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Human rights law area of practice

Human rights law: area of practice (barristers)

Barristers in this area require political awareness and strong oral advocacy skills, explains Vikram from 39 Essex Street.
One of the best things about human rights is the chance to be involved in an area of law that is interesting, important and worthwhile.

Human rights is an area of law concerned with the relationship between the individual and the state, and seeks to define the power the state can lawfully exercise on individuals.

Complex cases which can change lives

Human rights cases can intersect with any other area of practice, but normally arise in public law. Cases vary greatly in their complexity, and normally involve a challenge to a decision by a public body. This could be on matters such as the removal of an individual’s benefits, the outlawing of assisted suicide, the treatment of patients in hospitals, asylum claims or the detention of immigrants.

One example of a human rights case is the well-known Purdy case. Mrs Purdy was suffering from a degenerative disease and wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted for assisting her to travel abroad to commit suicide. The director of public prosecutions only had general policies on prosecution of offences generally and refused to create a policy specific to assisted suicide. The case went to the House of Lords and it was held that it was a breach of her Article 8 private rights to not have clarity about the facts specific to this one offence.

On average, a case might take a year from start to finish. Papers are prepared and then exchanged between the two parties and both sides present evidence prior to a hearing (often one day) to decide whether human rights have been infringed or not.

Working as a human rights barrister

A human rights barrister might have around 20 cases on the go at any one time and lengthy preparation on cases means that only around 15 per cent of the time working is spent in court. Clients are usually individuals, public bodies such as local authorities, hospitals or the government, but barristers may also represent NGOs or companies. Cases are typically heard at the High Court and may progress up to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

The work/life balance in this area is dependent on how you approach your career and how many cases you take on. The reality of life at the Bar is that barristers very often cancel social engagements at the last minute and this area is no different to many others.

One of the best things about human rights is the chance to be involved in an area of law that is interesting, important and worthwhile. Practitioners often have an interest in politics and the balance of power between the state and individuals.

One recent case is R (Tracey) v. Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Secretary of State for Health, related to the Article 8 obligation to consult the patient before doctors decide not to resuscitate.


Funding in this area of law has recently been severely cut by the government. The legal aid cuts have arrived later to public and human rights law than the criminal and family bar, but will be just as devastating. The major potential knock-on effect is that if a public body is acting unlawfully then that unlawfulness may not be revealed due to lack of funding.

As a pupil

Pupils normally work between 9.00 am and 6.00 pm and get involved in the same work that their pupil supervisors do. The work may include: researching, drafting documents, sitting in on conferences with the solicitor and client, and giving views on strategies that could be used to try to win the case. In the second six you have the opportunity to take your own cases. It is a very competitive field, but it is perfectly possible to build up a practice with application.

Types of law practised

  • As with public law, human rights law can interact with almost every other area of practice

Good human rights barristers have...

  • Excellent oral advocacy skills
  • A capacity for hard work
  • The ability to think laterally and research information quickly
  • VIKRAM SACHDEVA is a barrister at 39 ESSEX STREET. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1992 with a degree in medicine and law, did a masters in law at Oxford in 1993, qualified as a doctor in 1996, and was called to the Bar in 1998.