It’s been a topsy turvy few weeks for the Rightful Lives exhibition. The constant, daily attacks by just one person have been incredibly wearing but this has been more than compensated by people’s contributions that arrive on a daily basis. I just want to burst into silly song when I see how people, without ego and fanfare, step up to the plate and deliver exhibits of breathtaking creativity. I’ve also realised that I was right to step down from the curating team. Frankly, I’m crap at the diplomacy stuff and it’s been a relief to just get on with the day to day stuff of putting the exhibition together.
A few days after my original blog about the exhibition we were contacted by Dr Oliver Lewis, a lawyer from Doughty Street Chambers. Oliver has human rights running through his veins and he was proposing setting up a meeting between families, lawyers and other interested parties and allies to look at ways in which the legal world could help people trapped in the ATU scandal. In a way, it was Oliver and the legal world’s contribution to the exhibition.
Yesterday was the day of the meeting and by crikey, it was the perfect exhibit. It was highly creative and it brought together an incredibly diverse group of people in a way that I’ve only experienced once before and that was with Justice for LB.
There were about 60 people in the room. A large chunk of family members who have a son/daughter/sibling currently in an ATU. There were several people with learning disabilities present, two of whom have experienced life in an ATU first hand. The brilliant Kate Mercer arrived. Five minutes in Kate’s company and you truly believe advocates can change the world. There were people from the CQC, the EHRC, Respond & Dimensions present. All equal. All sharing their experiences and wisdom to achieve something good.
And finally there were ten lawyers there. I fucking love lawyers, especially those who work in human rights and mental capacity. The combination of phenomenal professional expertise, total humility, great humour and absolute selflessness grabs my soul everytime. On a personal level an extra emotional punch was carried in that Aswini was there, Steven’s barrister from his court case. I hadn’t seen her since we said goodbye the day the judgment was handed down seven years ago. I couldn’t help sharing with the group that Steven has a photo album with a section called “People who saved Steven’s life” and Aswini’s photo is one of the main pictures in that section. I must admit I neglected my duties as facilitator of one of the exercises as Aswini and I spent half an hour catching up. It was lovely.
The meeting agreed to Chatham House rules which means I can’t share any individual stories here. However, there was one theme that came up on three occasions where the simplicity of the lawyers’ suggested solutions had me reeling. Basically, people shared stories of very common human rights abuses that probably occur in most ATUs. Stupid practices and rules that are service led and trample all over the person’s human rights, if they’re even considered at all. You know the sort of thing I’m getting it. Anyone who followed George Julian’s incredible live tweeting of the recent inquests will remember the utterly bleak life Danny Tozer lived in the Mencap facility before his death. I don’t think the concept of Danny’s human rights figured on the radar of any of the decision makers in that godawful place. Those sort of stories were replicated by family members yesterday. Anyway, the lawyers’ responses to three of these stories was that more often than not, a single letter from a solicitor resolves the issue by simply asking the question how are X’s human rights upheld by these practices. A letter is also a shot across the bow as well. And it sends a meta message – you are being scrutinized. We are on to you.
I thought this was fabulous and I could see that several other attendees felt the same way. No grand gestures. No costly, time consuming court cases. We were expecting discussions around group actions against specific providers or consistently offending local authorities and in fairness, both those courses of action are still on the table. But the idea that one single letter could change everything floored me. It’s a perfect work of art.
I’ve had one reservation about the meeting since Oliver first suggested it and it has niggled away since and remained during and after the meeting. We have been very clear since day one that Rightful Lives is not a campaign. Rightful Lives actually only exists as the name of the exhibition. We have to be very careful that we don’t give people false expectations about what we can achieve and have to continually remind where the boundaries lie. We are a very small group with absolutely no resources and any work for the exhibition has to be fitted around caring, work and other responsibilities. It was because of our limitations that the idea of an exhibition appealed. Basically, we have tried to say from the outset – “Here is a space. Please use that space for your creative expression” and our responsibility goes no further than that. This was challenged at one point during the meeting. There had been discussion around funding for legal action and one of the delegates said: “What you need to do is set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for this”. Obviously that’s a great idea but we had to nip in quick to say that the Rightful Lives team couldn’t possibly take on the responsibility of such a major project. So, I just want to apologize if the fact that exhibition exists sets up false hope in people but we have to be honest about our capabilities.
I don’t want to end on that note after such a positive experience. To be part of such a collective, creative encounter will stay with me for a very long time.
And if Channel 5 ever run a special Barrister’s Blind Date, put me down as a contestant. Or as Sarah Brightman may have sang – “I lost my heart to a human rights lawyer….”