International activists detail how legal tools can be used to build change


STRATEGIC litigation can be a powerful tool for change – but it must be allied to broader strategies.

That was the message from an international range of changemakers who discussed their experiences in a webinar co-hosted by SCI and the Atlantic Institute.

The event heard of campaigns to secure access to education in South Africa, to remove barriers to higher education for young migrants in the UK, plus a lengthy battle to advance transgender rights in the Republic of Ireland.

The global conversation featured:

  • Joey Hasson, co-founder of Equal Education, who for ten years has worked in South Africa and the UK with grassroots movements and political campaigns challenging systemic inequalities.
  • Dami Makinde, Co-CEO of We Belong, an organisation led by young people and which works with young migrants. Dami is also part of the SCI Mentoring Programme
  • Michael Farrell is a renowned civil rights activist who detailed the painstaking journey to secure transgender rights in the Lydia Foy case.

The event was moderated by Nicola Browne, an SCI Fellow and an Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity.

Joey Hasson detailed his role in campaigning on school standards in South Africa. He said 67% of all wealth is taken by 1% of the country’s population. This inequality was reflected in the education sector in South Africa where:

  • 93% of schools did not have a functioning library
  • 90% didn't have a computer centre
  • Almost half of schools were using pit latrine toilets

The fight to improve standards secured important gains but required widespread protests, lengthy campaigning, plus repeated legal challenges to secure change and then to ensure it was delivered on the ground.

Looking beyond this individual campaign, Joey highlighted three key elements to strategic litigation: issue selection, plaintiff selection and mobilisation.

The key features highlighted by Joey were central to the campaign outlined by Dami.

She explained how a change in the law by the UK government in 2011 restricted access to higher education for large numbers of young migrants, effectively excluding them from essential financial support.

She was one of those affected but she worked with others to support a legal challenge by a young woman excluded by the legislative change.

‘We knew that using the legal route was going to be the way to bring about social change. A few of us started to gather, to strategise and plan.’

She added: ‘We had to really consider the pros and cons of the litigation. We had to consider the positive outcomes. We had to consider the negative outcomes.’

The campaign created a structure that ensured close cooperation between lawyers and young migrants, as well as a dedicated communications and media strategy.

Even after winning the case, they faced further challenges in turning the legal reform into meaningful change in the lives of young migrants.

Michael Farrell gave an example of how litigation and NGO activism combined to secure an historic advance for transgender rights in the Republic of Ireland.

The case of Lydia Foy drew international attention as she fought a 22 year campaign to secure official recognition of her gender.

Michael, former senior solicitor for FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres), detailed how the organisation worked with other groups including the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI).

The campaign involved international action, media engagement, plus the lobbying of individual politicians to ensure they heard the experiences of transgender people and their families at first hand.

SCI Director Martin O’Brien told the event:  `I think sometimes using the law and litigation can get a bit of a bad press among activists. People say, nothing ever changes, it takes too long, it's too expensive.

`You saw today three quite remarkable stories of how change happen, not just for one person, but for large numbers of people.’

  • SCI has gathered resources on Litigating for Change. You can find them here.