The Oxford Human Rights Student Society hosted their first event of the term this week: a panel discussion with Helen Mountfield QC and David Isaac CBE. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, from the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) within the UK’s legal system to tips for aspiring human rights lawyers. This was a sprawling but deeply interesting discussion which sets a high bar for the rest of the term’s events.
The evening began with brief but informative introductions, after which Helen and David engaged in a brilliant discussion on the role of the ECHR and human rights lawyers in general. The difference in their respective backgrounds was particularly interesting: David, a City solicitor turned Chair of the ECHR; Helen, a through and through equality and human rights barrister. Both, however, were extremely knowledgeable, warm and engaging. This diversity of background provoked fascinating perspectives. David often approached questions and topics from an institutional point of view: as Chair of the Commission, it was ultimately his decision to determine which cases to pursue. In contrast, Helen provided hands-on analysis of what arguing equality and human rights cases is truly like. This procedural perspective was evidenced in her humility when stating that she lost most of the cases the ECHR instructed her in. This difference provided a fruitful overview of what working in the areas of equality and human rights can entail.
A key theme of the evening was the role of the ECHR within the UK’s legal and governmental system. Helen helpfully stressed that even judges require reminding that the ECHR is the government’s independent human rights body: it is not a pressure group such as Liberty or JUSTICE. This gives it prestige and raises the profile of the cases it pursues. But this is not without significant consequences. David charted the shift in governmental attitude to the Commission. What began with a £70 million budget now survives on £17 million. One cannot help but wonder the implications this has for the Commission’s ability to fulfil its primary objective: the protection of equalities and human rights.
A further issue was raised surrounding the quasi-political nature of the body. Although the ECHR is supposedly independent, it receives its funding from a government department, and through this, is ultimately answerable to the government. Moreover, for a Chair to be reappointed, they must remain in favour with the Prime Minister of the day. This hardly ensures independence. Interpret David’s singular term as you wish.
The evening did end on a positive note. Both Helen and David stated their hope and belief in the next generation, and the progress that can be achieved. This generation’s greater awareness, coupled with the determination that change can be effected is essential to the protection of equality and human rights. Although Helen struck a cautious tone, warning of the growing hostility towards democracy and threats to the rule of law, the conclusion was generally one of hope. As an openly gay man, David reflected on the progress that has been achieved in his time, emphasizing that more was certainly to come.
In all, it was a thought-provoking event with two eminent speakers. Make sure to keep an eye on OHRSS’s term card for more fascinating events!