LLM Human Rights Law in the UK

Background to LLM human rights law

Awareness of human rights has grown dramatically since the end of the last century. The collapse of communism; political and religious conflicts; the growth of immigration; and a better general understanding of the existence of minority groups have all contributed to interest in this topic. This has led to more national and international legislation designed to protect society. In particular, the law has sought to preserve freedom of expression and to end discrimination against the most vulnerable and underprivileged members of society.

Initiatives like the European Human Rights Act have had a global impact and an increasing number of lawyers are now specialising in this field. The potential for varied and interesting work is huge: human rights law has numerous social and legal implications – for crime, immigration, development, family, the environment, employment regulations and even the way that businesses are run.

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Human rights law courses

There are approximately 20 UK master’s in human rights law. Most are ‘taught’ courses, but they involve more attendance at classes and tutorials than at lectures. Contact time with teaching staff varies from four hours a week to twelve hours or more at universities like Essex and Coventry. All master’s in human rights law ask for a final dissertation of around 15,000 words: Lancaster University is one of the few places that specifies 20,000 words. The University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre is a long established and respected institution in this field, whilst other exciting new human rights courses are growing around the world such as Cardiff University, which launches its new programme in 2009. World-class guest lecturers and speakers are renowned for touring university law schools to supplement the core tuition in this subject. 

Entry to LLM human rights law courses

A law degree is not always necessary for an LLM in human rights law. Some universities actively welcome applications from people who have studied for degrees in sociology, politics, development or other related areas, or who have worked in these fields. Others will ‘consider’ applicants with a non-law background, while a handful of master’s in human rights law are restricted to those with law degrees. Several universities prefer applicants who already have experience of working with human rights law. City University, for example, focuses on professional legal skills, so lack of this will narrow your choice of optional courses.

English language requirements

Courses involve a great deal of written work, so English-language skills are very important. For those whose first language isn’t English, IELTS scores of 6.5–7.0 (or equivalent) are needed.

Key features of LLM human rights law

Most LLMs in human rights law run full time for one year from September/October. The majority of universities offering this subject also have a part-time option. This normally means two years’ study, although some universities, such as City, Nottingham and Bristol University of the West of England (UWE), give you up to three or four years to finish. Distance learning is currently available only through the University of London’s External Programme, but more online programmes are being developed.

Course content

The background/history of human rights and of international public law is usually mandatory. Most LLMs in human rights law often include an overview of the role of the United Nations, criminal justice and of legislation relating to war and conflict. Typical options include an in-depth look at the rights of refugees, children (eg Leicester and Essex Universities), and ethnic/religious minorities. World trade and development also feature on several programmes. There are some unusual specialisms: Essex University runs a module on human rights in Africa, the University of East London has options in feminist legal theory and in legislation affecting Islam. Bristol UWE offers studies in collective security as part of its Master’s in Human Rights Law, while the same course at Hull University allows the study of American public law. Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities include the role of NGOs (non-governmental organisations). Several universities have LLMs in human rights that cover additional subjects – human rights and social justice (Glasgow), criminology (Hull), criminal justice (Aberdeen), humanitarian law (Lancaster) and public law (Essex and King’s College London).

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Specialist courses include Keele University’s LLM in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights. Courses in Northern Irish universities draw on that country’s own background. The University of Ulster’s LLM considers human rights in conflicted and transitional societies, while Queen’s University Belfast runs a joint LLM with the University of Galway in the Irish Republic: this looks at human rights, criminal justice and cross-border themes.

Related courses

Many public law courses have a large human rights element. King’s College London’s LLM in Public International Law is heavily slanted towards human rights. If you are looking for something more specific, you may want to consider master’s that include criminal justice or sociology eg Edinburgh University’s LLM in Law and Society or Brunel University’s programme on the same topic, and also the latter’s courses covering child protection and youth justice. The University of Kent runs a research degree in socio-legal studies and Queen Mary University of London has an MA in Law and Migration apart from its LLM in Human Rights Law. University College London encourages you to build your own LLM out of a series of modules and these include many topics relevant to human rights.

Opportunities after the course

The LLM is a highly regarded qualification throughout the world. Completing a master’s in human rights law will show an in-depth knowledge of that aspect of law, which will help you when applying for further relevant courses and jobs. You could use it as evidence to support applications for legal jobs and for work with charities, government agencies and NGOs. However, it does not qualify you to practise law in the United Kingdom. For this, you will need to be qualified as a lawyer in your own country or to have taken the Legal Practice Course/Bar Vocational Course in England and Wales or their Scottish equivalents.

‘The most fascinating aspect of the course was looking at the topic from a variety of cultural perspectives. There were so many students from different nationalities and backgrounds. The most difficult feature was writing lengthy essays and dissertations in my second language.’
Funmi, Africa, studied a master’s in human rights law in the UK

Find out more
The Human Rights Lawyers Association’s website is a useful resource.

Gillian Sharp





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