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Shaping government policy

Shaping government policy


Ministers must consider the cost of defending poor decisions, Katy Watts tells Matthew Rogers

‘We have yet to see the worst effects of the government’s “hostile environment” policy towards migrants,’ says Katy Watts, a former Justice First Fellow, and now solicitor, at the Public Law Project. ‘Restrictions on the right to health care, support, and housing have already created terrible hardship for many people, including children.’

The situation could have worsened for migrants last year had the Supreme Court not ruled the Ministry of Justice’s proposed residence test, which would have restricted civil legal aid only to persons who were lawfully resident in the UK for a continuous period of at least 12 months, as unlawful on the basis that it was ultra vires – a judicial review brought by PLP.

Watts, who began her fellowship in 2014, recalls the moment the seven justices decided against the government, halfway through a two-day hearing as one of the highlights of her time at PLP so far.

Other highlights have come as a duty scheme volunteer for the Asylum Support Appeals Project, which gives free legal representation and advice to asylum seekers to protect their rights to housing and food. ‘The difference that can be made by representing an individual in an appeal that will decide their entitlement to the most basic support is both a huge responsibility and incredibly rewarding,’ says Watts.

However, failing to secure accommodation and support for vulnerable appellants in the Asylum Support Tribunal has proved to be the most difficult experience of Watts’ time at PLP. ‘It is very hard to explain to a vulnerable person that the tribunal has found that they are not entitled to support and that they will be homeless that night.’

While confessing to loving all aspects of her job, Watts says the role can be challenging, especially when trying to obtain legal aid. 'PLP has done incredible work to mitigate the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, but it remains the case that far fewer people are able to access legal advice and representation.’

Watts studied politics at university and says she always wanted to do something that ‘would allow me to make a difference’.

‘I started out in the NGO/charity sector, but realised that the law is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to achieve both results for individuals and wider systemic change,’ she says.

Watt’s time at PLP has allowed her to just do that. Each fellow must engage in an access to justice project that delivers immediate benefits to those in legal need.

‘The aim of my project was to assist men with historic convictions for consensual gay sex offences to get them removed from their records. Since the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 came into force there has been provision for men to apply for these convictions to be deleted [the disregard process], but take-up of the scheme was concerningly low.’

This year the government introduced a statutory pardon for the living in cases where offences have been deleted through the disregard process, but Watts says the work on her project had revealed a further problem. ‘Not all repealed offences had been included within the scheme so I am now working on trying to widen the scheme to include those offences.’

The public purse

Lord Bingham once alluded to judicial reviews as the core of the rule of law principle, but the process can prove expensive and time consuming. Watts believes ministers should always consider the cost to the public purse before defending a poor decision or policy through the courts.

‘While I was delighted that the government has now agreed to fund abortions for Northern Irish women who travel to the UK, I was appalled that the Department of Health defended that case all the way to the Supreme Court, only for the government to agree to the funding a few weeks later.’

Watts is excited by the challenges ahead. ‘I have still got a lot to learn, but I am enjoying starting to develop my own case load. I am incredibly lucky to work at PLP, where I have the space to develop my own ideas as well as work on some of the most interesting public law cases around.’

Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal