Public Interest Lawyers is an extraordinary firm of solicitors, who must be – certainly should be – the pride of the legal profession. Through their tenacity, quality and sheer hard work – often from unpromising beginnings and in dark times for public funding – they have single-handedly been responsible for shining the torchlight of legal accountability in a range of new areas. The work continues unabated. No barrister or judge, here or in Strasbourg, could have come to deal with the sorts of human rights issues which PIL continues to raise, but for their principled and brave pursuit of justice.
PIL demonstrates three further important things. First, how positive and constructive can be the use of public funding in public law cases, in the public interest. It has been hard. But PIL and the LSC have forged a partnership which is second to none, as to the importance of the cases that are brought, their success and their wider impact. Secondly, PIL demonstrates that London does not always lead, and a London-centric focus is neither helpful nor fair. This firm, from what are still sometimes thought of as “the provinces”, is the nation’s leader for human rights application in challenging cases. That PIL is looking, as a Birmingham-based firm. How refreshing for it to be that way.Thirdly, let it not be forgotten that PIL was set up as a new firm of solicitors. This is not the further and continued work of an established firm, set up long ago when times were different. This was an innovation; a leap of faith in the rule of law. It was a boat launched in a sea of uncertainty, which has turned out to be the flagship for public law accountability under the rule of law.
Michael Fordham QC
Michael Fordham QC
Graduate Issues Judicial Review Over Poundland Work
Cait Reilly (22) has today issued landmark judicial review proceedings against the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. She is challenging the Government over its sector-based work academy scheme, under which she was required to carry out two weeks of unpaid labour at discount retailer Poundland.
Cait was told in October of an ‘opportunity’ to attend an Open Day about job vacancies that could lead to a week’s training and a job interview. When she attended the Open Day, she discovered that in fact the training would last up to six weeks, including a two-week, unpaid retail placement. She decided that this ‘opportunity’ was not for her – Cait, who wants to forge a career in museums, had been carrying out voluntary work at a Birmingham museum, and the Government scheme would have meant giving this up. In addition, Cait already had plenty of retail experience. When she expressed these concerns to her Jobcentre Plus adviser, she was told that her participation in the Scheme was "mandatory" and that if she did not comply, she would lose her benefits.
As the Sunday Times reported this week, Cait subsequently had to clean and stack shelves at the Poundland store in King’s Heath, Birmingham for two weeks. She claims that staff there "did not know what to do" with her and her fellow jobseekers when they reported for work on their first day. Despite the promise of a "guaranteed interview", this has not materialised.
The Legal Challenge
The Government has already admitted that Cait should not have had to carry out her sector-based work academy as a result of its failure to provide her with a notice setting out full information as to what the scheme required. However, in pre-action correspondence, it has denied that the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise) Regulations 2011 go beyond the Secretary of State’s powers under the Jobseeker’s Act 1995 and that sector-based work academies – which have been set up without reference to Parliament – are unlawful. She also argues that she has been subjected to "forced or compulsory labour" within the meaning of Article 4(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Cait is asking the High Court to quash the Regulations, which the Government has attempted to rely upon in setting up this and other schemes, such as the Community Action Programme under which the long-term unemployed can be required to undertake up to six months of unpaid work. The case therefore affects potentially thousands of current and future jobseekers.
It should be noted that those affected by the scheme are not those who are failing to fulfil their "jobseeking conditions" – only those who are complying with those conditions (including actively seeking work) are eligible for participation in the scheme. The Government has decided to introduce a plethora of "work for your benefit" schemes despite commissioning an expert report that told it in clear terms that such schemes do not have any positive effect on employment prospects.
Jim Duffy, Cait’s solicitor, said today:
"The Government has created – without Parliamentary authority – a complex array of schemes that allow Job Centres to force people into futile, unpaid labour for weeks or months at a time. By doing so, it is worsening rather than alleviating the cycle of unemployment that is such a significant barrier to addressing the economic crisis."
The Secretary of State now has 21 days to set out his defence to the challenge.
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