“I feel like a horse that has been waiting to bolt on this for years,” says Robert Rinder. The barrister, celebrity and star of the popular courtroom daytime TV reality show Judge Rinder has been appointed as a legal services ambassador for the housing charity Shelter. It has given him an opportunity to talk about social justice, and he doesn’t hold back.
His views come tumbling out, from street homelessness (“it is hard to think of a more poignant example of [social] failure”) to the dire lack of social housing, the short-sighted dismantling of legal aid, and the complexity of the benefit system (“one gets the creeping sense that it is made as challenging as possible for those who need it to be as easy as possible”).
The offer from Shelter – to champion its legal services and promote the right for everyone to be able to access housing advice – came at the right time, he says, and he leapt at it. He had been reflecting a lot during lockdown on privilege and inequality. Covid convinced him he should put his celebrity status to good use: “It made me realise, and there is no good, kind way of putting it, how fucking lucky I am.”
Housing is one of the most critical issues of the moment, he believes, and one of the most visible manifestations of inequality. He cites startling estimates from Shelter that 320,000 renters have been newly plunged into arrears by the Covid crisis. “Just imagine the implications for our communities and the country at large when we think about the possibility of what will ensue.”
Keeping people safe in their homes should be the immediate priority, he says. He wants emergency funding to clear renters’ Covid-related arrears and wraparound advice services to help deal with the coming wave of debt, mental illness and family crisis. Looking further ahead, he says there is an urgent need for investment in social housing.
“I’m deeply passionate about this,” he says. It wasn’t always the case. Rinder says when he entered the legal profession nearly two decades ago, he was not driven to change the world. “It was ego. I don’t want to bullshit. I knew I wanted to be a criminal barrister because I was good at debating and I wanted to cross-examine people and I thought that would probably be the best home for my talents.”
He was in the National Youth Theatre as a teenager but had realised at university – after fellow student Benedict Cumberbatch beat him to a part they had both auditioned for – that he would never hit the heights on the stage. A career in law offered compensations: “In the beginning I had very little political conviction or philosophical sense of what I was doing, apart from ‘me, me, me’.”
That began to change – “it wasn’t a moment of Oprah-tastic epiphany” – when he became a criminal defence barrister. He started to see the law and human rights as the foundation of democracy; the barrier between the individual and the “overwhelming power and force of the state.” He saw the bigger picture: not just the events that led to individuals coming before the court, but the backstory “that had led that individual, that family, to find themselves ultimately in crisis”.
That is not a “‘wishy-washy’ liberal excuse for what people do”, he says, or a refusal to accept that some of the people he defended had done terrible things, but a belief in the principle that everyone deserves legal representation and that earlier intervention – not least with legal advice – could have positively altered the course of the lives of those who later found themselves in front of a judge.
His TV show, once described by the Radio Times as “Jeremy Kyle set in a small claims court”, presents a less complex view. It presents a flow of relatively petty, if compellingly grievous, disputes, often over money and between friends and family, spiced with revelations of betrayal and lies. The participants are hapless, duplicitous, greedy or chaotic. Rinder’s judgments can be witheringly acerbic, zooming in, not without reason, on their fecklessness, naivety or stupidity.
Rinder says the condensed narrative of the show cannot provide any wider context. The participants may be often wretched but their backstory is often one of poverty, family breakdown, debt, addiction or complicated troubles with benefits. “I know some people say my programme has a thin element of pantomime,” he says. “But more or less in every case things could have been resolved [earlier], if the party had had access to a lawyer.”
Civil legal aid, he points out, has has been “totally and utterly decimated other than in the narrowest of cases” in recent years. “It has gone for nearly all people. What that means is that if you are a person who doesn’t have access to justice or access to a privileged network, then your outcomes in every conceivable way are limited. Law is meaningless unless everybody in our community has access to it.”
Shelter – which operates a team of 46 solicitors, 25 legal advisers and 30 legal support workers helping fight illegal evictions, representing them in court and helping them access emergency accommodation – is the “best expression of how the third sector has been forced into this space to assist people legally” because of cuts to legal aid, he says.
He brings up Shelter’s recent landmark court successes in establishing the illegality of so-called no DSS policies, whereby private landlords refuse to let homes to people on benefits. The overt discrimination of no DSS is staggering, he says. They could pay their rent, they were entitled to benefits, but they were refused a home: “Just think of it for a second. If that doesn’t take your breath away, you need to sit down somewhere and think about yourself.”
He is aware that some may accuse him of being a bleeding-heart liberal. He reads the Guardian, he lives in Islington, north London and he writes about going for meals in expensive restaurants with celebrity friends and then, in a fit of guilt, buying three copies of the Big Issue on his way home. “If anyone throws the word liberal at me, I will wear it not as a badge of shame but a cloak of honour,” he bristles. “Good for you, if you want to throw it at me. My question is: why aren’t you? Why aren’t you using the privilege you have got to assist others?”
It is the people who watch his show and who respond to his legal advice column in the Sun who suffer most from the Covid crisis. They are the people Rinder wants to reach: “It is those communities that need the services of Shelter and legal aid.” He wants to “de-cloak the shame around benefits” and remind people why we need to respond generously in these terrible times. “The ultimate expression of who we are as people at our best is how we treat those who are in crisis.”
Family: Divorced, no children.
Lives: North London.
Education: Queen Elizabeth school in Barnet; BA hons history and politics, University of Manchester; City University law conversion course; Inns of Court.
Career: 2001-16: criminal defence barrister and adviser on international prosecutions; 2014-present: presenter, Judge Rinder TV show; appearances on Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Goggglebox; columnist, London Evening Standard.
Public service: Legal services ambassador, Shelter; patron, Buttle UK charity.
Interests: Reading, chamber music, female grime artists, YouTube.