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.
- 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 it remains to be seen what will be carried over as part of the country's future relationship with the bloc. Some have feared that British government talk of deregulation will weaken the rights of workers and immigrants to the UK.
- 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 residence 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 full withdrawal will probably see an increase in this trend, with British expatriates continuing to apply for permanent residency in their adopted nations.
- Controversy continues to emerge from the Windrush scandal, which erupted in 2018 after it emerged that more than 80 people (at least) were wrongly detained and threatened with deportation. The scandal lead to the resignation of then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd and prompted more widespread concern about UK immigration authorities' practices.
- The Home Office Immigration Unit continues to draw criticism, with Priti Patel under fire for a more hardline approach to movement of people than previous Home Secretaries. The lack of diversity within the senior ranks of the Home Office not only risks a repeat of the Windrush scandal, but leaves the government open to criticism as it draws up post-Brexit criteria for immigration to the UK.
- It's unclear for now what effect the UK's new immigration rules will have on the numbers of migrants coming to the country. Government officials have signalled (directly or otherwise) an aim for numbers to come down, but plans in the early days of the post-2010 Conservative government for immigration in the 'tens of thousands' were officially axed by Boris Johnson in 2019. It's likely that immigration from outside the EU will make up a larger proportion of the total numbers than before Brexit, as a more 'level' playing field is introduced.
- 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 figures that the Home Office has spent approximately £1 million deporting just 285 people, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Lockdown plans during the coronavirus crisis have in turn prompted questions of human rights. Concerns have been voiced from both sides of the political spectrum, with lawyers and commentators arguing that Covid-19 restrictions should not infringe unnecessarily on human rights or be imposed beyond a particular time period. Former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has been an especially vocal critic of lockdown measures and their infringement of civil liberties.
- The situation in Hong Kong has been another focal point in 2020. With China introducing new security laws that threaten the former British colony's special status, the UK government has responded with various proposals including Hong Kong residents ultimately becoming able to apply for British citizenship. This could affect up to 3 million people.
- The issue of human rights in the digital sphere continues to draw public attention, particularly with regard to the controversial Investigatory Powers Act. It requires telecoms providers to record users' data for twelve-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. After a 2018 ruling that the Act violates EU law, the government introduced The Data Retention and Acquisition Regulations 2018 to address the ruling: this tightened the requirements for accessing data, requiring suspicion of a serious crime.