A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Using the Courts to Create Systemic Change

After Victoria Hewlett was raped at a fraternity party while attending Utah State University, she knew that healing would, at least in part, come through working for changes at the University that would help protect other students from abuse and assault on campus. Like many survivors of campus sexual assault, Hewlett sought to hold Utah State accountable in court. But she insisted that accountability in her case include systemic changes to the way the University would prevent, respond to, and address issues related to assaults.

The results of her efforts underscore the sweeping and meaningful policy changes that can be made through impact litigation, which seeks to go beyond individual financial remediation and works to institute lasting solutions that benefit entire communities and movements.

In settling Hewlett’s case, Utah State agreed to revise policies, changes processes, and train staff so students are better protected and understand their rights, and employees are better prepared to deal with issues of sexual violence. The University also announced a series of sweeping changes to the Greek system at the school which are meant to provide greater oversight, accountability, and education for students who are members of Greek organizations.

And, in two truly unique moves, the University’s President announced the changes in a joint op-ed with Hewlett, published in the Salt Lake Union-Tribune, while also ensuring Hewlett was allowed to serve on an advisory committee of survivors, issue experts, and advocates who are tasked with providing feedback and guidance to USU.

Opportunities for funders

Hewlett’s partnership with USU to devise and implement reforms on campus is just one example of how impact litigation groups like Public Justice partner with legal clients to turn often traumatic experiences into opportunities for positive change. Unlike private, for-profit law firms, impact litigation groups have the flexibility and experience to work with clients on innovative ways to maximize the impact of their legal cases.

In addition to our work with Hewlett, Public Justice has worked with families impacted by factory farms to build the political power of previously disenfranchised communities in order to protect public health and safety. And we have a long history of using “citizen suits”—lawsuits spearheaded by private citizens seeking accountability when government agencies refuse to act—to put public pressure on coal companies, slaughterhouses, and other polluters to, quite literally, clean up their act.

Like Hewlett’s case, however, many of the most important impact litigation cases would rarely attract the attention of a private attorney, which underscores the critical need for the philanthropy community to understand and financially support organizations that use the courts—and the cases they litigate—to create systemic changes like those Hewlett worked to bring to USU. And even in cases where these clients are represented by a member of the private bar, most have limited, if any, experiences or resources to develop the press, advocacy, and outreach plans that are necessary for educating the public, building support for positive change, and working within coalitions and movements to ensure even broader victories and accountability.

Impact litigation groups provide an impressive return for philanthropists who are dedicated to important legal and social changes that help make institutions, corporations, and entire communities safer, fairer, and more responsible.

Hewlett and Cockett concluded their op-ed by saying, “We hope this model, of turning struggle into opportunity and crisis into change, will serve as a model for other students and schools striving to make their own campuses more welcoming communities for all.”

By supporting the efforts of impact litigation groups to pursue lasting change through a combination of legal and public education advocacy, today’s philanthropists have an opportunity to maximize their giving by making cases like Hewlett’s possible.

Public Justice pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses.

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