Human Rights Law

The term ‘human rights’ can be defined as the rights possessed by human beings simply because they are human beings. These are rights inherent to all, irrespective of nationality, place of residence, race, sex, religion or any other characteristic. Human rights are the rights that must not be taken away by the legislature or act of the government and those that are often set out in a Constitution. In the UK, these rights are protected in law by the Human Rights Act 1998 which gave effect to the rights contained in the European Convention of Human Rights. The Act is not limited to British citizens, it applies to foreign individuals as well asylum seekers residing in the country and ensures legal action can be taken before UK courts where rights have been breached. The Human Rights Act 1998 defines these rights by listing a series of ‘Articles’, which are:

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History of Human Rights Law

There are numerous sources of human rights that date back hundreds of years and originate from many different civilisations and religious teachings. The first significant legal basis of these rights is often attributed to the Magna Carta of 1215, which acknowledged that subjects of the Crown had rights. Clause 40 asserted that ‘to no one will .... we deny, or delay’ these rights. The 1679 Habeas Corpus Act and the English Bill of Rights that followed 10 years later were further landmark strides in Britain that prompted the right to fair trial and set out further basic civil rights. Outside of Britain, the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 followed a similar approach by acknowledging ‘certain unalienable rights’ that people had. The Virginia Declaration of Rights 1776 added to this that ‘all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people’ of the state. France followed suite with the Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen of 1793, and this asserted that ‘any society in which no provision is made for guaranteeing rights or for the separation of powers, has no constitution.’

Big strides to codify domestic human rights into international law came after the Second World War, which saw the international community come to an agreement that a collective expression of human rights was needed. This came in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was introduced in 1948 and adopted in 56 member states. The UDHR, commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, noted that domestic treatment of citizens was now a legitimate international concern. At present, its principles have been incorporated in the constitutions of 193 member states. The European Convention on Human Rights has also played an important role in the development and awareness of human rights on the international stage. The Convention created a regional system of human rights protection operating across Europe. This was signed by the UK in 1951 and subsequently brought into domestic law in the form of HRA 1998 which came into effect in 2000. As a result, anyone can now claim these rights and have their case heard before a judge in the UK.

What areas does Human Rights Law cover?

Human rights law covers an array of subject areas and this is evident by the many Articles found in the HRA 1998, which attempts to cater to all of these, nevertheless, human rights law is more prominent in the following areas:

 Immigration law

A current and popular area is the application of human rights principles within immigration contexts. This is split into two notable areas: individual and business. In individual cases, this can be important in asylum and residence extension applications where the grounds are based on human rights. In business cases, human rights law covers issues surrounding work visas and common scenarios where companies bring in overseas workers for projects.

 Criminal law

In criminal cases, human rights issues can arise in many different forms, such as: improper enforcement applications, false arrests, illegal confinement, terrorism accusations and extradition issues. The Crown Prosecution Service is the principle public body for prosecuting criminal cases in England and Wales, and it recently released legal guidance aimed at ‘upholding and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of those who comes into contact with the criminal justice system’ – this serves to illustrate just how important the subject of human rights law is within the area of criminal law.

Family law

Human rights law interacts significantly with family law because being part of a family is a fundamental right. Article 8 of HRA 1998 asserts that everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home and correspondence except where it is necessary. During family disputes that are settled in court, these rights comes into conflict and it’s the task of the court to weigh these up carefully and the family lawyer to formulate a convincing argument for their client. Extensive knowledge of how these two areas interlink is essential to becoming a successful family lawyer.

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Why is Human Rights Law important?

Human rights law allows us to utilise the rights imbedded in our nature – without these rights we are unable to live as human beings. The fundamental freedoms protected by this area of law allow us to develop and make use of our human qualities, consciences, intelligence and talents. The Council of Europe notes some of the values and characteristics that make human rights particularly important – these are:

Key values of Human Rights:

  • Justice – fair treatment of all people.
  • Responsibility – respecting other people’s rights of others entails responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Respect for others – a lack of respect fails to appreciate the essential dignity of others.
  • Freedom – human will and free choice is an important part of human dignity.
  • Non-discrimination – equality in human dignity means we should not judge people’s rights and opportunities based on characteristics.
  • Tolerance – intolerance indicates a lack of respect for difference.

