Human rights are an individual’s rights and freedoms, which form the basis for the relationship between the government and the individual.
Human rights, EU and public law were brought into English law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Any breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights can be dealt with in UK courts, although cases may still be taken to Strasbourg in France as a last resort.
What does a human rights lawyer do?
The work of a human rights lawyer can be incredibly varied, as it revolves around the broad ranging rights set out in the Act. For example, rights such as ‘the right to life’, ‘to liberty’, ‘privacy’, ‘freedom of thought, conscience as religion,’ ‘freedom of expression,’ ‘peaceful enjoyment of your property’ and ‘right to an education’.
Some of these rights (e.g. not to be tortured) can’t be limited by the courts: other rights have limitations, to guard against unfairly damaging another individual’s rights. For example, the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression are not always compatible.
The work of human rights lawyers therefore covers a wide range of law, from human rights and civil liberties to European law, public law, data protection and privacy, immigration, civil and criminal to name a few.
The work can be very high profile, with individuals taking on those in positions of authority (e.g. through actions against the police or miscarriages of justice); or the government and other bodies (taking cases to judicial review).
What skills are required?
As the areas of law involved are varied and subject to rapid change, a genuine interest in human rights and keeping up to date is a prerequisite.
As the law is constantly changing and sometimes unclear or untested, you must also have the ability and confidence to make sound judgements based on previous experience.
Caseloads tend to be large, so you will need good time management skills and the ability to process large amounts of data.
The work can be tremendously satisfying, but potentially very distressing so, in addition to an interest in people and good communications skills, the ability to keep things in perspective is useful.
The United Nations on human rights.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission – Great Britain’s national equality body.
Amnesty International – Global human rights organisation.
Liberty – Independent membership organisation that challenges injustice.
INQUEST – Charity that provides support on state-related deaths.
JUSTICE – A law reform and human rights organisation working to strengthen the justice system in the UK.