A grassroots renting organisation is facing a legal threat that could have a huge impact on its ability to operate.
Acorn, which primarily helps tenants receive justice across the country, is currently being sued. Nick Ballard, head organiser of Acorn, told The Canary that Acorn has had quotes as high as half a million pounds in its search for legal representation, and has similarly been unable to secure pro bono representation.
We’re an organisation of many low income people, mainly tenants. We don’t have the financial resources to fight like this.
This could bankrupt us or cause us really really serious problems. It’s really illustrating how if you don’t have money in this country, you find it much harder to access the legal system.
Since its founding in Bristol in 2014, Acorn has operated as a community union campaigning for “good housing, good jobs and good public services”. It now has a presence in nearly 30 cities across the UK.
Acorn has set up protests to help students claim rent back while they weren’t living in student halls, including one with Zarah Sultana. It has further stepped in to help tenants who couldn’t afford to pay rent during the pandemic.
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“Real hit for the left”
Ballard said the financial impact of the legal challenge could force Acorn to lay off staff, reducing its presence across the country.
We’ve really put renting organisers on the map – we’re really the only organisation of renters on a national level.
The approach that we have of door knocking, very grass roots approach – not many other people are really doing that. We’ve grown really really quickly and we’ve got a lot of ambition for where we want to be.
If this takes us out it will be a real hit for the left, especially the non-institutional left. We’ve always been deliberately politically independent. Whatever you think of the Labour party, I think most people would agree that we need strong independent organising outside that.
While it still hopes to find pro bono support, Acorn is currently fundraising to help pay legal costs and develop a fund for any future legal challenges.
Accessing the legal system
The Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force into 2013 and was responsible for key spending cuts. It decreased the amount of legal aid available in several areas, particularly immigration, family law, housing, employment, and welfare benefits.
After the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) conducted a 2018 report into LASPO’s impact, chief exec Rebecca Hilsenrath said:
For people pursuing claims without legal aid, we found that the high costs linked to solicitors, specialist advice, providing necessary evidence and court fees all presented significant barriers and caused many to attempt to pursue their case on their own.
This resulted in David versus Goliath scenarios in employment cases, and potentially unjust or inappropriate outcomes in family law, when people had to represent themselves and were unable to present their case effectively.
Challenges for the left
Ballard told The Canary:
Political agendas change and we need this strong independent voice that’s going to have, at its heart, the interests of our communities and our members.
If we continue we’re only going to get bigger and stronger and tackle more issues – housing, benefits, climate change. We’re an organisation that can tackle lots of issues that’s being pushed out by lack of money to pay for lawyers – that would be a real disaster for left wing grassroots organisations.
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- See Acorn’s fundraising page here
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