most important human rights concern. These rights are being heavily negotiated and it is imperative that the government addresses this concern fully and quickly. A loss of these residence rights may mean a loss of homes and jobs for millions of people across the European continent [2].

The EU Sub Justice Committee of House of Lords has obtained evidence that shows that some of the EU citizens will not meet the criteria for a UK permanent residency despite living in the UK for over five years [3].  There is a potential for clogging the courts with lengthy litigation if the UK government decides to deport EU nationals [4]. However, this seems unlikely.

A joint committee of House of Lords and House of Commons has suggested in its report that the government address the issue of residency rights urgently [5]. They suggest that the government should give an undertaking to the effect that those people legally resident at a permanent cut off date would be guaranteed permanent residence rights [6]. This would help to ease the uncertainty surrounding this issue.

EU Charter for Fundamental Rights

Another issue of concern is the effect that Brexit will have on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (EUCFR). It applies to all EU Member States because it was incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty. It encompasses political, social, civil and economic rights along with rights for the elderly and the disabled [7]. These rights can be enforced in the courts of UK and ultimately the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, it is difficult to enforce these rights directly because not all of its provisions have a direct effect. Nevertheless, it forms an important measure for protection of human rights in the UK [8].

Brexit would mean that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would not apply to the UK anymore and that CJEU’s jurisdiction over UK is lost [9]. It remains to be seen what the UK government proposes to do with EUCFR guidelines and rights.

Workers’ Rights

The UK derives a large portion of its employment and workers’ rights from EU law.  Parental leave to care for a sick child or an infant, maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, 48 hours time off per week, rights against discrimination, protections for agency workers, and some health and safety concerns are the rights that could be affected by Brexit. This is largely because many of these rights or parts of them were not popular with the UK government when proposed. Therefore, there is a chance they might be repealed or amended in a post-Brexit Britain. However, PM Theresa May has given assurances that the existing protections for workers’ rights will be guaranteed so long as she is the Prime Minister [10].

European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

ECHR is often confused with EUCFR but it is important to note that ECHR is completely distinct from the EU. It is a separate agreement to which many EU Member States are signatories. The rights set out under ECHR can be enforced through the court of European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg [11].  Even though the decisions of the Strasbourg courts are not binding, some of them have been incorporated as a part of EUCFR, which is binding on all EU Member States. Additionally, the UK Human Rights Act 1998 provides that UK courts should take into account any decision, declaration, judgment or opinion of the Strasbourg Court [12].  Therefore, the rights guaranteed under ECHR are protected through the UK Human Rights Act 1998.

Brexit does not affect the ECHR rights directly but there is a possibility that this might change. The Eurosceptic wing of Conservative Party is also skeptical about the ECHR. Even though there isn’t a formal proposal to leave the ECHR, many members of former PM David Cameron’s cabinet had argued for it [13].

Human Rights organisations like Liberty are campaigning against this because they believe that in a post-Brexit Britain, ECHR will be fundamental to preserving human rights in UK [14].

The Great Repeal Bill

The Great Repeal Bill is an instrument through which the government proposes to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and put the application of EU law in the UK to rest [15]. This bill is supposed to be introduced in the parliamentary session commencing in February 2017. Since we know that EU law is the basis of many fundamental rights in the UK, the status of these rights remains unclear with reference to the Great Repeal Bill. There is no clear indication on whether the UK government intends to amend or repeal some of these rights [16].

The parliamentary joint committee report suggests that the government should lay out a detailed list of all fundamental rights under EU law and the government’s intentions towards their future [17]. The committee suggests that this should be done before introducing the repeal bill. They also recommend a draft publication of the repeal bill so that it can be subject to detailed scrutiny by the joint legislative committee [18].

Conclusion

     As seen above, Brexit has strong implications for the human rights protection in the UK. In order, to mitigate the uncertainty surrounding this issue, the government should act swiftly. A swift and clear plan of action would help to reduce the distress caused by the uncertainty surrounding the loss of jobs and homes that could be a potential consequence of Brexit.

