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. The long-term status of EU citizens in Britain and Britons in the EU has not yet been confirmed though it can safely be said that mass deportations are not going to happen. However, 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.
- In the run-up to Britain's actual exit from the EU there is likely to be an increase in EU and non-EU citizens and their dependants applying for permanent residence in the UK, and British expatriates applying for permanent residence in their adopted nations.
- If Britain were to step back entirely from EU law this would remove a ton of equalities and human rights provisions granted by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, these provisions have already been incorporated into domestic law (the UK even has some opt-outs from the Charter) and the government would need to expend significant political capital and time repealing them, making major alterations relatively unlikely.
- The Points Based System (PBS) of immigration means every employer now needs to obtain an immigration licence before being able to sponsor employees from abroad. The introduction of the controversial Tier 2 visa salary threshold in April 2016 means non-EU migrants who have been living in the UK for five years or more and have annual incomes below £35,000 are at risk of deportation. One of the main aims of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum was to give Britain greater controls over immigration, and policy changes in this area are to be expected once the UK has left the EU.
- 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). The proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act have been heavily criticised by legal experts and even some within the Conservative Party for being unworkable. Given the myriad constitutional headaches that Brexit brings with it, the government may choose to kick proposals surrounding the Human Rights Act into the long grass.
- 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 on businesses bringing migrant labour into the country.
- Cuts to legal aid have left thousands of children at risk of having to represent themselves in immigration tribunals as they no longer qualify for financial help. Entitlement to legal aid was removed from most immigration cases as the result of public spending cuts, though it is still available for asylum cases.
- The past decade has seen an enormous growth in human rights litigation, in both UK and European courts (ie the General Court of the EU, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights) as well as international tribunals. This case-driven development of human rights law is based on fundamental rights standards common to legal systems throughout Europe. It is unclear if and how this will change as a result of Brexit.
- Revelations about surveillance by Edward Snowden, the introduction of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) and the proposed 'snooper's charter' have brought the issue of human rights in the digital sphere to public attention. The controversial new Communications Data Bill will require telecoms providers to record users' data.