Litigating for Social Change

International experts assess the value of strategic litigation as a tool for change.

Litigating for Social Change

Using the law

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. 

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

The videos below serve as a resource for funders and activists interested in strategic litigation.

Engaging Communities

Participants at the conference reflected that:

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.

A 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.

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?


Other resources on Litigating For Change

In addition to the expertise drawn from the conference, we have gathered further resources on litigating for change.

These draw on experiences from a range of international settings and across a series of issues.

They provide practical examples of how cases and campaigns have unfolded in the past, while also offering tools and resources for future action.

Strategic Litigation

Strategic Litigation examines how organisations around the world have used litigation to advance human rights and equality.

“If you’re a funder looking to bring about large-scale systemic social change, strategic litigation can be a very important tool…If you can change the law, then you change the way the whole system operates. That can mean major impact.” Martin O’Brien, SCI Director & former Senior Vice President at The Atlantic Philanthropies

The book, available to download here, was produced by Atlantic Philanthropies in 2018. It offers six case studies on litigation to:

  • Expand integrated schools in Northern Ireland
  • Deliver on anti-poverty reforms in Northern Ireland
  • Secure rights for transgender people in Ireland
  • Deliver on the promise of equal education in South Africa
  • Reform discriminatory policing practices in New York City
  • Provide U.S. Medicare coverage for skilled nursing and therapy to maintain a patient’s condition, regardless of the nature of illness, disability or injury

A Strategic Evaluation of Public Interest Litigation in South Africa

This study of Public interest litigation in South Africa identified key barriers to progress, as well as strategies to maximise success.

The report, first published in 2008 by The Atlantic Philanthropies, also examines three prominent examples of South African public interest litigation.

You can find the report here.

Strategic Litigation Impacts: Insights from Global Experience

Strategic human rights litigation can have a huge impact, but it can also be costly, slow, and risky.

Insights from Global Experience was produced by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

It takes an empirical look at the impacts of strategic litigation, based on interviews conducted in 11 diverse countries with hundreds of people.

Interviewees range from torture survivors, to judges and policymakers.

Insights from Global Experience is the final in a five-volume series studying strategic litigation impacts and can be found here.

The Law as a Tool for Social Justice

Just for Kids Law works to help children and young people overcome the difficulties they face, from problems at school and issues with immigration status, to trouble with the police.

It supports children and young people as they navigate their way through challenging times, combining youth advocacy, legal representation and youth opportunities support.

It produced this animation on how to use litigation to advance a campaign.

Catalysts for Collaboration

More and more countries are adopting legislation that threatens human rights online.

The Catalysts for Collaboration website encourages internet activists to collaborate across silos to use strategic litigation to push back against this trend.

The tool, available here, was developed by the executive director of the Digital Freedom Fund, Nani Jansen-Reventlow.

“When you collaborate, you are likely to be more effective, more creative and more resilient. In collaborative litigation, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and collaborators who work together on a case can help further the bigger cause of protecting and promoting the free flow of information online.” - Catalysts for Collaboration

Campaign to Reform Stop-and-Frisk in New York City

From the Streets to the Courts to City Hall: A Case Study of a Comprehensive Campaign to Reform Stop-and-Frisk in New York City explores how Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) ended stop-and-frisk abuses in New York City.

Stop-and-frisk involves police officers stopping individuals they deem suspicious, questioning them, and frequently frisking them for weapons and other contraband.

Out of 4.4 million police stops in New York city between 2004 and 2012, only 6 percent resulted in arrests. It peaked with 686,000 stops in 2011 and the practice disproportionately targeted communities of color.

 Read more here.

Hassan Vs NYPD

In a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories, the Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had secretly launched a vast surveillance programme targeting Muslim communities.

The short film available here tells the dramatic story of how 10 New Jersey plaintiffs — a group of imams, college students, business owners, school teachers, and a US Army sergeant — came together to challenge the NYPD in a critical fight for equal protection under the Constitution, and how they won.

Framework For Change

Impact – Law For Social Justice is a consultancy launched in autumn 2018 with a team of litigators, researchers, journalists and campaigners.

It offers practical, tailored, advice on how to use the law, in combination with other key tools, for social justice.

It aims to support and fortify the legal action of  its campaigns.

“Campaigns are inherently fluid and dynamic - particularly once they start having an impact. In our experience, the ones that work best are those where their components are kept under regular review, so tactics can be re-thought and re-prioritised, as the campaign develops.”

Read more here.