Key characteristics of Human Rights:

  • Universal – every individual is entitled to implement and enjoy their human rights without prejudice as these human rights apply equally to all people everywhere in the world. 
  • Inalienable – these are rights you cannot lose them, because they are inherent to all human beings. In particular circumstances some rights may be suspended or restricted, for example, if someone is found guilty of a crime, his or her liberty can be taken away.
  • Indivisible, interdependent & interrelated – they are intrinsically connected and cannot be viewed in isolation from each other and the enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many other rights and no one right is more important than the rest.

How does Human Rights Law differ around the world?

International human rights law can be contained and applied at domestic level by courts in different ways , therefore human rights law can take on many different forms. Here are some ways international human rights law can be interpreted and applied:

✓ Constitutions: These can be codified into one single source like that found in the United States, or uncodified and consisting of several sources like the United Kingdom. Constitutions often contain numerous human rights provisions that follow the text of international provisions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This in turn makes it easier for judges and lawyers to interpret at domestic levels because they can rely on international jurisprudence.

✓ Incorporation: It is common for countries to enact national laws to incorporate international human rights treaties at domestic level. For example, this was the case in the UK where the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998.

✓ National legislation: Aside from incorporation, legislation is often brought in at national level to clarify or elaborate on the provisions found in a country’s constitution. This is also common when a country adapts their domestic laws to the international legal obligations they have. Like with constitutions, the same language is used to ensure ease of use.

✓ Automatic application: In some countries international treaties take precedence over domestic law and apply automatically once the country concerned ratifies this.

✓ Interpreting common law: Judges may often be governed by international jurisprudence when looking to interpreting human rights principles at common law

✓ Legal vacuum: There may be an absence of national legislation in some countries when human rights are in issue. In some circumstances, judges and lawyers may rely on international human rights law, relevant international case law and even the domestic case law from other countries when applying basic principles to ensure individuals are protected.

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Human rights law = fulfilling career

The field of human rights law can be a challenging but extremely fulfilling career, mainly due to the simple fact that the work you do has a considerable impact on people and society as a whole. If you’re working with individuals, the work you undertake is of huge significance to them. Although this can often mean that the work is relentless, the outcomes you can achieve can be lifechanging for the client, and this in turn is extremely rewarding for those who have contributed to making this happen. The work can have far-reaching effects and really push forward the need for positive change towards vulnerable groups by ensuring their rights are protected. In private practice, this can come in the form of holding organisations accountable for human rights failures and breaches which can have considerable ramifications on how they operate in future. Due to the very nature of the field, there is also ample opportunity to provide your expertise within the context of charity and pro bono work, both domestically and internationally. This is particularly rewarding for those who are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to the justice system where applicable.

What does a Human Rights Lawyer do?

A career in human rights law can incorporate a diverse area that covers civil, social, economic and political rights, both domestically and overseas. There is no set role for this extremely varied sector, for example you could be a public relations professional working alongside charitable organisations or representing individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned. The work can cover areas including criminal law, family law and immigration law, and even commercial disputes. Like any area of law, the route you choose to go down in this regard will ultimately determine the work you will be undertaking. In general, there is the opportunity for a human rights lawyer to work in both private practice and government. In private practice, this may involve seeking privacy injunctions, starting proceedings against businesses and taking actions against the police. In government, this is primarily focused on ensuring government departments properly adhere to human rights laws.

Day in the life of a Human Rights Lawyer

As human rights law encompasses a wide variety of subject areas and different career settings, the daily tasks of a human rights lawyer can differ greatly on a day-to-day basis – however there are common tasks applicable to most areas and these are as follows:

Advising the client (individuals or groups) to ensure they are aware of the relevant human rights.

Interviewing witnesses and any associated parties to gather statements and relevant information for your case.

Collecting documentation and facts in evidence for your case.

Researching similar case law to support your case.

Negotiating with lawyers representing the opposing party.

Writing legal documents and preparing for filing suits.

Advocating on behalf of your client if the case reaches court.

