Why campaigning charities need legal teams

I’m a lawyer who used to be a charity campaigner. One reason I became a lawyer is because as a campaigner I was worried I was banging on about the law without having the first idea what I was talking about. Since I’ve become a lawyer I’ve confirmed I was right to be worried about this. This post is a rallying call to try to persuade more campaigning charities to invest in their own legal teams to cure the legal deficit I see far too often within campaigning.

I’m not talking about lawyers who specialise in ‘charity law’ – i.e. the law governing the operation of charities. I’m talking about ‘public lawyers’ – people who understand the law governing the relationship between the state and society, which is what most charity campaigns are about. Charity lawyers of the kind I’m discussing can either work solely on legal campaigning issues or (more typically) be part of an advice and casework team with campaigning as only one part of their workload.

Here are three ways having a legal team can help campaigning charities:

  1. Create smarter campaigning ‘asks’. A little part of me dies every time I see a charity campaigning report which highlights an important issue but has hopeless recommendations for legal ‘cures’. Even worse is when a report comes out which completely misses existing legal duties – when the problem actually isn’t the absence of law, it’s that the law is being ignored. Lawyers can make sure that your campaign materials are legally watertight.
  2. Make your Bill work credible. I was and remain astounded that most charities who lobby to amend legislation in Parliament do so without proper legal advice on their amendments. In my experience many (most) amendments to Bills are drafted by people who don’t have any legal qualification or experience. Rather frighteningly, some of them even become law (I plead guilty). If you have a lawyer in your campaigns team you can make sure your Bill amendments are legally sound, which makes them more likely both to be accepted and then to work if they become law.
  3. Intervene in cases – or bring them yourself. In our legal system, case law matters. There are now a large number of charities who have legal units who get involved in casework – Mind is a great example. Bringing a judicial review claim as a charity or intervening in an existing case can be the most effective way to achieve a campaigning objective. Lawyers can help you work out if this is right in relation to the particular issue you are campaigning on and can then actually do it for you if so.

Campaigning is still a relatively new aspect of mainstream charity work – and still a controversial one (see the notorious recent ‘knitting’ remarks of the new voluntary sector Minister). When I joined the National Autistic Society in 2001 I was the first member of staff with either ‘policy’ or ‘campaigns’ in their job title. Given it is a new discipline there is room for charity campaigning to evolve – and in my view it needs to evolve a more informed legal aspect, fast.

Why do charities need their own legal staff – can’t they just get legal expertise from external lawyers? Well, yes – to an extent. There are numerous solicitors and barristers who provide pro bono (free) and paid advice and support to charities. This can work really well when there is a specific legal issue – for example, getting a formal opinion from a QC on a particular legal question that comes up in the passage of a Bill through Parliament or intervening in a particular case.

However – with the decimation of legal aid it will become harder to find expert lawyers who are willing and able to provide free advice to charities. Corporate lawyers will no doubt remain willing to offer pro bono support – but they are unlikely to have the specialist knowledge and expertise that charities need in their particular policy areas. Finally, getting in outside advice reduces the chances of building up legal expertise within a charities’ own campaign team.

So I’m firmly of the view that charities need to put some of their funding for campaigning towards recruiting in-house lawyers to work with their campaigns teams. Thoughts on this and examples of where this has worked – or not – welcome in the comments below.