[1] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201617/jtselect/jtrights/695/695.pdf

[2] Ibid. Page 4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Page 5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/brexit-and-human-rights

[8]https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/human-rights-committee/news-parliament-2015/brexit-human-rights-launch-16-17/

[9] n 3

[10] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-latest-news-10-ways-eu-protects-british-workers-rights-in-danger-european-union-a7531366.html

[11] n7

[12] ibid.

[13] http://rightsinfo.org/brexit-doesnt-mean-uk-human-rights/

[14] https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/human-rights-uk-after-brexit

[15] n1 pg 6

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

Volunteering with the City of London Criminal Appeals Clinic, written by Nora Wannagat

By Rose Ireland, on 16 December 2016

Nora Wannagat is an LLM student at UCL that previously completed a BA in Jurisprudence with Law Studies in Europe at the University of Oxford. In this post, she summarises her experience volunteering for a new project at UCL CAJ this year – the City of London Criminal Appeals Clinic.

The City of London Criminal Appeals Clinic is a new pro bono project set up to help those convicted of criminal offences bring their cases to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and, eventually, to the Court of Appeal. Several London universities are involved. At UCL, two teams of students each started working on one case in October, under the supervision of a criminal solicitor. Both of these cases have long and complicated histories (being over ten years old), and naturally a lot of material has been accumulated. Essentially, we have been trying to bring this material into a useful form for submission to the CCRC.

For my team, this involved taking document bundles of roughly 5,000 pages in total, making charts describing the documents and their location in each bundle (some of which contained over a hundred witness statements), writing a chronology as well as a dramatis personae, summarising information on certain pieces of evidence and researching relevant legal points.

As to the cases, both are concerned with very serious offences. My team has been working on a case involving several murders and robberies. Certain aspects of the investigation, as well as the conduct of the client’s initial solicitors, presented significant problems. There were issues with some of the most important pieces of evidence, one having gone completely missing from the police station, making it impossible to examine it any further. The client’s first solicitors drew up defence statements without ever consulting with him, and have, apparently in an effort to appear “street smart”, made mistakes that go far beyond merely unprofessional conduct.

Through this project, we have gained rare insights into the workings of the criminal justice system in practice, and we very much hope that our work, the final results of which we are scheduled to submit in January, will be a good basis for the CCRC and the Court of Appeal to review the many troubling aspects of the case.

For more information about pro bono opportunities at UCL, please visit the UCL CAJ website.

What Impact is Capitalism having on Democracy: From an Emile Durkheim functionalist perspective, written by Emmanuel Bazimya

By Rose Ireland, on 15 December 2016

Emmanuel Bazimya, an LLM student in International Banking and Finance Law at UCL, considers the impact of capitalism on democracy in light of the recent presidential election in the United States.

It is a well-established right that individuals in a democracy have the right to information that allows them to make informed decisions with regards to their governance. Following the recent presidential election in the United States, the question this post is trying to ask is if this basic right under a democracy is being threatened due to the growing influence of capitalism on key social institutions. To examine this notion, I rely on Emile Durkheim’s functionalism theory with the use of the media as a structural institution with a manifest intention of informing the electorate so that they may make an informed decision when they cast their ballot in a general election.

Emile Durkheim’s Functionalism attempts to explain social behavior in a society from a macro level perspective. This theory views society as an organism in which each structure as a component of this organism contributes to the stability of society as a whole. His theory is premised on the assumption that society is made up of inter-connected multiple structures that work to form a state of equilibrium at any given point in time and once a significant social change occurs then the institutions that serve these needs must adjust to such change to bring society back into that state of equilibrium. Capitalism is this significate social change that brings about competition and the need to maximize profits by corporations. The question is whether the media is making the necessary adjustments to address this shift caused by the need of mass media outlets to maximize profitability for their shareholders.

One of these structures are the institutions that are meant to serve the needs of society such as the Judiciary, Education institutions like a University, the core Family, Government and for our purposes the Media among others. Another such structure are Social facts which are ways of thinking, values, cultural norms and attitudes that transcend any one individual, that existed before anyone individual and will continue to exist for generations after. These social facts have a subconscious effect on an individual in that the individual will not release the influence being exerted by such social facts unless they attempt to resist their influence such as the law or religious beliefs. These structures have known manifest functions which serve to keep society in a state of stability, but they also have unintended functions known as latent functions.

