Pro Bono Week profile: Eleanor Sibley

06 November 2023

Eleanor Sibley specialises in public and human rights, Court of Protection, and EU/Withdrawal Agreement law. Many of her cases concern people who lack mental capacity, are deprived of their liberty, and/or are seeking social welfare benefits or community care. In celebration of Pro Bono Week, she discusses one of her pro bono cases from the past year.

Please tell us about the pro bono work you did

I acted pro bono for the AIRE Centre (the intervener) in a successful appeal against the refusal of disability living allowance (care component) to a British girl whose father works in the EU - Harrington v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2023] EWCA Civ 433.

Thomas de la Mare KC and Ravi Mehta of Blackstone Chambers led me in the case, and we were instructed by Herbert Smith Freehills.

The child  had been refused disability living allowance (care component) on the basis that her father, who had separated from the family, was self-employed in Belgium. (She lives in the UK.)

The Department for Work and Pensions argued that under EU law (which still applied to her case) her father’s economic activity in Belgium meant that it was Belgium (not the UK) that was responsible for paying the child cash sickness benefits, including disability living allowance (care component).

As there were no comparable benefits available in Belgium, any right to cash sickness benefits there was entirely theoretical.

The Court of Appeal decided that, properly construed, the EU Regulation provided that the UK was responsible for paying sickness benefits to the child.

What impact did the pro bono work have on the people and communities you worked with?

Our client, the AIRE Centre, is a specialist legal charity that provides advice and representation in cases concerning fundamental rights under European law. Through its work it helps people who are unable to afford to pay for legal representation.

As an intervener, its role in this appeal was to make submissions on points of wider public interest, and assist the court by providing an independent  analysis of the relevant law and fundamental rights at stake.

I hope that through our pro bono work we were able to use the AIRE Centre’s  specialist knowledge to help the court navigate the complex legal issues and ensure that it had full regard to the relevant fundamental rights.

The EU regulation at the centre of this appeal is very complex – and, some might say, fairly dry! However, it contains important rules about which state is responsible for paying sickness benefits to vulnerable people, such as the disabled child in this appeal.

The regulation remains relevant, even after Brexit, because it continues to apply to many people under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU.

Ultimately, I hope that our work helped ensure that some of the most vulnerable people – including children like the one in this appeal  – are able to access the vital benefits to which they are entitled.

Did your pro bono work have an impact on your professional career? If so, in what ways?

I learned a huge amount that I can take forward in my professional career, such as how best to prepare an effective intervention, what points to focus on, and how most effectively to use the intervener’s knowledge to assist the court and the wider public interest.

Working pro bono on this case meant that I was able to learn from some of the leading lawyers in this field (who were incredibly generous with their time), and get involved in quite a complex case for my level of call.

 Any final comments

For anyone with an interest in human rights and European law, working pro bono for the AIRE Centre (or similar organisations) is a fantastic way of using your skills to help some of the most vulnerable people, while, at the same time, building your own knowledge and experience.