Expert view: Harnessing the power of the law

Campaigning is sometimes seen as a questionable thing for charities to do because activities such as handing out leaflets to shoppers and passers-by risk breaking the law.

But a key trend in campaigning by the sector seems to be emerging: charities are no longer seeing the law as a restraint to be broken, but as a powerful tool to uphold accountability and to achieve campaign objectives.

Nearly 15 years ago, the World Development Movement took the Government to court to challenge the legality of the use of the international aid budget. It was the first legal challenge to influence international development policy.

It proved to be a key moment in the debate about British aid being given exclusively for the purpose of relieving poverty and promoting the welfare of poor people internationally, rather than advancing UK commercial interests. Despite the success of that challenge, in the years that followed, the example of the WDM stood in relative isolation.

In contrast, many campaigning organisations concentrated on influencing government by building up public support and recruiting celebrity endorsement.

In the past year, however, there seems to be a renewed readiness to harness the power of the law to achieve campaign objectives. At the start of 2007, Greenpeace, instead of finding itself in the dock again, challenged the integrity and legality of the Government's handling of the energy consultation.

Later in the year, the Campaign against Arms Trade and The Corner House went to court seeking a judicial review of the right of the Government to discontinue the Serious Fraud Office investigation into arms sales to Saudia Arabia.

And there is the challenge by Animal Defenders International to the limitations imposed on charities to advertise, which the House of Lords will rule on later this year.

It is not obvious what the reasons are for this change of thinking. It may be that a rights-based approach is increasingly a lens through which we view the world and is starting to influence both what we do and how we do it.

But the way charities are starting to use the law to advance public benefit appears to be sector-wide in scope and one that charities are prepared to use.

It is in the light of this and other trends, most notably the way in which political engagement is declining as charitable campaigning is increasing, that the effectiveness of the Charity Commission's forthcoming guidelines on campaigning will need to be assessed.

- Ian Leggett is director of People & Planet

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