Skills needed to be a successful Human Rights Lawyer

This table illustrates the main skills needed to be a successful human rights lawyer:

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Salary expectations

The salary you can expect to receive as a human rights lawyer will depend on numerous factors. These are: 

The sector you choose to work in – private sector often attracts a higher salary than working for the government or a charity.

Your practice area – as mentioned, there are many different areas human rights lawyers can practice in and this will have some effect on your salary.

The stage of your career – as with any other area, this often determines how senior your position is and thus what salary you can expect.

Size of your organisation – working in a larger human rights law firm will likely attract a higher salary for obvious reasons.

Your organisation’s location – for example in the UK this can influence factors such as living costs which will in turn have an impact on your salary.

According to SimplyLawJobs, the average starting salary of a civil rights lawyer in the UK was about £25,000, at the time of publication. For lawyers at the top of their game in this field, salaries can be in excess of £100,000 per year, especially when working in private practice. Information published by the Government Legal Department gives us an insight into what you can expect to earn with the government. The current first-year legal trainee salaries are around £29,000 and second year salaries are around £33,000. Depending on location, those with less than three years’ post-qualified experience can expect to earn around £42,000. Those with equivalent to three or more years’ post-qualified experience, around £50,000 and more senior solicitors can expect to earn in excess of £60,000 in certain locations. Placing the salary of a human rights lawyer within the pay scale of lawyers across the UK provides additional context. According to Total Jobs, the average salary of lawyers nationwide was £42,500 from a sample size of 2,302 people. The highest-paid lawyers earned salaries of up to £52,500, while some lawyers earned considerably less with the lowest salaries fetching around £32,500 per year.

Human Rights Law firms

There are many reputable law firms around the world that specialise in human rights law – here is just a selection of these law firms in the United Kingdom and the United States.

UK law firms

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US law firms

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Interview with a Human Rights Law professional

Sameer Moghal is currently working as a Trainee Solicitor within the Immigration and Asylum Law Department at Qualified Legal Solicitors in Newport where he deals with Article 8 (Family and Private life) and Article 3 (Asylum, Humanitarian Protection) issues of Human Rights Law. Sameer is coming towards the end of his training contract having commenced his role over a year ago in November 2019.

What daily responsibilities do you have in your role?

My daily responsibilities include communicating with clients, as well as completing and managing client’s cases.

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?

First I create my to-do list in order to keep myself efficient.

What is a breakdown of how you spend the average working day?

Office hours start at 9am. I usually start by reading my emails and respond to them. At 9.30am I then start my first task and the time it takes to finish the task depends on the task – I will usually pick a task that is small if I have a client at 10am, alternatively, I will pick a lengthier task if I have a client at 2pm. My day is never the same, so it is very difficult to say my average working day is like.

How do you handle, organise and prioritise your workload?

I have a list of matters I am dealing with on a spreadsheet separated into different headings – for example, initial asylum claim, further submissions, appeals, etc. I will also create daily to-do lists, to ensure my day is spent efficiently. I also review the list of matters on a weekly basis to update and remind myself of the matters.

How much do you correspond with other colleagues on a daily basis?

How much time I spend corresponding with my other colleagues on a daily bases depends on the particular day and the issues. Everyone is busy and we are all seeing clients at different times. The only time we are able to communicate uninterrupted by our clients is before work, during lunchtime and after work.

How much contact do you have with clients on a daily basis?

I have a minimum of one client a day and a maximum of three clients.

If you have an important client are you likely to be in touch with them every day?

Every client is important. I do not prioritise clients unless they are vulnerable and require extra support and assistance.

What aspects of Human Rights Law do you deal with in your field and do these tend to differ client by client?

In immigration and asylum, we deal with usually Article 8 cases (family and private life) cases and Article 3 cases (asylum, humanitarian protection).

How is communication done with client? What do you think is the most effective means of communication?

Depending on the task, communication can be done through face-to-face meetings, email or telephone. The most convenient way to communicate is by telephone as it is easier for both parties. However, face-to-face is oftem more appropriate and effective as instructions can be recorded more thoroughly and accurately. In addition, as there is usually language barriers with clients, so face-to-face meetings are often more appropriate as you are able to notice when a client understands or does not understand through facial expressions or body language.

How important is communication when it comes to being a Human Rights Lawyer?

Communication is very important when it comes to being a Human Rights Lawyer. Some clients are vulnerable – for example victims of domestic violence or asylum seekers who have just fled their country – and require updates and extra assistance. Clients need to be able to trust their solicitors and keeping regular communication enable you to develop that trust with them.

Can you explain what responsibilities you could expect to have as a trainee working in this area of law? Is it quite hands-on role or is it more research-based?

Being a trainee solicitor in this field is quite a hands-on role, however, this does not mean there is no research involved. Research is definitely required in Article 3 cases (asylum or humanitarian protection) as objective evidence can be helpful to a client’s case.

What aspects of your work do you find takes up the most of your time?

Drafting and administrative responsibilities definitely take up a lot of time. Drafting responsibilities include, drafting witness statements and representations for immigration applications and asylum claims. Meanwhile, my administrative tasks include copying, scanning, writing and responding to emails.

What is it about Human Rights Law that first attracted you?

I was attracted to Human Rights Law because I wanted the feeling of being able to change someone’s life.

What specific skills do you think a Human Rights Lawyer needs to have to be successful?

Specific skills that I think a Human Rights Lawyer needs are communication skills, analytical skills and attention to detail.

Please describe you academic and career path to this position?

It was a traditional path, I completed GCSEs and A-Levels, and then went onto completing my LLB Law Degree at Cardiff University. Subsequently, I completed the LLM Legal Practice Couse (LLM and LPC combined). I then started my training contract at Qualified Legal Solicitors in Newport.

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What qualifications do you need to become a Human Rights Lawyer?

In the UK, the two principal pathways to becoming a Human Rights Lawyer is to qualify as a solicitor or as a barrister.

 Solicitor route to becoming a Human Rights Lawyer

Current route: At present, there are two options to the route to qualify as a solicitor in the UK – these are as follows:

Law route:

  1. Study a Qualifying Law Degree (LLB).
  2. Move on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC).         
  3. Complete a two-year period of recognised training (Training Contract) after your studies.

Non-law route:

  1. Study any undergraduate degree.
  2. Move on to the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) to transfer your degree.
  3. Move on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
  4. Complete a two-year period of recognised training (Training Contract) after your studies.

Future route: As of September 2021, the route to qualify as a solicitor in the UK is set to change with the introduction of the Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam (SQE), which will replace both the GDL and LPC. There are four things you will need in order to qualify through the SQE route:

Let's take a look at the SQE route in further detail:

1. Students need to have a university degree or equivalent in any subject.

2. Students need to pass both Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the SQE:

Stage 1: Functioning Legal Knowledge section that tests not only legal knowledge, but also practical application of the law. This stage comprises of two exams, each containing 180 multiple-choice questions testing your application of law in different areas.

Exam 1 covers:

  • Legal system of England and Wales
  • Contract
  • Tort
  • Business law & practice
  • Dispute resolution
  • Constitutional & administrative law
  • EU law
  • Legal services.

Exam 2 covers:

  • Land law
  • Criminal law & practice
  • Trusts
  • Property law & practice
  • Wills & the administration of estates
  • Solicitors’ accounts

Stage 2: Core Legal Skills section involving both oral and written assessments of five skills across five areas of law. This section is designed to test your practical skills in a similar way to the LPC and the five assessed skills are:

  • Advocacy
  • Interviewing
  • Legal research & written advice
  • Legal drafting.
  • Case & matter analysis 

3. After passing the SQE exams the student needs to complete a two-year period of recognised training known as Qualifying Work Exoerience (similar to the Training Contract).

4. Finally, the candidate needs to pass the character and suitability test set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

For more information on this route you can read our full artidle on the SQE here.

 Barrister route to becoming a Human Rights Lawyer

The second path to becoming a human rights lawyer is the barrister route where the initial steps are similar to the above for a solicitor:

  1. Study a Qualifying Law Degree (LLB) or any undergraduate degree with the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
  2. Pass the Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT).
  3. Commence the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
  4. Complete training with a barrister referred to as a pupillage.

