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Career focus: Human rights law

When Theresa May slated “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” in her 2016 Conservative conference speech, she had people like Frances Swaine almost exactly in mind. At the time Swaine’s firm, Leigh Day, was locked in a battle with the Solicitors Regulation Authority over its pursuit of compensation linked to the Iraq war. Now managing partner at the prestigious outfit, it was Swaine -- who describes herself as “fairly left- wing” -- who set up Leigh Day’s human rights department at the turn of the century, when a certain Act was passed.

It might never have come to pass if not for another inspiring female lawyer. Swaine, a Nottingham and LSE graduate, spent six happy years working for the courts service without thinking of qualification, but gradually became inspired by the lawyers and judges she met in the role -- not least one Brenda Hale.

“I worked with her when she was Brenda Hoggett and still at the University of Manchester,” Swaine recalls. “She was very encouraging of me to go out and qualify -- so that’s what I did. The civil service wanted me to come back and be a lawyer with them, which I didn’t want to do. Instead I found my way to this practice.” Now, 27 years later, she’s still there.

The job satisfaction that comes with human rights work is hard to beat. From securing an inquest into a death in custody to pinning vicarious liability on a council for sexual abuse suffered by a child in its care, the range of work that can be bracketed under “human rights” is pretty varied, but the general theme is standing up for the ‘Davids’ against the ‘Goliaths’, which in most cases is the state or large corporations. Everyone loves an underdog, but not everyone is privileged enough to represent them in landmark litigation.

For Swaine, her standout clients are a group of former child migrants sent to Australia under a government-sponsored resettlement programme. The mostly illegitimate children from poor Catholic families were promised a better life overseas but the scheme degenerated into something more like human trafficking, with some children enduring forced labour and sickening abuse. Last year, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommended that the government pay compensation to victims, including some who Swaine has represented since 1992.

“Quite a lot of my clients, who are now in their 80s, came over to give evidence about what happened to them back in the 1940s and 50s,” she says. “A lot of it was sexual abuse, some of it of the worst possible kind. They had the opportunity to put in front of our government what had occurred. The potential compensation scheme, which the government have yet to put in place, should provide recognition for those individuals in a way that hasn’t happened before. I was very proud when I heard the findings of the IICSA.” Other cases include work for prisoners, including the woman hand- cuffed while giving birth in jail and the disabled man confined to his bunk for lack of a wheelchair.

It’s not easy to get into a position to perform such legal heroics. Leigh Day receives 600 applications for the eight training contract places it offers every year. When competition is that stiff, doing your research on the firm or chambers is vital. (Your correspondent, for one, would have flunked the interview for not knowing that the firm’s name is pronounced “Lee” rather than “Lay”.) Find out what kind of cases the business does and what they tell the world they’re all about. And tailor your application: Swaine points out, a touch wearily, that “lots of people just send application forms with a very short covering letter, which it’s clear would work absolutely anywhere”.

The good news is that if you’re the right fit, Leigh Day doesn’t care about your background.

“We nowadays use a software system intended to ensure no unconscious bias in our recruitment. We also have a policy internally which is to promote the recruitment of lower socio-economic groups through blinding the applications as far as we possibly can – so nobody knows where you went to school or university or what postcode you live in or anything like that. We only see your achievements on paper.”

Broadening access also means recognising that not everybody can do a truckload of unpaid intern- ships or volunteering in relevant organisations. “If you’ve had the good luck to be rich enough to take loads of unpaid internships, we do uncover that during the process,” Swaine says. “We’re aware that people may come from parts of the country that don’t have those opportunities, and if your family is not wealthy you may not be able to take them up. But we do expect people to have done something halfway relevant and to be articulate enough to show that you’re filling your time with things that you think are helpful in society -- some - thing that shows you are plugged into Leigh Day’s purposes.”

Those purposes -- or at any rate, methods -- were under intense scrutiny by the regulator for four years but have now been vindicated by a tribunal and in the High Court. Co-founder Martyn Day has told the Guardian that “the SRA, whether directly or indirectly, was influenced by the political background to the case”.

For her part, Swaine says that she wants the firm to “put it behind us” and strikes a similar but more pacifying note about the role of the SRA. “Leigh Day does not want to be seen as vindictive. We are however keen to establish that our regulator -- the Solicitors Regulation Authority -- is always seen to be acting independently. It’s not simply that they should be independent but, Leigh Day feels, they should be seen to be acting independently also.”

That’s the SRA told. These particular “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” will be a thorn in the government’s side for some time to come.

 

KEY FACTS

Pay

Human rights lawyers aren’t in it for the money, but they can become quite prosperous. Early career lawyers don’t tend to earn a lot, though. Leigh Day trainees get £30,000 in London and £24,000 outside it. At the bar, Matrix Chambers hands out pupillage awards of £50,000, and Doughty Street £40k, compared to over £70,000 at the big commercial sets.

 

High profile human rights lawyers

Amal Clooney, Doughty Street international lawyer; Conor Gearty, academic and Matrix Chambers barrister; Adam Wagner, founder of Rightsinfo and the UK Human Rights Blog.

 

Key elements of the job

Putting pressure on central government, or other public bodies such as councils and hospitals, to change the way they do things or compensate people for a breach of their rights. If they refuse, litigation: there is a lot of scope for advocacy in this field. Knowledge of how the public sector works and being able to spot a case among the many sad stories that cross your desk is important.

 

How to get a foot in the door

Relevant volunteering experience, for instance at a law centre or with Citizens Advice, tends to go down well. In trying to get a job, some lateral thinking may help: there are areas that use human rights law outside the classic civil liberties context, such as immigration and asylum work. For staying abreast of current issues, Rightsinfo and the UK Human Rights Blog are popular, while podcast fans can try Leigh Day’s “Haven’t you heard” series.

 

Discover more about human rights by studying our LLM International HUman Rights Law