Centre for Access to Justice


Reflections on the relationship between the law and disadvantaged sectors of society

By Ayesha Sohanpal

Tent in Euston Square

5 December 2019

Ayesha is a 2nd year law student on the LLB course at UCL. Here she reflects on her experience of participating in the Homelessness case study as part of Laws Connections, UCL’s 2-week law course aimed at introducing first year undergraduates to the study of law and its role in addressing social challenges.

Navigating the busy thoroughfares of Euston and central London, where earnest appeals for donations from the city’s many homeless are impossible to ignore, before arriving in the quiet calm of the UCL law faculty’s home is a study in contrasts. Descending the glossy white stairs of Bentham House in anticipation of my first Laws Connections session, I could scarcely perceive the relationship between what appeared to be two discrete worlds, wholly disconnected and unperturbed by one another. Nor could I have realised the urgent relevancy of the ideas I would soon encounter over the next two weeks in potentially transforming the realities of the bustling streets I had just exited. If a law degree seemed a daunting proposition even for those of us that elected to study it, the difficulties in accessing and understanding the law for those who might never cross Bentham House’s threshold became more salient by comparison. While the idealised rhetoric of the law as ultimate safeguard and remedy against injustice found ample justification throughout this program, for me it raised important questions about the capacity and efficacy of legal institutions to fulfil their duties to all of those it claims to serve, particularly those most in need of its protections. As a law student with aspirations to enter the legal profession, this program also gave cause to reflect upon the role of both practitioners and students in narrowing the gap between the law’s stated ideals and the reality of its implementation.

Before the start of our introductory law program, students were invited to select the topic that would provide the background setting for the case studies that would be our initial foray into the study of law. Having lived in cities known for their sizeable homeless populations and curious to explore the capacity of the law to address and possibly ameliorate complex societal issues, I chose the topic of homelessness for my case study. Although the seriousness of this topic had prepared me for the potential that some of what we would learn would be distressing, observing that the legal rights designed to protect society’s most vulnerable members were not always applied or even discernible to those most in need of its succour was a disheartening reality check. While attempting to parse the complex language of the law was challenging from the start, as the case study progressed it became increasingly apparent that the same difficulties experienced by students in understanding what the law said was both reflected and then outweighed by the challenges facing marginalised groups in navigating the legal system. Every session further illustrated the inaccessibility of legal information and relief to ordinary members of the public, and revealed the long-term social costs resulting from this knowledge deficit, with the increased risk of homelessness chief amongst these costs. Witnessing the titular character in the film screening of I Daniel Blake be routinely rebuffed and rerouted through a labyrinthine social welfare system with seemingly no recourse from the very law that is posited as his protection demonstrated quite clearly that any services/provisions to aid the vulnerable would be rendered impotent without the inclusion of and deferral to legal rights and safeguards. The harm caused by the inaccessibility of legal information and relief was highlighted from the very first legal problem that students were asked to solve. In our fictional case, Samuel a 17-year-old soon-to-be care leaver was informed by the local authority of his imminent homelessness without any offer of legal advice/respite. He subsequently committed criminal damage such was his frustration at his enforced helplessness. Though his age, status and educational plans entitled him to a duty of care from the state, both in securing accommodation and support for his future plans, it was evident that the rights owed to Samuel would remain theoretical as long as his knowledge of and access to these rights remained out of his reach.

Yet while the awareness of legal rights is indispensable for those that seek its protections, access to information alone may be insufficient in securing these rights when lacking the social capital to navigate the legal system singlehandedly. If the impenetrability and nuances of legal language are inevitable by-products of the complicated, multifarious scenarios with which the law must contend and address, then the capacity of the law to offer respite from social ills necessitates its translation into clear, comprehensible language understood by all parties involved. For me this is where the importance of the role played by the legal profession as intermediaries between the state and the citizen is at its clearest. This case study’s invitation to rethink the duties of lawyers advocating for vulnerable members of society as not just professionals in the employ of these clients but as direct representatives of individuals whose voices would otherwise go unheard has in turn reshaped my thinking about the role played by the client themselves. The complexity of the law and the specific education of its practitioners can make it all too easy to unwittingly adopt a paternalistic perspective which positions ordinary (and particularly young) people as passive subjects for whom legal decisions are made as opposed to social actors whose views must not be discounted in the decision-making process. Yet the very act of conferring rights upon individuals that they can theoretically call upon to remedy their problem implicitly grants that same individual a degree of agency that will never be fully realised without active participation in the legal systems and processes that have the power to shape the trajectory of their lives. The potential deficiencies in the equation between legal professionals and those they serve are encapsulated in our first law problem involving Samuel. The conspicuous lack of invested advocates (legal and otherwise) in his case, combined with the local authority’s dismissal of his legal right to voice his say about his all aspects of his future, not only exacerbated the difficulties of his situation but also raised important questions about the capacity and efficacy of the law to offer any respite to the most vulnerable extending beyond the lofty principles that can seem to reside in the pages of law books alone.

The realisation that accessing legal remedies is just one amongst the many challenges faced by disadvantaged sectors of society has been a recurring theme throughout this case study. It is a reminder that the law must never be divorced from the social context in which it is embedded or from the reality of the lives to which it must be held beholden if its purported ideals are ever to be truly realised. The inaccessibility of the law to those it governs and the reality that the rights it theoretically affords often goes unexercised by those it addresses is not inevitable. For me, the mind mapping exercise in which students were encouraged to envision the actors facilitating the dispensation of justice and the relations between them illustrated this most powerfully. While the victims of injustice are but one of many actors involved in any legal problem, it is clear that centralising and expanding the victim’s role in exercising their rights is impossible to achieve without access to legal information and respite facilitated in part by vested advocates. Realising that students of law are also vital stakeholders in widening access to justice, both now in the opportunities for pro bono work and in our future professional lives, has served as a powerful clarion call of the importance of our legal education and of the causes, ideals and individuals that it can and must serve. On a personal note, it has been an important lesson and reminder of why I am at university, and a source of motivation and inspiration for how best to direct my energies both at UCL and beyond.