In this case the mass media in a democracy during an election season would serve the manifest function of informing their electorate to ensure that they make better informed decision about their governance when they cast their ballot.

However, due to commercial nature of mass media outlets these corporations also seek to maximize profits with the unintended consequence of not properly informing their viewers on issues that matter but rather focusing on coverage of issues that will increase the network’s rating and boost profits. Les Moonves, executive chairman and CEO of CBS during a speech at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” in reference to all the coverage Donald Trump was getting over racist or xenophobic remarks as opposed to any inquiries as to details of his policy suggestions. There have been reports of foreign leaders being uncertain of Donald trump’s foreign policy plans in spite of the estimated 4.4billion U.S dollars of coverage that the 2016 Presidential election received.

The Atlantic put together a daily dashboard tracking national television coverage of the 2016 presidential election using data from the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive and processed by the GDELT Project, based on the number of mentions each candidate received. To no surprise Donald Trump received about 193,608 more mentions than the next candidate from both major parties. Research shows that there is a correlation between the number of times a candidate gets mentioned on the news and their popularity. The causation is however debatable as to whether it is the popularity that causes the increase in coverage or if it is the coverage that causes the increase in popularity.

Media coverage seems to be driven more and more by its latent function as opposed to its manifest function in a democratic society. This can be best illustrated by the spike in the polls and media coverage of Donald Trump after he suggested placing a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. During the 2016 Presidential election, the press seemed to dramatize Donald Trump’s controversial remarks to keep the attention of its viewers.

blogtable1

Number of articles mentioning UKIP (orange) versus percentage who say they would vote for UKIP (blue). Source

blogtable2

Source: Weekly online media mentions of Trump vs. national primary polls.

 

 

 

 

 

While others factors play a significant role in whether a person votes and whom they vote for such as their party affiliations and the personal qualities of the candidates, these factors, whether the public is aware of it or not, are informed to a larger extent by the media coverage they are exposed to.

While Functionalism theory is not without criticism such as not giving enough regard to the function of the individual in society and being unable to explain social change, it remains a useful tool to demonstrate how inter-connected and inter-dependent people in a society are. The media has to adjust to the social changes being brought about by the need for the media to maximize profits while still serving its manifest function of keeping its electorate well informed, to enable them to make productive decisions with regard to their governance.

 

Working with MIFUMI to abolish the bride price in Uganda, written by Sarah Kulubya

By Rose Ireland, on 14 December 2016

Sarah Waliwo Kagale Kulubya, a first year LLB student at UCL, writes about her experience volunteering with MIFUMI – a women-led organisation based in Uganda that seeks to end domestic violence.

Indigenous customary law defines some social and domestic arrangements, namely marriage, in certain Ugandan tribes.[1] However, the rules of customary law perpetuate inequality in relationships between men and women. Women are severely dependent on their husbands; as a result, domestic violence and fear undermine the security and love that most young women seek in a marriage. In 2007, the MIFUMI organisation, an NGO that works to end domestic violence in Uganda, filed a petition in the Ugandan Constitutional Court to abolish the bride price, the price paid, in cattle, goats or money, by the groom to the bride’s parents in return for her hand in marriage.

One of the most abhorrent relics of the customary union is domestic violence. When one thinks of goods on the supermarket shelves they normally think of Cereal, Milk or Bread. In my native Uganda, women in customary unions were seen as goods on the shelves. They are valued like items in a supermarket, their value is based on their level of schooling, manners or housekeeping skills. This occurs because women are seen as objects in shops who can be easily bought and returned for the dowry the husband made for his wife. If the marriage is dissolved the man may ask for refund of his payment. This commercialisation of marriage dissuades women who feel trapped in abusive marriages from filing for divorce.

Last Summer, I came across a startling statistic by the MIFUMI organisation: “68% of women in Uganda have faced some form of domestic violence”. At the time I was looking for material for my Legal minds radio programme and I decided to provide an in-depth coverage of the MIFUMI organisation’s petition. Sections of my interactions and work for MIFUMI were serialised in Monitor Newspaper and on 99.3 Kfm in attempt to raise awareness of domestic violence to young adults. Successfully conducting the first-ever radio debate between Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a human rights lawyer, who represented MIFUMI and Principal State Attorney, Ms. Sarah Naigaga, allowed me to highlight the nuances of the legal arguments and the dichotomy between the civil liberties and the abolition of the bride price.

Prior to working with the MIFUMI organisation as their volunteer media affiliate I was unaware of the impact that customary unions had on rural women. My Legal Minds segment provided a forum for young and enlightened Ugandans to discuss the legality of the bride price. I achieved this through a series of debates, reports on the court case, interviews with the MIFUMI organisation representatives and Q&A session with the audience. The Supreme Court has outlawed bridge price refund and this has had positive effects: first, most of the beneficiaries of the Supreme Court in Kampala’s decision to outlaw the “bride price” refund have sought divorces and certain poorer families have rebelled against divorces that are based on domestic violence. Second, after hearing my Legal Mind segment, several teenage girls were empowered to stand up to their families about the “haggling” that characterises bride prices and seek refuge in MIFUMI’s domestic violence and advice shelters in Tororo.

I was empowered to hear that some girls were inspired to leave their marriages because they no longer felt the need to protect their poor families from having to refund the “payment” their husband made in return for her hand in marriage. I was also glad to hear the responses from some people who were happy to see greater visibility for an issue that has been largely stifled in the mainstream press. Similarly, the debate I chaired on the bride price ruling inspired several girls to visit the MIFUMI village.

One unexpected challenge I experienced was some of the criticisms and angry callers who were unhappy that I was working to dismantle a centuries old tradition. I learnt that Indigenous Customary law can regulate social relations, but it needs to be reconciled with changing sentiments. In addition, shirking the customary law is not whitewashing our history it is simply upholding civil liberties.

I also learnt that the customs and traditions that define tribal interactions are hard to reverse. MIFUMI is continuing to lobby the Ugandan government to abolish the “bride price” altogether, as many men have continued to seek refunds after the dissolution of marriage and tribal leaders have encouraged their subjects to ignore the supreme court’s ruling. My work with the MIFUMI organisation empowered me to question certain tribal customs that have promoted gender discrimination.

[1] It should be noted that, not all tribes in Uganda adhere to a strict application of the customary laws that define marriage, and there is a clear disparity between the way that customary unions are interpreted in rural areas and cities.

The Impact of LASPO, written by Ila Tyagi

By Rose Ireland, on 23 November 2016

Ila Tyagi, an LLM student in International Commercial Law at UCL, writes about the impact of LASPO and summarises the findings of a recent Amnesty International report addressing this issue.

The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was enacted with the objectives of reducing the government’s expenditure on legal spending during time of large fiscal deficits, providing legal aid to the people who need it most, reducing the cost of the legal aid scheme and providing the tax payer with better value for their money. However, it seems that the government did not fully consider the adverse impact of such drastic measures on vulnerable sections of the society. A recent report by Amnesty International[1] reveals that LASPO negatively impacts poor and other vulnerable people.

Amnesty’s report concludes that LASPO has created a “two-tiered” structure for access to justice in England & Wales. This means that it has moved towards limiting access to justice to those who can afford to pay legal fees. The report also mentions that LASPO has encouraged the formation of “advice deserts”[2] across England & Wales. This claim is well supported by the disappearance of many legal aid offices across the North of England.

LASPO has reduced the number of legal aid grants from 927,000 in 2012 to 497,000 in 2013, thus almost halving the amount of grants in just one year. Legal aid is now unavailable in family context if the applicant cannot show that they have suffered domestic abuse or there is a risk of child abuse.

