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Human rights law: area of practice

Human rights law is intellectually rigorous and is at the forefront of policy making, says Harriet from the Government Legal Service.

There are opportunities to travel, particularly to Brussels and Strasbourg in connection with EU , ECHR and Council of Europe work.

There is a common misconception that human rights law is mushy. In fact, it is intellectually very rigorous and is at the forefront of policy making. The reason it is such a powerful agent of social change is that it requires people to articulate the reasons behind their strongly held beliefs. It is no longer sufficient to tell a court that certain people do not have the same rights as others because that is how it has always been. There have to be good reasons for differences in treatment to make it legal and human rights law imposes a framework on the analysis.

Graduate careers in human rights law

The workload of both private practice and government human rights lawyers is wide-ranging and can include policing, privacy, immigration, family law cases, housing, employment and even commercial disputes. Lawyers will have the opportunity to get involved with a wide range of work, ranging from ensuring that transsexuals’ privacy rights are protected to advising on whether it’s legal for the police to share conviction data with banks. 

Private practice lawyers may also be involved with advising on immigration and police cases; conducting applications against journalists for disclosure of sources of information in articles for which they are responsible; obtaining privacy injunctions from the courts; and conducting judicial review proceedings against the government and other bodies. They will work on protecting the rights of clients both in the UK and abroad.

Most, if not all, government lawyers do some human rights work as it’s required that all departments ensure that their policies are compatible with the law on human rights. For example, the human rights team for the Ministy of Justice (MoJ) advises on human rights issues that arise in its work, as well as advising Whitehall on the interpretation of the Human Rights Act 1998. In the MoJ, lawyers are involved with both litigation and advisory work although the focus is on litigation cases that set precedents under the Human Rights Act or the European Convention of Human Rights, and on tricky advisory questions.

Human rights lawyers tend to work quite stable hours but long days are required when the work is urgent. For government lawyers, there are opportunities to travel, particularly to Brussels and Strasbourg in connection with EU work, ECHR and Council of Europe work.

Is human rights law recession-proof?

This area of work is extremely buoyant and unlikely to be affected by economic recession. While immigration work may decline if fewer people seek employment in the UK, employment and criminal law work may increase.

What skills does a human rights law solicitor need to do the job? 

  • Imagination.
  • An analytical mind.
  • Good judgment.
  • Being comfortable advising in a world of grey areas. 

What is it like doing a trainee solicitor job in human rights law?

As part of the team, trainees respond to the work that comes in. Hours are fairly regular but on occasions longer hours may be necessary. Trainees will be involved in research, drafting, dealing with documents, advising on submissions to ministers (if working for the government), attending court and liaising with barristers.

Types of law practised

  • Human rights.
  • Public law.
  • Data protection.
  • European.
  • Tort. 

HARRIET NOWELL-SMITH is a lawyer in the HM Treasury legal team, which forms part of the GOVERNMENT LEGAL SERVICE. Harriet graduated from McGill University (Canada) with a degree in history and philosophy, and from the University of Toronto with a degree in law.

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