In a nutshell
Human rights lawyers protest injustice and fight for principles at the point of intersection between the state’s powers and individuals’ rights. Cases usually relate in some way to the UK’s ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) through the Human Rights Act and crop up in criminal and civil contexts, often through the medium of judicial review, a key tool in questioning the decisions of public bodies. Civil contexts include claims regarding the right to education or community care under the Mental Health Act, cases of discrimination at work and even family issues. Criminal contexts could relate to complaints against the police, prisoners’ issues, public order convictions following demonstrations or perhaps extradition on terror charges.
Immigration lawyers deal with both business and personal immigration matters. The former is the more lucrative of the two areas, and sees lawyers assist highly skilled migrants in obtaining residency or leave to remain in the UK and helping non-nationals secure visas for travel abroad. Lawyers also work with companies that need to bring in employees from overseas. Personal immigration lawyers represent individuals who have fled persecution in their country of origin. They also take on cases for people whose right to stay in the UK is under threat or indeed entirely absent. All facets of immigration law are likely to see complex changes in the wake of the UK's decision to leave the EU.
What lawyers do
Business immigration lawyers
- Advise and assist businesses or their employees in relation to work permits and visas. Lawyers need to be up to speed on all current schemes, such as those for highly skilled migrants and investors.
- Prepare for, attend and advocate at tribunals or court hearings, where necessary instructing a barrister to do so.
Personal immigration lawyers
- Advise clients on their status and rights within the UK.
- Secure evidence of a client’s identity, medical reports and witness statements, and prepare cases for court hearings or appeals. Represent clients or instruct a barrister to do so.
- Undertake an immense amount of unremunerated form filling and legal aid paperwork.
The realities of the job
- The competition for training contracts is huge. Voluntary work at a law centre or specialist voluntary organisation, or other relevant experience, is essential.
- A commitment to and belief in the values you’re fighting for is essential in this relatively low-paid area. Work in the voluntary sector or taking on important cases pro bono can provide the greatest satisfaction.
- Because much of the work is publicly funded, firms do not usually offer attractive trainee salaries or sponsorship through law school.
- Sensitivity and empathy are absolutely essential because you’ll often be dealing with highly emotional people, those with mental health issues or those who simply don’t appreciate the full extent of their legal predicament.
- Strong analytical skills are required to pick out the legal issues you can change from the socio-economic ones beyond your control.
- In the battle against red tape and institutional indifference, organisational skills and a vast store of patience are valuable assets.
- Opportunities for advocacy are abundant, which means that knowledge of court and tribunal procedures is a fundamental requirement. Often cases must pass through every possible stage of appeal before referral to judicial review or the Supreme Court.
- If working within a commercial firm, the clients will be businesses and public sector organisations. As such there will be less of a campaigning element to the work and you will not necessarily feel you are ‘on the side of the angels’.
- Human rights and immigration law could be one of the areas most affected by the UK's decision to leave the EU. There is an atmosphere of uncertainty as regards the future of the free movement of people between EU member states and the UK; controls on immigration from the EU are likely to be introduced. Employment law protections and free movement could be stripped from domestic legislation, although if the UK were to remain part to the European Economic Area Agreement, like Norway, it would remain subject to such EU laws.
- Brexit has generated serious concern among foreign nationals living in the UK about their ability to remain in the country long-term. In 2016, 92,000 permanent residency applications were received, with a sharp spike recorded shortly after the June referendum. In a bid to stem the flood of applications, the Home Office asked prospective residency applicants to sign up for email alerts that would inform them if they needed to take action. The run-up to Britain's actual exit will likely see an increase in this trend, with British expatriates also scrambling to apply for permanent residency in their adopted nations.
- Employers now need to obtain an immigration licence before being able to sponsor employees from abroad. A controversial change to the Tier 2 visa salary threshold in April 2016 also put some non-EEA and Swiss migrants living in the UK at risk of deportation if their annual income fell below £35,000. In addition, the general Tier 2 visa salary threshold has been raised to £30,000 for incoming migrants and prospective applicants wishing to come into the country.
- After the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, they renewed their manifesto promise to scrap the 1998 Human Rights Act and replace it with a 'British Bill of Rights.' In April 2016, while still Home Secretary, Theresa May went one step further and said that the UK should withdraw entirely from the ECHR. However, she has now stated that she will not attempt to take Britain out of the ECHR as prime minister (though Britain's exit from the EU in theory makes this easier).
- As of 12 May 2016 the new Immigration Act introduced sanctions on illegal migrants working in the UK, on employers who have illegal migrants working for them, on landlords who fail to take steps to remove illegal migrants from their property, and on illegal migrants attempting to gain access to housing, driving licences and bank accounts. Further developments include increased powers for enforcement officers to search suspected illegal migrants and their properties, and a new skills levy (brought into force in April 2017) on businesses bringing migrant labour into the country.
- Access to legal advice and representation remains a serious problem for those unable to afford it. According to a Bail for Immigration Detainees survey (published in June 2017) one in ten individuals detained under immigration powers have never had any legal advice and only two thirds of detainees have had a legal representative. Entitlement to legal aid was removed from most immigration cases as the result of public spending cuts, though it is still available for various asylum cases.
- The issue of human rights in the digital sphere continues to draw public attention, particularly with regard to the controversial new Investigatory Powers Act. It requires telecoms providers to record users' data for 12-month periods and allows government agencies – ranging from HM Revenue & Customs, the Competition and Markets Authority, the National Crime Agency and the Food Standards Agency – to access that information. Security agencies and law enforcement can hack into computers, phones and networks, while the law can also force companies to create a back door for the government to access encrypted data.
As should be obvious, this area can become heavily politicised, probably more than any other area at the moment. Lawyers should have a thick skin.