As we launch Against Persons Unknown: A case study on the use of law by self-organised groups, report authors Dr. Jacqueline Kinghan and Professor Lisa Vanhala give a snapshot into the momentous task of achieving justice facing a group of ex-sex workers from Hull, and how they eventually triumphed.

Public bodies are there to protect and serve – but what happens when they don’t? What happens when the decisions they make adversely affect those experiencing vulnerability?

This is the story of a group of women from Hull who fought against a decision that left them marginalised – and won. Their story is of specific people and places, but it speaks to a much wider challenge of how self-organised groups can take action and earn the respect they deserve – groups who do not have membership lists, organising committees or bank accounts. And, if you are a local authority, a law enforcer, an NGO, or a lawyer, this is about how you can be part of that story too.

A silent walking exhibition of the Absence of Evidence images in Hull City Centre on 14th July 2020 at 2pm, as part of a collaborative project between the artist duo Henry/Bragg and An Untold Story – Voices.

In November 2020, Hull City Council lifted an order that had for years placed street sex workers at greater risk of harm, and as part of a legal settlement it agreed to make significant changes to how it made decisions affecting sex workers. In recent years to that point, fourteen women had tragically died through causes related to lifelong and health-compromising disadvantages, and deaths of women found in alienated places were never properly investigated, despite being ‘incredibly suspicious’.

This positive change only happened because a group of ex-sex workers and their supporters from Hull, called An Untold Story-Voices, were galvanised into taking strategic litigation after they were repeatedly let down by the local authority who had failed to listen and comply with its public duties.

The order and why it was problematic

The order – known as a Section 222 – was issued against ‘Persons Unknown’ in the St Andrews ward of Hull. It prohibited activities relating to street prostitution including ‘loitering or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution’ and was enforceable by the police. The order left street sex workers significantly more at risk of danger by driving them to more isolated and dangerous areas, making them less likely to contact outreach services or police when in danger, and deterring them from working in groups for safety.

These disappointing outcomes meant the group was left with one final option to make their voices heard: litigation.

With the support of lawyers from Public Law Project, the group engaged with the Police and Crime Commissioner and the local authority to help them understand why the order was so damaging, and to persuade them not to renew it. But despite numerous meetings and some promising discussions, no positive action was taken. Worse still, the decision to renew the order then took place without the women – those actually affected by its impact – being consulted.

These disappointing outcomes meant the group was left with one final option to make their voices heard: litigation.

The litigation process sought to achieve two outcomes: an order quashing the decision to renew the original order; and declarations from the court that the Council had breached the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Overcoming barriers

While offering a route to justice if successful, legal action also presented further barriers that needed to be overcome. Not least because of the ‘persons unknown’ status designated to the group, as a reflection of the fact that the order related to a set of practices rather than individuals. The status rendered the group ineligible for legal aid, meaning that securing funding to bring the case was a further hurdle to navigate and could only be overcome with the support of an independent charitable foundation providing costs protection.

Despite the positive outcome, this success shines a stark light on the challenges marginalised groups must overcome to get justice

Additionally, it was important that the grassroots, democratic nature of the group continued to lie at the heart of the legal action, even though the claim had to be made by three named individuals. Crucially, all members of the group continued to have a seat at the table throughout the legal process, and the positive outcome of the case reflects this shared endeavour. The settlement process itself led to more positive and constructive relationships with a range of public service providers.

Despite the positive outcome, this success shines a stark light on the challenges marginalised groups must overcome to get justice, as well as the systemic challenges facing sex workers in the UK today: Why were those buying their services protected when they weren’t? Why was their safety a secondary concern to the public bodies there to protect them? Why were they not taken seriously in the first place?

A silent walking exhibition of the Absence of Evidence images in Hull City Centre on 14th July 2020 at 2pm, as part of a collaborative project between the artist duo Henry/Bragg and An Untold Story – Voices.

Litigation can be avoided when authorities make decisions lawfully in the first place. And they can do this by working constructively with groups who are affected by their decisions, by properly assessing the impact of their actions, and by complying with the Public Sector Equality Duty. And as we saw in this case, taking decisions that involve input from as many relevant parties as possible is absolutely essential.

Where next?

The fact that the case was brought by a self-organised group is both disheartening and encouraging: the structures designed to protect groups and individuals had failed in their public duty, and yet the tenacity of the group in overturning an unfair decision was remarkable.

So let their story inspire and enrage: for what can be achieved by those determined to have their voices heard and recognised; and for the injustices they experience in the process.

We hope this report will give this group the recognition they deserve for their admirable achievements. We also hope it will provide a valuable framework for navigating and preventing cases like this being brought in future. Take a look and see our emerging  lessons for groups and communities; public authorities; lawyers; and funders.



Dr. Jacqueline Kinghan is Senior Lecturer in Law and Social Justice at Newcastle Law School, UK. Her areas of expertise include access to justice, human rights, and legal education. Her research addresses the ways in which lawyers achieve social change.

Professor Lisa Vanhala is a Professor in Political Science at University College London. She is interested in the politics of climate change and the socio-legal study of human rights and equality issues. Her work also looks at the ways in which civil society organisations engage with the law to shape policy and social change.