Only connect: Elizabeth Prochaska

The newly appointed Chair of the Public Law Project on isolation, teamwork and why institutions are invaluable in effecting systemic legal change. Interview by Isabel Buchanan


Our desire to counter isolation with connection is particularly pressing in April 2020. As Covid-19 flashes across the planet, many have been forced to retreat from bustling workplaces into cramped domestic ones. Some – the sick, the elderly, those who live alone – are denied almost all human contact. Others – parents of the young, partners, flatmates – are denied any variety of human contact. All are struggling. Below the headlines, newspapers, magazines and blogs recommend desperate lists of films to watch, hobbies to take up, recipes to experiment with. Alongside, they offer advice from those who have practiced a form of self-isolation professionally for years. There are interviews with monks, Arctic scientists, submariners. Barristers do not appear to have been consulted. But if Elizabeth Prochaska’s account is anything to go by, they should have been.

Coming to the Bar in 2007, Elizabeth had been surprised by how isolating and lonely a profession it could be. As we chat in our local east London cakeshop – I should say that we are both friends and neighbours, and I should add that this conversation was in early March, when such things were possible – she reflects that she might have been naïve to imagine it was any other way. Teamwork is limited, and the barrister is always at a double remove from the ultimate client, shielded from ‘the real person with the real problem’. Looking around at her colleagues she saw some who flourished in this seclusion. But she soon learnt that she was not one of them. And as so many of us now cast around for mechanisms to ease the unremitting day to day, so too did Elizabeth hunt for something to augment a life of barristerial solitude. She tried collaborative writing projects and increased involvement in chambers committees, but she ultimately decided that organisational involvement, management of charities and NGOs, was what she needed. She wanted better to understand the practical context of the legal advice she gave, to be properly integrated into an enduring team, and to be involved in projects with a lifespan longer than a piece of litigation. This decision began a pattern that has punctuated her career: in 2013, she founded Birthrights, a charity focused on protecting human rights in childbirth; from 2017-2019, she took up the full-time position of director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; in 2017, she was one of the founding members of Behind the Gown, an initiative focused on eliminating harassment at the Bar. Her latest move has brought her to the Public Law Project (PLP), of which she is currently Chair.

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The PLP recently turned 30, having been founded in 1990 to ensure that those who were marginalised through poverty, discrimination or disadvantage have access to public law remedies through which to hold the State to account. The Project envisions a world in which individual rights are respected and public bodies act fairly and lawfully. This is a goal Elizabeth has long shared, and she has learnt from experience how necessary coordinated action within an organisational framework is for meeting such goals.

As a junior public law barrister, Elizabeth centred her practice on a combination of high-profile challenges to government decision-making, and cases arising out of the ‘more mundane but really important’ regulatory framework that seeks to keep such decision-making lawful. Having focused her energies on a series of cases involving healthcare regulation, human rights and childbirth, she became anxious to form an institutional home for this work. Only through an institution, she realised, could you elevate wins in litigation into something bigger, complementing them with a broader programme of advocacy, advice and training and thereby creating the conditions for real, system-level change. An institution has the further advantage – which I suspect was crucial for Elizabeth, a person characterised by a drive to get things done – of allowing those who run it to conceive of and initiate litigation in a way that barristers, who can only act on a client’s behalf, can’t. As Elizabeth put it to me with a confessional grin: ‘the creation of Birthrights was essentially the creation of an institutional client for me’.

At a personal level, Birthrights also allowed Elizabeth to test, and prove, her hypothesis that involvement in an organisation was what she needed to make tolerable the lonely life of a barrister. The success of that experiment emboldened her to leave the self-employed Bar altogether, to become legal director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. But the change in working patterns was a step too far. After two happy years at the Commission, she wanted to regain the ability to ‘be nimble and a bit maverick’ about her career – to re-incorporate writing, and a more diverse array of projects than full-time public sector employment allowed. She returned to chambers. But she did so with no shortage of apprehension: she knew she would miss being part of an organisation and worried that life would be ‘quite terrible’ without the camaraderie of management ‘one-to-ones’ and large-scale teamwork. It was thus with some delight – palpable in her retelling of the story to me – that she noticed that PLP had chosen that moment to advertise for a new Chair.

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Now several months into the role, Elizabeth speaks glowingly of PLP: from its mission – which she has long held in high regard; to its management – Elizabeth describes Jo Hickman, PLP’s director, as a ‘fantastic and inspirational’ person to work with, who has transformed the Project in the five years she’s led it; to its staff, grant funding and carefully planned litigation strategy. PLP presented Elizabeth with the perfect career ‘other-half’. As she speaks of their future together, leaning forward and eagerly sweeping the now-cold remnants of a flat-white to one side, enthusiasm for new board members and projects for 2020 flows freely.

PLP’s current areas of focus are fivefold: improving access to judicial review, examining the lawfulness of benefits sanctions, monitoring the impact of Brexit on fundamental rights and administrative justice, shaping legal aid for the future, and studying the use and development of digital courts. Work on those areas is advanced through research, identifying and scrutinising the practical (and often unintended) consequences of public decision-making and in doing so correcting where it’s gone wrong. Litigation plays a supporting role: PLP’s focus is on ensuring that decisions are better made in the first place. Consistent with Elizabeth’s preference in early practice, PLP focuses attention on what might otherwise get missed: the mundane, the unglamorous and the everyday. There is scope for Supreme Court challenges – indeed, PLP has initiated and intervened in multiple cases over the last few years – but it is work such as PLP’s examination of the statutory instruments passed in service of Brexit and study of the impact of benefits sanctions that, in Elizabeth’s view, makes the Project so valuable.

That value is easy to overlook but difficult to overstate – and never more so than during a global emergency which requires public decision-making that severely curtails the lives we once led. Listening now to the recording of my recent conversation with Elizabeth, it already feels alien to hear the background noise of Americanos being announced and brought to tables, of cup clinking saucer, and of ‘excuse me-s’ being muttered as people squeeze past one another to a seat. In such a fast changing world, against a backdrop of comprehensive anxiety, it is a source of some comfort to know that in PLP we have a details-oriented legality watchdog at the command of a determined team, keeping an eye even in exceptional times on what might lie in forgotten corners.

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Isabel Buchanan

Isabel Buchanan is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers, where she has a broad civil law practice focusing on public law and human rights. She is author of Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan (Jonathan Cape: 2016).