Tuesday, 8 July 2008

What is a "Human Rights Lawyer"?

Whenever some nutty proposition is debated on my radio there seems to be a "human rights lawyer" on hand to pontificate on the effect of said proposition on human rights. I wonder what expertise they require in order to be called a "human rights lawyer" and to get airtime on the BBC.

Let us take a different case to examine the principle. Say someone has won substantial damages to compensate for injuries suffered at work. In case the radio audience does not know how the law operates in relation to industrial injuries it is common for a lawyer with particular experience in such cases to explain it. Not every lawyer is qualified to do so because that area of law involves concepts and procedures which do not arise in other fields. Similarly, if a question arises about why someone was given a particular length of prison sentence, a lawyer specialising in criminal law might be interviewed because he has the necessary specialist knowledge to guide the audience through the rat's maze of sentencing statutes and guidelines.

The problem with human rights law is that everyone needs to know about it in order to be able practice law in any field. Even the more esoteric areas, such as shipping and international electronic trading law, are affected by the Human Rights Act. Having said that, it is the case that some lawyers spend all their time putting forward claims based on alleged breaches of the Human Rights Act, these are the self-defined "human rights lawyers" we hear on our radios, see on our televisions and read about in our newspapers. But who are they and what makes them suitable spokespeople?

The first thing we can see about them is that they are the very same people who lobbied for the European Convention on Human Rights to be introduced into English law in the first place. It's quite a little gravy train. You lobby for a law to be brought in and achieve a public profile by doing so. When that law is brought in you are first in the queue for the work because of your self-promotion during the lobbying process. You know all along that one aspect of the new law is that Legal Aid will always be available for cases carrying the "human rights" tag and, abracadabra, you're coining it in until the trump of doom.

The second thing we see, as observed above, is that they are almost all dedicated self-publicists. Not for them just turning up at court, arguing the case and going back to the office to prepare the next one. Oh no, they feed on the bright lights of publicity and must let everyone know of their success or bleat about the oppressive, public school, old-boy-network establishment which caused their defeat. This does not make them experts, it just makes them loud.

Thirdly, they are almost all dedicated socialists usually of the champagne variety. Many, such as the absurd Harriet Harman, enter mainstream politics and show their true colours by introducing policies that cut to the heart of one of the most essential human right of all - the right to live your life without the government sticking its nose into your business every 5 minutes. They do so because they believe that the government's primary role is to define how people should live. Laws are passed to make that style of life compulsory and, as a necessary consequence, to give government the power to make sure we are all doing as directed. In their minds this does not impinge on our human rights because the defined lifestyle is the only right way to behave. If we are found not to be behaving as we should we are damaging ourselves and others and it is the job of government to step in to protect the human rights of those suffering through our wickedness.

Fourthly, the law they claim to know about is set out in a number of general principles - the right to life, the right to liberty and security, the right to freedom of expression and so on. These can mean just about anything depending on ones point of view. Some restriction of meaning is provided in the Convention itself and by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, but not much, even the most closely defined is still incredibly woolly. Anyone claiming to be a "human rights lawyer" is simply putting forward their opinion of how the general principles should apply. Generally speaking they cannot say how those principles will apply because that cannot be predicted with accuracy. Their opinion is no more expert than that of any other lawyer who approaches the matters from a different perspective. They are hardly likely to suggest that the Act will be applied in a way that will restrict the number of cases they can bring at public expense.

Next time you hear one of the BBC's tame Human Rights Lawyers pontificating, bear in mind that you are almost certainly listening to a political statement not a legal analysis.

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