Compact in action: The Public Law Project

Helps people to challenge decisions by public bodies, including Compact-related disputes.

When Southall Black Sisters, which supports black and minority ethnic women who have suffered from domestic violence, began its successful High Court battle against Ealing Council in July, it had in its corner the free legal services of an organisation well versed in Compact breaches.

The Public Law Project was set up in 1990 to help the poor use public law to challenge decisions by powerful public bodies. About a third of its cases involve the Compact. This is a voluntary agreement, but a High Court judge said last year that it was "more than a wish list"; it was, he said, "a commitment of intent".

For charities, the cost of mounting a legal challenge can be prohibitive. The PLP helps by representing individual service users that are affected by breaches and who can claim legal aid.

PLP solicitor Louise Whitfield says there is a legitimate expectation that signatories of a Compact should abide by its codes. "We usually ask charities if there is a local Compact, how useful it is and if they have tried it," she says. "We then look at the Compact and see what can be done to put matters right."

If the dispute centres on the Compact, charities are referred to the Compact advocacy programme run by the NCVO and Compact Voice. But if there has been a broader abuse of public law, the PLP intervenes.

In the case of Southall Black Sisters, the PLP helped two service users in a judicial review against Ealing Council's decision to end its £100,000 grant.

The council wanted to fund a service for all women across the London borough. The service users argued the council had failed to follow race relations guidance and were also prepared to argue that it had neglected its Compact duty to consider the adverse impact of the funding cut on the BME community. But the case ended prematurely when the council withdrew its decision and agreed to start again.

Whitfield says the fact that both the council and the Equality and Human Rights Commission had signed Compact agreements helped strengthen the case.

Whitfield sits on the Commission for the Compact working party that is reviewing the Compact's legal status. She supports giving the agreement stronger powers but says greater thought must be given to what the powers should entail.

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