LASPO also requires some people to represent themselves in court. This can be very daunting for teenagers and other people who have little knowledge about court processes and the law. People are usually unaware about how to properly fill out various sorts of legal forms and where to submit those forms. Therefore, it seems very harsh that they are expected to fully understand legal concepts and argue their case in courts by applying legal precedents. Not only can it be particularly intimidating for a layperson to argue in front of judges against barristers but it can also be very difficult for them to fully comprehend the judge’s elaborate legal reasoning. Representing themselves in court can be a serious challenge for vulnerable groups of people such as immigrants, refugees, teenagers, people with mental health problems and those with learning disabilities. A court case can be an extremely daunting and testing period in one’s life and going through it alone can feel very alienating and disheartening. It seems terribly unjust if a vulnerable person were to lose their case just because they did not have the legal knowledge or skills to fully understand the technicalities of the law that applies to their case.

Thus, LASPO creates an unfair legal system where access to justice is limited to those who can afford it. This does not fit well with the principles of a democratic society based on values such as equality. The government’s safety net program to grant legal aid to exceptionally vulnerable people is riddled with loopholes and is inadequate to satisfy the demands of all the people who could fall into that category.

The Amnesty Report proposes many solutions to the on-going legal aid crisis. A few of them are[3]:

  • It suggests that children and other young people should have access to legal aid irrespective of the legal issue at hand.
  • It also requests the government to provide better legal education so that individuals can understand and claim their rights effectively.
  • It asks the government to provide free legal advice to all cases of immigration where a significant human rights concern has been raised.
  • It demands that government conduct a review of LASPO immediately.

The government has promised to undertake a full-scale review of LASPO in 2018. However, this seems like a long time to wait for much needed reform.

[1] Amnesty International, “Cuts That Hurt: The Impact of Legal Aid Cuts in England on Access to Justice”, 2016, EUR 45/4936/2016, Pg 36 https://www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/aiuk_legal_aid_report.pdf

[2] Ibid Pg 21

[3] Ibid Pg 47

Contributor for the Centre for Access to Justice Blog

By Klara K M Holdstock, on 23 September 2016

About the Project

The UCL Centre for Access to Justice Blog is a new online forum through which students and staff that are involved in pro bono work and passionate about social justice can write and share blog posts reflecting on their experiences and/or discussing pressing access to justice issues that give rise to the need for pro bono work today. The aim of the Blog is to raise awareness of the importance of pro bono work and the major hurdles that currently limit access to justice for all. The Blog will also analyse the role of law in society and the ways in which law can be utilized as a tool for individual justice, as well as the barriers lawyers and individuals face in achieving this end.

The posts publishable on the UCL CAJ blog will broadly be divided into three categories:

1. Pro Bono Experience and Reflection: in these posts, you can share your volunteering experiences. How did beneficiaries respond to the pro bono project? Were there any individual cases that particularly stand out? Were there any unexpected challenges? What was the impact of the project? What did you learn about law and its role in society? Did your view before you volunteered for the project change after you finished the project?

2. Access to Justice: in these posts, you can explore issues surrounding access to justice, for example, changes to legal aid, the importance of pro bono work in different contexts and the multifarious impacts of limited access to justice.

3. Law and Society: these posts are broad in remit and can cover topics relating to justice and human rights as well as the place of law in society more generally. This can relate to the work of the CAJ, for example, analysing aspects of the criminal justice system, social welfare, the role of social mobility and diversity in the legal profession and human rights issues such as FGM. These posts need not be limited to these topics and we are always open to new ideas, provided that they relate to justice, human rights and the role of law in society.

Student Roles

The role of Student Contributors is to write a minimum of 2 – 3 blog posts per term. These blog posts should be between 500 – 700 words and fall into one of the three categories listed above.

This is a fantastic way for students to improve their written communication skills and have their written work published online. Students involved in UCL CAJ projects can reflect and share their experiences. Students can also explore current issues that interest them that are not necessarily covered in their university modules.

How to apply

This opportunity is open to all law students (LLB and LLM) and PhD candidates.

Before you write a post, first you need to register your interest. To register your interest in this role, please e-mail your name, student number and year of study to Rose Ireland, CAJ Fellow (rose.ireland@ucl.ac.uk).

Please note that we expect you to write your first blog post within one month of registering as a Student Contributor.