Human rights and immigration

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.

Human Rights

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’.
  • 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.

Current issues

October 2023

  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing Courts Bill 2022 became an act of parliament in April 2022, which sparked concerns around the human rights of protesting being diminished by law officials. This new law allows police to restrict a protest if it results in serious public disorder, damage to property or disruption to live in a community. With recent protests regarding the murders of Sarah Everard and George Floyd at the forefront of people's minds, critics of the new bill highlight that importance of right to protest should be protected by the European Court of Human Rights. 
  • Recent protests causing change are the Just Stop Oil protests. The most famous was the groups protest disrupting the Dartford Tunnel Crossing. One of the protesters who suspended themselves above the bridge for 37 hours back in October 2022 received a three-year prison sentence. It had been identified as one of the longest sentences for peaceful climate protests in British History, despite claims from the defendant it was their right to peaceful protest. 
  • Concerns were raised around the Nationality and Borders Bill in July 2021 after it was pointed out that helping an asylum seeker to enter the UK would be classified as a criminal offense. Previously, it was only a criminal offense to assist asylum seekers entering the country if it was for ‘gain’. Critics highlighted that this could raise interesting implications for charities and rescue services at sea.
  • The situation in Hong Kong has been another focal point in recent times. With China introducing new security laws that threaten the former British colony's special status, the UK government has responded with various proposals including allowing Hong Kong residents to apply for British citizenship. A recent proposal was just rejected by the UK government regarding the Hong Kong visa scheme as the scope for entry is too broad for the government. As this continues to go back and forth, it is said up to 3 million people's lives could be affected.
  • There have been a multitude of attacks as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most recently, the UN has condemned Israel’s attack on refugee camp in the West Bank where over 100 civilians were caught in the crossfire. The attack also affected schools, hospitals and disrupted the areas water and electricity networks. The UN reminded Israel that they should be adhering to international law and the responsibility as occupying power to protect civillians from acts of violence. 
  • In June 2022, the first flight scheduled to depart for Rwanda as part of the UK Government’s Rwanda Asylum Plan was cancelled after last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. A High Court hearing scheduled for September is set to determine whether or not the UK Government’s plan was lawful. In the interim, early court hearings have suggested that the policy was pushed through by the government despite repeated concerns from the Foreign Office about human rights abuses in Rwanda, including the forced recruitment of refugees into the country’s military.  
  • As one of the most high-profile conflicts in Europe since the Second World War, the war in Ukraine has raised concerns of human rights abuses, with allegations of deliberate attacks on schools, hospitals, and the civilian ‘corridors’ designed to allow non-military personnel to flee the conflict safelyIn response to what Ukraine claimed was a calculated attack on buildings housing civilians, Ukraine has started a case against Russia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ),yet any ruling against Russia would need to be enforced by the UN Security Council, a group of which Russia is a permanent member. 
  • There have been some big cases in Asia regarding human rights concerns. The UN’s international court of Justice has rejected the appeal of Myanmar regarding its alleged genocide of the Rohingya Muslims between 2016 and 2017 after 70,000 Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh claiming there was a force behind ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. In China, the UN has raised concerns of human rights abuse against Uyghur Muslims. There are reports of forced detention in re-education camps” where torture and forced sterilization has occurred.