X Close

The UCL Centre for Access to Justice

Home

Pro Bono Blog

Menu

Archive for the 'Access to Justice' Category

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

RoseIreland20 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.

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

RoseIreland10 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

RoseIreland3 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

RoseIreland25 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.

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

RoseIreland14 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

RoseIreland23 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