Speaking Truth to Power in the courts

By Symon Hill
July 2, 2009

I have always been cautious about campaigns that make use of the legal system to promote social justice. Some activists resort to the courts too quickly, incurring huge costs for a struggle that could have been fought more effectively through political lobbying, media engagement or even direct action.

But I was delighted with the news this week that the government faced a legal challenge over its use of the Royal Bank of Scotland's investments (see http://www.wdm.org.uk/news/RBSlegalchallenge30062009.htm). This is not only because I think it might work, and gain public support following the banking crisis, but also for two more personal reasons.

Firstly, one of the groups bringing the action is People & Planet, an excellent student campaigning network. I was at their summer gathering to deliver media training when the story hit the headlines on Tuesday morning.

Secondly, the legal challenge takes the form of a judicial review. This is the same process that was used by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House in 2007-08 after the government pressurised the Serious Fraud Office into dropping a criminal investigation into BAE Systems' Saudi arms deals. I was privileged to be on the CAAT staff at the time and to play a part in that case.

That experience made me more confident that legal action can be a part of a successful campaign. Like other campaigning methods, it should be used with caution. When the High Court ruled in CAAT's favour, I saw the difference that such a ruling could make. When the Lords overturned this decision, I realised that although we had lost legally, we had in many ways won politically – in terms of wider public understanding, the effect on the government and the Saudi regime and a significant shift in the balance of the debate.

Activism is not about a choice between “respectable” methods (such as legal action) and “radical” ones (such as direct action). It is about doing what is most effective while behaving in an ethical way. I feel privileged to have worked with both CAAT and People & Planet because both groups combine strong principles with effective methods. It's sadly a rare combination.

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