On December 10 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states the inalienable rights that all human beings are entitled to. December 10 has since become known as Human Rights Day and this year’s celebration will see the beginning of a year-long campaign which will culminate in the 70th anniversary of the UDHR next December.

The work of human rights lawyers revolves around enforcing these fundamental rights as set out in the UDHR. Lawyers began to specialise in human rights in the UK after the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) came into force in the year 2000. This was the first time that human rights, EU, and international legal principles were officially drawn into English law.

Some are hesitant to describe human rights as a separate practice area as these rights play a part in many legal areas. It is not just the domain of human rights lawyers as those specialising in areas such as criminal law, family law, or immigration, to name a few, will all come across matters relating to human rights. Many public justice issues are covered by human rights law, such as discrimination, freedom of speech, and prisoners’ rights.

The work itself is varied and can involve anything from immigration, family law, or even commercial disputes. There are opportunities for human rights lawyers in both private practice and in government.

Private practice human rights lawyers might find themselves advising police on cases, obtaining privacy injunctions, or conducting proceedings against organisations or even the government. Human rights lawyers who work in government themselves, are concerned with ensuring that the policies of all government departments comply with human rights laws. Those human rights lawyers who work on an international level, do so no matter where infringements have taken place.

There are opportunities to travel, especially if you are a government lawyer. However, it is useful to note that the stereotypical image of the jetsetting human rights lawyer is often exaggerated.

If you are more motivated by the idea of making a positive change to people’s lives, rather than the idea of making the big bucks in commercial firms in the City, this could be the practice area for you. Read on to find out more.

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What does a human rights lawyer do?

Given the range of areas that are affected by human rights, the day-to-day responsibilities of a human rights lawyer could vary greatly. Here are some of the tasks that you might take on:

  • Advocating on behalf of victims of human rights violations
  • Advising clients and making sure they are aware of their rights
  • Talking to clients and witnesses to gather statements
  • Writing legal documents for each case
  • Researching previous cases
  • Negotiating with lawyers representing other parties
  • Ensuring that any agreements reached are implemented

There are many projects around the world that greatly value the help of human rights lawyers. For example, Article 19 (who take their name from the 19th article of the UDHR) helps people exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The Right to Education Initiative envisions a future where access to education is available world-wide. Interested in women’s rights? The UN Women site lists plenty of opportunities to get involved. Amnesty International also run many human rights campaigns across the globe.

 

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What qualifications do you need to become a human rights lawyer?

To work as a human rights lawyer, you first become a lawyer (usually a solicitor or barrister) and then take on human rights cases.

If you choose to become a solicitor, there are several routes you could take to qualify. The usual route is via a degree. You can take a law degree or an alternative degree accompanied by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). You will then be able to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC), followed by a two-year training contract. Whilst completing your training contract, you will complete the Professional Skills Course (PSC), which will allow you to apply to be accepted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) onto the roll of solicitors. For more information on alternative routes to becoming a solicitor, read our full job description.

If you choose to become a barrister, you also start with a law degree or an alternative degree with a GDL. Your next step is then to pass the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) which usually takes a year to complete. The final stage is pupillage which will usually take place in chambers and is similar to an apprenticeship. For more information on becoming a barrister, read our full job description.

What skills do you need to become a human rights lawyer?

Academic ability: The qualification route to becoming a lawyer is demanding academically and you will need good grades at secondary school level to be accepted onto a law course at university. You will need this ability to be able to cope with many of the duties of a lawyer, such as research and writing legal documents.

Communication skills: This is especially important for human rights lawyers. You will need to help clients who may be victims of any number of human rights violations speak clearly about their case when this may be quite difficult for them.

Written communication skills: This is important for writing legal documents which may be used in court.

Debating and negotiation skills: You will need to have good negotiation skills or debating skills if the case reaches court to give your client the best possible chance of success.

Research skills: You will frequently have to explore previous cases or certain area of the law further.

The ability to work under pressure: This role might require long hours depending on the nature of the cases you take on. There may also be tight deadlines that you have to work to.  

Problem solving skills: To find the best solution for your client, you will need a logical and analytical mind.

An eye for detail: You will need to make sure that your research is thorough and that you draft your documents accurately.

How much does a human rights lawyer earn?

This can vary greatly depending on the types of cases you take on and whether you work in private practice or for an organisation. Solicitors typically earn around £25,000 when they first qualify and this can rise to in excess of £100,000 per annum. Barristers might also start on around £25,000 which can sometimes rise to over £1,000,000 per annum in private practice.  

What are your career prospects as a human rights lawyer?

Your career prospects as a human rights lawyer are wide-ranging. You could work anywhere in the world and for a range of organisations, including governments, private firms, or NGOs.

As a fully-qualified lawyer, you will also have the option of specialising in another area of law if you find that human rights cases aren’t for you.

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