As the year draws to a close, Shameem Ahmad reflects on trends in public law and policy, as well as the Public Law Project’s work.

We at PLP believe that the state has tremendous power for good. It is, therefore, painful to reflect on this year and be reminded that the Government has wasted opportunity after opportunity to use its power well. No policy exemplifies this more than the Prime Minister’s pledge to “Stop the Boats”.

First, the Government continued to pursue the Bill of Rights, which would have reduced rights of victims of torture, before finally shelving it. Then, there was the Illegal Migration Act, much of which is not yet in force – long may that continue. The very day after the Government claimed that the Bibby Stockholm was “fit-for-purpose and functional” legionnaires disease was detected onboard. No sooner was the Rwanda policy struck down by a robust and unanimous Supreme Court decision, a dangerous “emergency” bill was introduced.

I was struck in my first few months at PLP by the relentless energy of the team, working with our partners to counter this barrage and continuing to reimagine and work towards a fair and humane immigration system.

Nonetheless, the Government’s ill-conceived endeavours have put increasing pressure on the public purse, abused parliamentary time and strained and undermined our courts. These measures cause harm and suffering, and they are underpinned by an unspoken premise: that according to government not all humans have human rights.

By contrast, our clients have been forging new ground, ensuring more and more people can access public services fairly. “K” overturned three decisions by the Department of Work and Pensions to ensure that the Department must exercise greater discretion on debt recovery. We helped another client to widen the scope of legal aid to enable foster parents and prospective adoptive parents of children with special education needs to access non-means tested legal aid for SEND tribunal appeals. Meanwhile, our research participants shone a light on the significant harm caused by GPS tagging of migrants. Daniel Jwanczuk, our client, was successful in the Court of Appeal, where the court found the DWP had acted unlawfully in excluding the spouse of a person who could not work due to a lifelong disability from receiving bereavement support payments.

The PLP team also knows that to ensure individuals can hold power to account, we need to shape the system itself. To this end we have taken the first steps in bringing a case against the Lord Chancellor. It is our belief, based on robust evidence collated by our research team and partner organisations, that the availability of legal aid for immigration in England and Wales is so poor that he is in breach of his duty to provide access to justice.

As Government use of AI systems has rapidly expanded, our research and policy work has focused on embedding principles of fairness and transparency where public authorities use technology. Our Tracking Automated Government register exposes over 50 automated decision-making algorithms, identified by PLP and our partners through painstaking investigations and Freedom of Information requests. Our work has attracted a great deal of media attention and from fellow researchers in North America. We are pushing for the UK Government to pay attention to it, too.

Our events and training continue to play a vital role. In addition to executing our groundbreaking 20th Annual Conference, we have been privileged to host thought leaders throughout the year across a range of topics: judicial review, strategic litigation, the EU, research for impact, and migration, to name a few. They shared their knowledge generously, strengthening understanding of public law in the sector.

In 2023 we saw Government continue to reject transparency, undermine fundamental rights, and insulate itself from scrutiny. For 2024, the stakes feel high.

However, we remain steadfast in our belief that the state is capable of tremendous good. PLP will continue to use its expertise to ensure that potential is fulfilled. We remain ready to work with Government, any government, constructively. Where authorities fall short of basic public law principles, though, we will rightly hold them to account through the courts.

A trustee recently reminded me of the James Baldwin quote: Hope is invented every day. The stakes are indeed high next year, but we are looking forward to the many opportunities for us, together with our clients, partners and supporters, to continue to craft the society that we want to live in.

Wishing you and yours the very best for 2024,

Shameem Ahmad