Article by Rabah Kherbane and Helen Longworth
No conference for a student lawyer audience would be complete without a session to ask what you want. JUSTICE went a step further and ran two, so everyone could get to an issues-based workshop without missing the Human Rights Q&A.
This was an open floor question and answer format, to an expert panel. The panel featured Deba Das, associate at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Julia Farrant, Barrister at Furnival Chambers; and Kate Beattie, Barrister at 1 Crown Office Row. The Director of JUSTICE, Amanda Coomber, was also present.
Recounting every question asked and answer received would be impossible, so the two reflective discussions below should hopefully relay a substantive summary of the sessions.
The first question dug deep into current affairs, questioning the impact of any repeal of the Human Rights Act. Amanda Coomber, Director of JUSTICE responded confidently, “it’s a political threat rooted primarily in rhetoric… even the Tories, prominent frontbenchers and backbenchers are not united on this” she says.
She went on to explain how it was simply “cheap politics” in play and even if the Human Rights Act were repealed, the common law on the European Convention on Human Rights, which has developed over the past 16 years, would not necessarily disappear overnight.
Interestingly, she mentioned how the “British Bill of Rights” proposed would practically encompass the same rights enshrined by the Convention. No real difference would be made. Especially since Britain would remain in the Council of Europe and effectively under the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights.
Deba Das, who focuses mainly on EU litigation, noted that since most transactions of a commercial nature (for the purposes of his litigation) were transnational, the European Convention on Human Rights would remain relevant. This is because the standard of human rights would not change in other European countries and would thus apply to Britain anyhow.
The panel was then asked “how to become a human rights lawyer”. They all agreed that there was rarely such a thing as “pure human rights” and that a career in human rights, meant that you must decide which “context” you would want to practice human rights in.
As in: Human rights where exactly? Family, employment, crime, or elsewhere? Once in a legal profession, it is also useful to go on secondments and improve relations within the human rights field, they say. With charities or NGOs, for example. These opportunities must be actively sought, even when your career has begun. Human rights is not so much a graduate job as a progressive shift into the field.
The panel also jokingly (or perhaps seriously) warned that trauma was part of the job, as well as a reality check that the average take home income for criminal barristers in the first years of tenancy is around £15,000.
The second session was followed by a group overview of the human rights year from Angela Patrick, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE. She gave the audience a reading list including R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice, Baronness Hale’s speech from P v Cheshire West and the austerity and justice case R (Public Law project v Secretary of State for Justice. Patrick characterized 2015 as the year of the Rights Election, warning that the threats to the universal protection of the Human Rights Act haven’t gone away, nor have damaging ideas on counter-terrorism, criminal procedure, and investigatory powers. There is a lot to learn and a lot to get involved with, even if it feels like the standard professional opportunities are shrinking under the legal aid cuts.
In effect, the message was more of “do a job and build human rights in”. As Coomber observed, “a career is something you reflect on, not something you plan.” Start now, whatever areas you end up in you can champion access to justice and use human rights as a tool to support your clients and the rule of law as a whole.
Find out more about the work of the JUSTICE Student Network.