Launch of the PILS Project

Launch of the PILS Project

October 2010


On October 7 2010, Belfast’s Waterfront Hall held the launch of the PILS Project, an independent organisation seeking to advance human rights and equality in Northern Ireland through public interest litigation. The event hosted Mr Justice Séamus Treacy as speaker.

The PILS Project is unique in Northern Ireland in its intention to focus on strategic litigation as a vehicle for social change. Public interest litigation, or PIL, refers to cases that are taken in the interests of minority or disadvantaged groups, or the broader public. Unlike most other civil cases, PIL cases have the capacity to affect more than those directly involved in the case. They can challenge or clarify the policies, procedures and decisions of public authorities, or provoke the political system into responding to a problem it has hitherto ignored. PIL is distinctive in its ability to provide access to justice to those most in need of it and yet who find themselves furthest from it.

The Project has its roots within the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) who first conceived the concept of a dedicated public interest organisation for Northern Ireland. Following the publication of research carried out by Deloitte, which found an unmet need in Northern Ireland for such an organisation, CAJ submitted the funding proposal to The Atlantic Philanthropies on which the PILS Project is now based.

The organisation has the capacity to provide financial and/or legal support to public interest cases identified by members of its Stakeholder Forum. The Forum is open to all non-governmental, non party-political organisations who fulfil a basic number of criteria, and aims to enhance awareness and information sharing on public interest litigation between its members. All potential cases will be considered for support by the PILS Project Board of Trustees against a pre-defined set of criteria.

The PILS Project also aims to work with the legal profession to increase levels of pro bono activity in Northern Ireland, and to positively influence the work of statutory bodies that have a duty to advance human rights and equality or promote access to justice. It also seeks to tackle existing barriers to public interest litigation through the organisation of conferences and seminars, production of publications and other non-litigation based activities.

Chair of the PILS Project Board is Paul Mageean, Solicitor and Director of the Graduate School of Professional Legal Education at the University of Ulster. The Board itself consists of Fiona Doherty BL, Gerry Hyland, Solicitor, Sam Pollock, Chief Executive of the Office of the Police Ombudsman and Geoff Budlender, South African Advocate and former Director of the Legal Resources Centre. The staff team includes a Project Manager and Solicitor, Development Office and a Finance Officer.

The launch of the PILS Project is timely in the context of the current economic climate. With the juxtaposition of tightened government budgets against widening patterns of economic disadvantage, it is inevitably the poorest and most disadvantaged who will suffer most.  The PILS Project hopes to open up the possibility of litigation-based challenges and legal remedies to, and on behalf of, those individuals and groups. It also seeks to bridge the gap in some small way between the legal system and those it should protect by utilising human rights and equality laws in a practical way.

Previous PIL cases in Northern Ireland taken by other organisations have resulted in the right to transport to school during respite care for a severely disabled young person; a successful challenge to the decision to continue to detain a mental health patient in hospital which was based largely on a lack of adequate suitable community accommodation; and a successful challenge to a Health and Social Services Trust’s decision to move an elderly man to a less expensive residential care home because neither he or his only relative could afford to pay the third party top up charge of £20 per week. While each of these cases were taken on behalf of an individual, they have all had an impact on others facing similar circumstances.

The launch drew a large and diverse audience, indicating the widespread level of interest in the PILS Project and the work it hopes to undertake. Mr. Justice Treacy addressed a range of legal professionals, NGOs, academics and representatives of statutory bodies, and provided a very insightful overview of PIL type cases illustrating perfectly how litigation can have wide reaching impact far beyond the facts and circumstances of a particular case.

The PILS Project would like to thank everyone who attended the launch.