University: University of Cambridge
Human rights law is essential for a fair and civilised society where all are protected, including the vulnerable, and is a popular choice for students and practitioners. University law faculties are increasingly offering human rights modules as part of their law degrees and more firms and chambers are boasting specialisms in the field. The introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 made the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly enforceable in the national courts.
Aiming for the Bar was a carefully considered choice for human rights lawyer Fiona Scolding QC. Believing that she had the right qualities to excel as a barrister, including an affinity for working alone and the ability to shoulder responsibility, Fiona remembers why she pursued the career path: “I knew I wanted to represent people in court and I liked the thought of being the front person for an idea. I like being a speechmaker.”
A gradual shift
Fiona explains how she did very little human rights work during her pupillage at a common law set, although there were some elements that touched upon the subject, such as actions against the police, and clinical negligence or injury. “Since I was a pupil before the Human Rights Act came into place, nobody really talked about human rights back then,” she says. “It was something that happened in Europe, but you didn’t use it in your domestic practice on a day-to-day basis.”
After moving to become a tenant elsewhere, Fiona found there was a gradual shift into working within the area of human rights as she took on cases related to housing, education or children – all of which had a human rights component. When the Human Rights Act came into force in 1998, it encompassed areas of the law in which she had already operated, so it was only natural to add it to her practice.
Set of principles
Discussing her career in the field, Fiona questions the very definition of her job title. “What is a human rights barrister?” she asks. “You’ve got human rights cases that deal with property law, criminal law and family law to name a few. Human rights are just a set of principles that you can apply to pretty much any area of practice.”
With that in mind, Fiona now specialises in social welfare law, with particular focus on representing children, vulnerable adults and people with disabilities. “As part of my role as counsel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, I am spending a lot of time at the moment investigating various institutions,” she says, explaining that a current project she is working on looks at the way the Church of England dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse over a 40-year period.
You’ve got human rights cases that deal with property law, criminal law and family law to name a few – human rights are just a set of principles that you can apply to pretty much any area of practice.
Within her practice, Fiona brings claims against the government, but also represents it in cases involving policies regarding children and vulnerable adults. This requires her to be familiar with human rights constitutional law, both within the UK and internationally: “I say whether these policies are compliant with not only domestic legislation, but also international conventions on the rights of the child and disabled person.”
Fiona’s work also takes her to the Court of Protection where she is involved in making decisions about the livelihood of vulnerable adults. Questions such as where a person should live, what medical treatment they should receive, and whether or not they can get married all encompass fundamental questions about a person’s autonomy and dignity.
Working within such a challenging and high-stakes practice, Fiona describes a piece of work that she is particularly proud of: “I represented a series of foster carers – from grandparents and great aunts to various family relatives – who were not being paid adequately for the work they were doing. These people were not famous or important in any way other than to the children whose lives they transform. I fought to win them adequate remuneration for their work and the recognition that they should be treated equally to other foster carers who were doing the same job.”
Lots to fight for
There is no denying that the legal aid side of the profession is currently going through a tumultuous period, and you don’t have to look far to see the news of barrister strikes and the underfunded legal aid system. Fiona admits that money has been tight for the past decade. “The criminal justice system is at breaking point,” she says. “There have been so many cuts and morale is low at times, so it’s not necessarily the happiest time to enter the profession from a student’s point of view. But it is certainly an interesting time to enter the profession because there is lots to fight for.”
Listing the advantages of becoming a human rights barrister, Fiona talks about the flexibility of the job, as well as the independence and opportunity to think for yourself. “The thing I most enjoy is meeting people, finding out about their lives and trying to make them better. It’s a privilege to become involved with a person’s life during a time of crisis and do what I can to help.”
For students aspiring to make a difference by pursuing a career at the human rights Bar, it’s worth noting that salary doesn’t make it onto Fiona’s list of career attractions. “I certainly wouldn’t say that you should do it just for the money, because unless you’re one of a small number of people practising in a small number of areas, the pay isn’t going to balance,” she concedes. “It also can be difficult at times because you are alone without a team around you, and you have to do things by yourself.”
For those still set on the career path, Fiona has these words of encouragement: “The job is intellectually challenging in a way that many jobs aren’t, and I find myself challenged every day, even now. Every day is different. Why wouldn’t you want to do it?”