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’.
- 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.
- In March 2021, MPs voted a controversial set of changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing Courts Bill through to a second stage in parliament. The controversy surrounds the right of police to enforce restrictions on protests. In a year marked by highly significant events such as the murders of Sarah Everard and George Floyd, the changes have struck a nerve among many. Critics have pointed out that the right to protest is protected by the European Court of Human Rights.
- 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.
- One of the difficulties arising from the UK’s vaccine rollout in 2021 is how to ensure an equality of access and distribution. According to the UN treaty known as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), governments have a responsibility to recognise the right of everyone to the highest standards of physical health. Yet of the lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, a disproportionate number came from ethnic minority backgrounds. In a Guardian article published in April 2020, London Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed to the economic disadvantages faced by the BAME community as a key factor in this disparity, with problems such as exposure to overcrowded housing a key factor.
- In December 2020, the British Home Office made changes to national immigration rules, ensuring that rough sleepers (people sleeping in open-air areas or on the street) who were not European Economic Area nationals would be deported. The move, which came into force in January 2021, prompted widespread human rights concerns.
- The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 caused nations across the world to reflect on their treatment of black and minority ethnic citizens. Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental human right, and is enshrined in British law, but the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the UK pointed to a number of institutional issues that continue to disadvantage black citizens. In November 2020, The Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was lacking in the necessary resources to effectively enforce the rights of black people.
- As refugees and asylum seekers make their way to the UK, the Home Office has repeatedly promised resettlement as swiftly as possible. A recent case hit the headlines in which planned flights were cancelled due to concerns of the legality of the matter. The rushed affair brought to light that the Home Office has spent approximately £1 million deporting just 285 people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- 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. This could affect up to 3 million people.
- May 2021 saw a further outbreak of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza, involving multiple air strikes. An investigation into the conflict by the group, Human Rights Watch, concluded that a number of the strikes fired by both sides of the conflict were indiscriminate, resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties, and ultimately amounted to war crimes. According to the UN, around 260 people were killed in Gaza, at least 129 of which were civilians.
- In July 2021, the European Parliament voted to take action over a controversial new law passed in Hungary that bans the depiction of homosexuality to children under 18. The law pushes against the stance of the EU on such issues, and MEPs pointed to wider concerns around censorship and human rights in the country. MEPs appealed for action to be taken in the European Court of Justice against the government of Hungary.