Although it is an extremley useful addition to your legal qualifications, it is not necessary to study an LLM in Human Rights Law to become a Human Rights Lawyer, whichever route you choose to follow. However, a Master of Laws in this field is a great addition to your CV and will help you gain invaluable skills and knowledge – and this could in turn help you stand out from other applicants and land that dream human rights role.

Studying an LLM in Human Rights Law

Human Rights Law is a fascinating field to specialise in at LLM level and there are plenty of great law schools to choose from for your Master of Laws studies. You can find out more about studying an LLM in Human Rights Law in our dedicated article.

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How can you find out more about a career in Human Rights Law?

As with most subject areas in law, if you want to pursue a career in a specific field it’s best to firstly have a thorough knowledge of the legal industry in general. This will help you narrow down your options and make decisions such as whether you want to work in the private or government sector. There are various ways to find out about the legal profession – these include:

✓ Law fairs:  A number of law firms visit university and law school campuses and hold networking fairs which provide a fantastic opportunity for students to research the law firms you’re interested in and speak to them in person on campus or online. Law fairs are a great way to find out what working at a firm specialising in human rights is like because you can ask questions to current trainees and solicitors who are representing their law firm.

✓ Open days: One the most popular ways to find out more about a specific firm is to attend an open day held at their office. Law firm open days are usually open to all students throughout the year and are a great way to find out more about a specific firm’s work in the field of human rights law.

✓ Vacation schemes: A lot of law firms run vacation schemes which span over the course of a week or two. This is the best way to experience life as a human rights lawyer before making any commitments, as you should get the opportunity to work alongside qualified and trainee lawyers of the firm. Participating in a vacation scheme will give you a real feel for the environment and type of work you can expect to be doing as a trainee.

✓ Training contracts: If you are set on becoming a human rights lawyer having done the above, the final step is applying for training contracts with firms that compliment your passion for the field. A training contract is the last stage of training before qualifying as a solicitor and it’s where your vocational academic knowledge is put into practical use. It is vital at this stage that you have shortlisted the firms you want to apply for and spend a significant amount of time and effort on each.

Human Rights Law work experience & volunteering

If human rights law is a path you want to follow you will find that within this area of law there is ample opportunity to develop skills and knowledge through voluntary work, internships and work experience. This is a great option for those who are passionate about human rights and it is also a great starting point if you are still unsure this is the area for you. There are options to take on roles in the UK or to take on roles internationally, where you will have the opportunity to experience other cultures through work. Some notable internships and work experience opportunities include:

It is also worth checking the websites of other large organisations such as Amnesty International, Liberty, One World, Human Rights Watch, International Alert and International Federation of the Red Cross to see what human rights work and volunteering opportunities are available.

Undertaking volunteering work or work experience in this sector is great option for those who want to demonstrate their passion for the field when looking to apply for vacation schemes, training contacts, etc. Voluntary work will no doubt make your application stand out when you apply to law firms specialising in human rights. If you are already studying in law and want an opportunity to apply your expertise, another great option is undertaking volunteer work with Support Through Court. This is an award-winning charity organisation with around 700 dedicated volunteers that operate from 23 courts in 18 different cities across England and Wales. For example, in Cardiff, the unit is located in the Cardiff Civil and Family Justice Centre where as a volunteer you will experience hands-on experience with the legal system in the following ways:

  • Providing comfort, support and guidance before, during and after court by ensuring people facing court alone feel prepared and supported to access justice.
  • Giving support by explaining how the court works, helping to fill in court forms and necessary documentations, and accompanying clients in their hearings.
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Brexit & Human Rights Law 

This article isn’t going to fully explore the effects of Brexit on human rights law and associated issues in the UK, in part because the situation is still unfolding. However, here are recent latest thoughts and considerations from UK Parliament.

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Useful publications

Here are some useful publications for those wishing to explore the field of human rights law further:

British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR): You can find out more information about human rights through several guides accessible.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC): Find out more about human rights and discrimination on the EHRC which also provides a selection of books and journal articles on Brexit and equality and human rights issues:

Human Rights Implications of Brexit: Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Human Rights Protections in International Agreements: Joint Committee on Human Rights:

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Human Rights and Criminal Prosecutions: General Principles 

Council of Europe: Information on the importance of Human Rights

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