Litigating for Social Change


Strategic litigation can be a powerful tool for positive social change.

A major conference on the issue held in Belfast brought together around 200 NGO’s, community activists, litigators, academics and funders from 11 different countries. 

The event 'Litigating for Social Change'  was was organised by SCI, Law Centre NI and The Atlantic Philanthropies in Belfast in October 2016.

The international conference took stock of the progress made and gathered important lessons.

The videos below summarise key issues raised at the event and serve as a resource for funders and activists interested in strategic litigation.

Engaging Communities

Participants at the conference reflected that:

A strategic litigator:

  • Defends space within which social movements can operate, and expands that space.
  • Responds to, and engages with social movements, to ensure that litigation supports social change.
  • Provides a voice for those who generally aren’t heard or considered.
  • Is authentic, collaborative and humble.
  • Understands his/her privilege and is committed to partnership.

Strategic litigation needs to be grounded in communities:

  • Solidarity between lawyers and activists results in effective and sustained social change.
  • It is Important to understand the clients’ community and to reflect the reality of their lives in litigation.
  • Durable change comes from social movements led by those who are most affected by the injustice itself.
  • Legal teams must reflect the demographics of the community and case.

Maximising and Measuring Impact

Participants at the conference reflected that:

Think broadly about impact:

  • Priorities for a case should be set by where you can have the most impact.
  • Frame your case in the most effective terms.
  • Use litigation as one of many tools.
  • A court decision is not self-implementing.
  • Inform and train government officials, law enforcement, and communities after a change in the law is made.
  • Community has a role in framing and winning litigation.
  • Communication strategies widen impact.
  • Impact is subject to unpredictable and random barriers.
  • Winning litigation can be a double-edged sword, as the state can respond in unexpected ways.

Impact beyond the courtroom:

  • Encourages Courts to recognise human rights obligations and standards.
  • Gets government to explain an absurd position on the record.
  • Opens up political space.
  • Impacts public discourse.
  • Educates and engages media.
  • Enhances governmental accountability.
  • Changes behaviours and moves narratives.
  • Win or lose, results in disclosure and admittances by state actors can strengthen future challenges.

Why Fund Strategic Litigation?

In addition to the content from the conference, it may also be of benefit to watch “Step into the Fights: Philanthropy’s Role in Legal Advocacy”: