“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