Human rights law: area of practice (barristers)

Barristers practising human rights law work on headline-grabbing cases about the fundamental freedoms citizens request of their state.

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There is normally an interesting human and legal dimension – you may have sympathy for a client who has suffered terrible experiences, but you may also have a client about whose actions you have mixed feelings.

The majority of human rights work at the Bar involves a challenge to the exercise of governmental or public power. Human rights challenges are typically brought by reference to the Human Rights Act as well as by reference to the common law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and other specific bodies of law such as international humanitarian law (which regulates armed conflict) and international human rights treaties.

Prominent cases in human rights law

There is no such thing as a typical human rights case and litigation can arise out of a wide range of different issues. Recent prominent examples include cases concerning detention, torture and extraordinary rendition during armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; challenges to the police and intelligence services’ ability to access electronic communications and other private information; and challenges to the legality of suspicionless stop and search powers.

Cases may vary in length depending on complexity and the issues raised. For example, two prominent detention and rendition cases, Belhaj and Rahmatullah , have lasted for five years already and raise important issues of public international law and domestic constitutional law. Not every case will last years; cases with straightforward facts and legal issues can be resolved much more quickly.

Human rights proceedings usually start at the High Court or the investigatory powers tribunal and frequently go to the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. On average, perhaps one week out of every month is spent in court, with the remaining time spent working from chambers.

Clients from any and all backgrounds may bring claims against the government, but it is particularly common to find yourself acting for
disadvantaged clients (eg unaccompanied child refugees) or unpopular ones (eg alleged terrorists). Once a barrister has been in practice for some years, they may be appointed to the attorney general’s panels of counsel to defend the state from claims brought against it.

It is not unusual to have six or seven big, long-running human rights cases at any one time, but human rights will likely be part of a wider practice that could include public law or other areas of practice. Travel overseas is common and you may find yourself abroad several times a year, depending on the cases you are working on.

An area of legal practice with interesting human and legal dimensions

One of the best aspects of this area of practice is that it is fascinating, intellectually challenging and engages profound questions about the relationship between the courts, the government and Parliament. There is normally an interesting human and legal dimension – you may have sympathy for a client who has suffered terrible experiences, but you may also have a client about whose actions you have mixed feelings. You have to do the best you can as an advocate in either case.

The downside can be the hours. Where two or three cases kick off simultaneously, an 80–90 hour week is not unusual. Every barrister will need to make their own assessment about the amount of work they are prepared to undertake in order develop and maintain a practice in their chosen area(s).

How recession-proof is human rights law?

Human rights cases may be funded by legal aid or under conditional fee agreements (CFAs). A CFA means that you don’t get paid unless you win, but also until you win. You will need other streams of work in the meantime, which could be affected by a recession.

What sort of work do pupils at the human rights Bar do?

Pupils (or at Matrix, trainees) keep reasonable working hours and don’t, or rarely, work late or at weekends. They are normally moved between supervisors to experience of a broad spectrum of chambers’ work. Pupils will be doing paperwork and drafting, perhaps producing a first draft of a skeleton argument, particulars of claim or a longer advice. A supervisor may use that draft as a basis for their own document, or may revise it completely, explaining why they chose to take a different direction. Pupils will likely not take their own cases until after the tenancy decision.

Types of law practised

  • European.
  • Strasbourg court case law.
  • Public international law.
  • Public law.
  • Judicial review.
  • International humanitarian law.
  • Human rights.

Good human rights barristers have...

  • Sensitive interpersonal skills –this helps with clients (many of whom may be vulnerable) but will also put you in good stead with solicitors and barristers looking for enthusiastic juniors for future cases.
  • A cool head and a calm temperament.
  • A genuine interest in the subject matter.

EDWARD CRAVEN graduated with a degree in law from Cambridge University in 2006. He was called to the Bar in 2007 and completed a family law pupillage but decided to change areas of law. He undertook a further traineeship at MATRIX CHAMBERS before accepting tenancy in 2011.

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