What is human rights law?
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.
Types of human rights law
There are three overarching types of human rights legal areas: civil-political, socio-economic, and collective-developmental. The first two are individual persons against their government and are accepted norms identified in international law.
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 do human rights lawyers need?
- Eloquence: Effective communication with clients, stakeholders and at the courts.
- Dedication: Becoming a human rights lawyer requires years of dedication to studying and getting experience.
- Resilience: You might be exposed to cases that are emotionally draining. Knowing how to strengthen your own strength will help you do a better job.
- Persuasiveness: You need to be persuasive to win cases.
How to get into human rights law?
To work as a solicitor, you can either take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), or if you are eligible, you can study the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
If you qualify through the SQE, you will also need to complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). To prepare for the SQE, we recommend studying one of our SQE courses, which have been designed to give you the knowledge and skills for a successful career as a solicitor.
If you’re eligible to study the LPC, you will need to get a two-year training contract with a law firm. To find out what route is right for you, see our Becoming a Solicitor page.
Once you complete your two-year training contract or QWE, you can apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to be admitted as a solicitor.
To become a barrister, you will need to have completed an undergraduate law degree, or if you are a non-law graduate, a conversion course, before completing the Bar Practice Course (BPC). You will then need to secure pupillage.
You can also study a Master of Law (LLM) in International Human Rights to give you the knowledge and skills to move into this sector.
Apart from educational qualifications, it takes a certain kind of person to become a human rights lawyer. 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.
Gaining human rights law work experience
Gaining work experience at a local non-profit or legal charity is the perfect way to get a taste for human rights law. Our Employability Service also offers support with this during your studies. The experience of working with real clients on a placement is invaluable. We work with employers to organise work experience opportunities nationally that could prove valuable in furthering your career.
We can also help you to get external placements in a range of not-for-profit organisations, providing members of the public with free legal advice and representation.
Where do human rights lawyers work?
Human rights lawyers often work in companies, law firms and chambers. Some human rights lawyers work for human rights courts, such as the UK Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights.
Top human rights law firms in the UK
- Bindmans LLP
- Leigh Day
- Hickman & Rose
- Hodge Jones & Allen
- Howard Kennedy LLP
- Irwin Mitchell
- Simons Muirhead Burton
- Tuckers Solicitors
Average salary in human rights law
A newly qualified solicitor in a firm outside of the city or smaller practice may expect to earn around £20,000 to £40,000. An average human rights solicitor salary in London is anything from £40,000 to £80,000 based on five years’ experience according to Payscale.com. For those with over ten years' experience, earnings can range from £40,000 to £120,000. Those based in London and bigger cities will often earn more too.
Human rights law information
The following student guides have useful information working in human rights law: LawCareers.net and Target Law.
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.
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