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Human Rights at the Bar - Nicholas Clark

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

In England, careers with the Bar carry a significant air of prestige and mystique, with many ambitious students striving towards commercial careers working at a chambers. While commercial work attracts many students with the promise of a highly lucrative career, a significant number of barristers work in the human rights space. While human rights work may in the eyes of some be less glamorous, with lower compensation and difficult, complex cases, the work of human rights barristers is remarkably broad and important.

Many chambers maintain a body of diverse human rights expertise, which may then be called upon to represent both domestic and international clients. A human rights barrister may regularly appear in international courts adjudicating on international human rights issues governed by convection, such as the International Criminal Court. Within the UK, a human rights barrister may work on ECHR issues, incorporated into domestic law by the 1998 Human Rights Act. Other fields of practice may also necessarily involve the discussion of human rights issues - for instance, criminal and administrative practice at the Bar routinely invokes the employment and interpretation of the ECHR, and necessitates human rights counsel.

A number of organisations affiliated with the Bar work to promote human rights, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. The Bar Human Rights Committee, under the Bar of England and Wales, works towards “promoting justice and respect for human rights through the rule of law”, with an internationally oriented perspective. Barristers working with the BHRC work to promote human rights objectives by supporting practising lawyers internationally, working with human rights organisations, and providing training and resources to assist in the development of human rights protections overseas. Accordingly, working with the Bar allows opportunities to expose practitioners to a wide variety of real-world work and action.

For those interested in pursuing a Bar career in human rights law, the pathway for human rights barristers is similar for other practitioners. Students must first obtain a qualifying law degree, or convert a non-law undergraduate degree with the GDL, followed by the Bar Professional Training Course and the acquisition of a pupillage. Students interested in a Bar career, in addition to an excellent academic portfolio must also demonstrate interest and gain experience in advocacy work through mooting and undergraduate legal experience, such as mini-pupillages.

Engagement with human rights issues at an undergraduate level is an excellent opportunity to gain experience with a complex and fast-moving area of law with significant humanitarian implications. Setting your sights on a Bar career in human rights will require you to be ambitious and hardworking, and pay for junior human rights barristers lags behind that of practitioners in commercial areas of law. It is undeniable, however, that the work barristers do to promote human rights is invaluable, and aspiring lawyers would do well to fully examine the scope of activities that take place under the umbrella of human rights law.

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