Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

What Do Human Rights Lawyers Do?

A human rights lawyer is a legal representative who specialises in protecting the fundamental rights of people. Some human rights lawyers work from offices, others stand in court, and some are on the frontline in conflict zones, ensuring that vulnerable communities receive their basic rights. This article explores the wide range of work conducted by human rights lawyers, from representing a person at risk of becoming homeless, to acting for international non-governmental organisations who seek to challenge government activities, to ensuring that former dictators charged with war crimes receive a fair trial. Human rights lawyers also do many other types of work – these are just some examples!

Represent individuals in human rights claims for compensation

This is one of the most common types of work undertaken by human rights lawyers. Say for example, a person is unlawfully detained by immigration authorities. A human rights lawyer may be able to assist them obtain compensation from the government to compensate them for the time that they were deprived of their liberty. Another example would be if a person was discriminated against on the basis of a protected characteristic such as their sexuality or their race. For example, in 2019 two British paratroopers won a discrimination claim against the Ministry of Defence, for years of racist abuse which they endured. Their lawyers will have helped them to obtain a financial pay-out and an acknowledgement of responsibility from the Ministry of Defence in respect of what took place.

In these types of scenarios, a human rights lawyer would usually meet with their client to take their detailed account of what happened, and help them obtain all the relevant evidence. They would then write to the opponent explaining the case against them. If the opponent does not agree to settle the matter outside of court, the human rights lawyer would help the client start court proceedings against the opponent.

Challenge government decisions on the basis that they are unlawful

Another important activity undertaken by human rights lawyers is to challenge governmental decision-making through the courts. In England and Wales (and in some other jurisdictions), this process is known as a judicial review. The human rights lawyer would ask the court to review the government’s decision on the basis that the government acted irrationally, exceeded their power, or acted unfairly. Human rights lawyers use the judicial review process in a wide range of situations from preventing a person from being evicted unlawfully, to attempting to stop an asylum seeker from being deported to their country of origin, to challenging the decision-making powers of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Often these types of cases are very urgent, as they involve the client trying to stop an imminent event from happening. This means that the human rights lawyer must act quickly and efficiently to secure funding and bring the claim to court.

Act for families in inquests into the death of their loved ones

Where a person has died unexpectedly whilst in the care of the state, such as in a prison, in police custody or at a military training facility, there will usually be an inquest into their death. For example, the Deepcut inquest, investigated the deaths of four soldiers at a military training barracks in Surrey, England. An inquest is a fact-finding court case which seeks to explore the circumstances of a person’s death. In England and Wales, where it is suspected that a human rights violation has occurred, an in-depth inquest will take place before a jury. Human rights lawyers play an important role in this process, by acting on behalf of the family of the deceased to make sure that relevant witnesses are called, and the right questions are asked so that the truth of what happened to the deceased can be revealed.

Help individuals or organisations obtain protective injunctions

An injunction is a court order preventing a person from undertaking a certain action, or ordering a person to fulfil a certain action. Human rights lawyers often seek injunctions for their clients. For example, a human rights lawyer may help a victim of domestic violence seek a protection order preventing their partner from entering their home or from contacting them. Injunctions are also often used by human rights lawyers who specialise in media law to try to prevent a breach of a person’s privacy. For example, one celebrity successfully obtained an injunction preventing the publication of details of their affair with a prostitute. The impact of this court order was that the press could not print any identifying details in relation to the celebrity.

Act on behalf of groups of individuals at Commissions and Inquiries

Where there has been a wide-scale breach of human rights, such as an event which has resulted in the loss of many lives, it is common for a nation to hold a commission or an inquiry to establish the facts of what took place, and to learn lessons for the future. Examples include South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Chile’s Rettig Commission. Human rights lawyers play an important role in these events, by representing interested persons. For example, in the Grenfell Tower Fire Public Inquiry, human rights lawyers represented the survivors of the fire, and the family members of those who died. They helped ensure that voices of the interested persons were heard by the chair of the inquiry. These lawyers worked together as a team to help ensure that the inquiry focussed on the most important issues. Their work helped the inquiry to prove that incorrect building materials had been used by the local authority’s building contractors when the tower was re-furbished, which contributed to the spread of the fire.

Work on Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives

Large law firms and other companies have a moral obligation to give back to the communities in which they operate. Some employ human rights lawyers within their corporate social responsibility team, in order to head up human rights orientated projects such as running legal advice drop in centres. For example, corporate law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer specialises in providing its clients with advice on business and human rights, such as human rights policies and compliance, and the impact of human rights legislation such as the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015. It has also contributed to the development of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Direct or advise Non-Governmental Organisations

Many human rights lawyers work for human rights organizations with a specific mission or cause. For example, Martha Spurrier is the director of human rights and civil liberties organisation, Liberty. Their mission is to defend freedom, and campaign to ensure that everyone in the UK is treated fairly. As director, she is responsible for helping to define their key priority issues – such as facial recognition, and the threat to the Human Rights Act. Human rights lawyer also often work for human rights organisations in an advisory capacity, providing expertise on key issues.

Help to write human rights legislation, policies and conventions

Some human rights lawyers work in national and regional government to help draft human rights legislation and regulations. For example, lawyers at the Government Legal Service in England and Wales provide the government with advice and help write new laws. Human rights lawyers also work for governmental organisations such as human rights and equality commissions, developing policies, and holding the government accountable to its human rights promises.

Human rights lawyers also work for the United Nations, assisting with writing human rights treaties and conventions and monitoring their implementation. For example, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is made up of a panel of human rights law experts from across the world, such as Japanese Hiroko Akizuki, a professor of international law at Asia University, and Gunnar Bergby, who is the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court in Norway. These experts help to monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Represent or prosecute criminals charged with war crimes

Human rights lawyers specialising in International Criminal Law represent the prosecution and the defence at the International Criminal Court. For example, ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor was prosecuted for war crimes in Sierra Leone. In 2012, he was sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment. He was represented by Courtenay Griffiths QC. Griffiths worked hard to ensure that Taylor had a fair trial, in spite of the international condemnation of his actions. When interviewed about his involvement in the case, Griffiths explained his belief that “It is right and proper that a defendant, however heinous the crime committed, has the right to the best representation.”

Take part in humanitarian work

Human rights lawyers work on the ground in conflict zones as protection officers to ensure that vulnerable communities receive the legal protection that they need. Protection officers are employed by the UNHCR, as well as other non-governmental organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Non-Violent Peaceforce. They use international, regional and national human rights laws to provide assistance to individuals and communities who are subject to human rights violations. For example, in South Sudan, protection officers work in the field to reduce community-based violence, to protect children, and to help tackle sexual and gender-based violence. In refugee camps in Kenya, protection officers assist displaced people from neighbouring countries, including helping some to obtain refugee status.

These are just a few examples of work undertaken by human rights lawyers. If you are interested in becoming a human rights lawyer, you should first pursue your legal qualifications. At the same time, do as much voluntary or pro bono human rights work as possible, to build your experience and help you to discover your interests.

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.