Human Rights Law
In general terms ‘human rights’ are an individual’s rights and freedoms, and form the basis for the relationship between the government and the individual.
The Human Rights Act 1998 which enshrines those rights for the most part came into effect in October 2000. Under the Act, human rights, EU and public law were brought into English law, and breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights can now be dealt with in the UK courts, although cases may still be taken to Strasbourg as a last resort.
What does this type of 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 include ‘the right to life’, ‘to liberty,’ ‘not to be tortured,’ a ‘fair trial,’ ‘privacy,’ ‘freedom of thought, conscience as religion,’ ‘freedom of expression,’ ‘peaceful enjoyment of your property,’ ‘right to an education’ and so on.
Some of these rights (for example, not to be tortured) cannot 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 but a few.
The work can be very high profile, with individuals taking on those in positions of authority (for example, 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 pre-requisite.
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.
Case loads 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 also potentially very distressing; so in addition to an interest in people and good communication skills, the ability to keep things in perspective will stand you in good stead.
Many of those whose work includes human rights law will be working in areas of practice affected by the cuts and restrictions to legal aid, and the impact on of access to justice has become an issue in itself. Also, hanging in the air, is the proposal for the UK to ‘scrap’ the Human Rights Act and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights. Whether this will happen, and what it will mean, is unclear at present but it is something those thinking of working in the field should be aware of.
The student guides to the legal profession tend to have useful information working in human rights law. Look at:
- Lawcareers.net: http://www.lawcareers.net
- Target Law: https://targetjobs.co.uk/career-sectors/law-solicitors
Further information is available at:
- The Official United Nations website on human rights: http://www.un.org/en/sections/what-we-do/protect-human-rights/index.html
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission:
And through organisations such as: