A social justice warrior: in memory of Nathaniel Mathews September 1967–April 2022
Sean Canning is a solicitor at, and the manager of, Hackney Community Law Centre.
The recent untimely death of housing solicitor Nathaniel (Nat) Mathews, at the age of 54, prompted a wave of tributes from colleagues across the Law Centre movement, the wider legal profession and the local Hackney community, shocked by the loss of one of our truly formidable social justice warriors.
After completing his training at Anthony Gold Solicitors, Nathaniel joined Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC) in 1994, which he loyally served until his death. At HCLC, he built a reputation as one of the most able and tenacious lawyers committed to defending the housing rights of the most vulnerable and underprivileged people in the community.
He participated in numerous campaigns to highlight the plight of those affected by legal aid cuts and to promote access to justice for those without the means to represent themselves. Throughout his career in Hackney, Nathaniel rescued thousands of people from eviction, homelessness and disrepair, and the impact of his achievements can be seen from the voluminous tributes from former clients and community groups whom he represented.
He was an early recipient of the Social Welfare Lawyer of the Year award at the 2006 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, where his nomination described him as a ‘clever tactical lawyer, rarely off duty, prone to asking people on the street who are obviously homeless, if they would like him to take them on as clients’.
It was in the housing possession court duty scheme that Nathaniel showed his skills as a fearless advocate. Judges at the local County Court at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch were always reassured by his presence. Among the tributes on social media, one judicial colleague described him
as a ‘shining example...we could all relax a little when he was [duty advocate] as we knew the impoverished and needy would be well and tenaciously represented’.
As well as being fearless, Nathaniel was tireless in his pursuit of social justice for the many minority groups in Hackney who reached out for his help, including victims of trafficking, refugees and families from the Roma community, whom he always made time for.
A memorable case was back in April 2013 when, late on a Friday evening at the close of business, Hackney Council referred a case to him involving a group of foreign nationals mainly from South America, who had been unlawfully evicted by a private absentee landlord but who were deemed ineligible for assistance by the local authority and hardly spoke any English. One journalist who followed the case recalled the image
of a ‘tall Englishman with a ponytail and bemused expression’, fluent in Spanish, starting work on a Friday evening to take instructions and giving up his weekend to secure an out-of-hours interim injunction to stop the eviction.
Nathaniel also enjoyed success in the higher courts. These included the Supreme Court case of Haile v Waltham Forest LBC  UKSC 34
; July/August 2015 Legal Action
50, which concerned intentional homeless and vulnerability, and more recently at the beginning of the pandemic, the Court of Appeal case of Hackney LBC v Okoro  EWCA Civ 681
; July/August 2020 Legal Action
50, which clarified the interpretation of Civil Procedure Rules 1998 Practice Direction 51Z for enforcing possession orders issued prior to the stay on possession proceedings announced by the government.
Nathaniel speaks to visiting US students in May 2019
Through his work, Nathaniel inspired a whole generation of new and aspiring lawyers who volunteered and worked at HCLC. He was a true internationalist. He devoured books (mainly large monographs). While gone before his time, he will never be forgotten by all those who knew and worked with him. He was, in every sense, the people’s lawyer.
Wendy Pettifer, solicitor
Hey Billy Idol lend me your coat
The long one which buttons right up to the throat
I’m fit and I’m young and I’m ready to fight
Out of the shadows and into the light.
Wow Lady Rose-bud with the slow, shy smile
Two beautiful daughters let’s play for a while
I’ll be your protector, your forever friend
If you’ll let me stay to the ends of the end.
Hello Law Centre high in the sky
Where homeless and helpless can sit down to cry
I’ll fight for their justice, champion their ways
So they can be safe through all of their days.
Sorry milord, you’ve got that all wrong
Forgotten the case of Ball v Ping Pong?
Best think again or I’ll get you in Court
You need to learn empathy, contract and Tort
Shit I have to get off this train
Too hot, too stuffy, there’s clouds in my brain
Too early my legs are all wobbly and weak
Can’t stop too many appointments to keep.
It’s late now, I should’ve taken more care
Of myself, now people are starting to stare
At a tall man who gave comfort and hope
To many, now in such pain he can’t cope
Hey Rosebud hold my hand tighter now
The Shadows are creeping and I don’t know how
To stop the coat slipping from shoulders to floor
The light is fast ebbing, I’ll just close the door