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Want to win your campaign? Get a lawyer!

This opinion piece is over 8 years old

​Tim Shayler, a pro-bono lawyer, reckons campaigning is far more effective if your cause is constructed around a legal framework

Most of my working life I’ve been helping others campaign for justice. I’m a lawyer but have spent most of my career with campaign groups such as War on Want, Amnesty and Greenpeace, supporting them in their various struggles for social justice.

When I moved back to Edinburgh from London five years ago I missed the cut and thrust of the big city if I’m honest. I realised I’d been pretty much constantly busy since I left law school, working on causes I felt passionate about.

So, to keep myself interested outwith my day job, I offered my services pro-bono to campaign groups who need legal help and I’ve hardly had a day’s rest since.

Tim Shayler
Tim Shayler

Everyone needs lawyers but unfortunately no one likes us: we’ve got the worst PR of any profession, made worse by the fact law societies do little to promote more positive PR.

Yet there are hundreds of lawyers like myself willing to give services for free as well as the whole Law Centre movement doing very positive work for those who need it most.

I’m based in Edinburgh but I’ve supported campaigners across the country from the Jam74 protesters opposing the M74 motorway extension and the Aberdeen bypass objectors to anti-bedroom tax groups and asylum seekers.

While pro-bono work doesn’t pay, it’s far more interesting and far more rewarding than the everyday case work lawyers have to sift through. Nowadays law is very, very legal: what I mean by that is that it’s paperwork driven.

You can spend weeks, if not months, in your office without seeing the light of day or getting out to visit a client. So pro-bono for me has reinvigorated my passion for law and social justice.

I’d encourage any campaigners to use their local law centre or get in touch with an empathetic lawyer to assist them from the outset of their campaign. Knowing the legal arguments can shape your strategy. That’s what I do when I work with groups. Sometimes they are not at all organised. But looking at it from a legal perspective shapes a framework which in turn forms a strategy.

For example, last year I helped a community group in Glenrothes take control of an urban wasteland when the council was refusing to turn it over. All the group knew was they wanted to regenerate the area to stop teenagers taking drugs and drinking.

So immediately I pitched the legal case around this: that the council had a duty of care to the residents to prevent drug misuse from happening.

Of course the council said it was a police matter but that was just blame shifting. The reality was it is the council’s responsibility. Like every other point of law, it just had to be convincingly argued, and, through a bit of battling, we won the case.

The most important aspect to remember is that laws are there to be challenged. They’ve often been created and survive decades without being tested. Until something goes wrong.

The entire environmental movement in this country could probably run a train through current planning laws. Many are archaic and unfit for purpose as we’ve seen from recent cases which have been challenged in the Court of Session.

But challenging takes cash and few have got the resources to take central or local government to court.

Don’t let that put you off. There are more and more lawyers offering their services for free or for reduced rates and law centres are championing social justice like never before.

So get campaigning – but first get a good lawyer.