Civil liberties & human rights

Civil liberties & human rights

Tim Buley

Landmark Chambers

University: University of Oxford
Degree: Philosophy, politics and economics

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.


Philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) is a popular choice among Oxbridge students, as it provides such a solid grounding for a range of high-end careers. It is no surprise then that human rights barrister Tim Buley studied it while he was at university. Tim was originally attracted to a career as a philosophy academic, but later found that his skills and temperament were well suited to law – particularly the Bar. “I’m very much someone who likes problem solving and I enjoy the academic side of the law,” he explains. “On the other hand, I’m quite disorganised, so being a solicitor would never have worked for me.”

Porous boundaries

Pupillage soon followed at 4 Breams Buildings, a set which was in merger negotiations with another set when Tim joined. At the end of pupillage he gained tenancy at the newly formed Landmark Chambers, where he has been a tenant for the last 14 years. In that time he has become a noted human rights barrister alongside other public law and planning, and environmental work. “I describe my practice as a general public law practice, of which a significant proportion – possibly as much as half – involves human rights law,” he explains. “There is a very porous boundary between general public law and human rights law – for example, if you’re doing certain areas such as immigration or parole board cases, most of the cases you encounter will be human rights cases.”

Immigration and asylum cases make up a big part of Tim’s human rights work. “I act for individuals who are challenging things such as deportation or the government’s refusal to recognise their status as refugees,” he explains. “Related to that, I also do a lot of work in the field of immigration detention, representing people who claim that they are being unlawfully detained.”

Another aspect of Tim’s practice is social welfare law, including social security and community care cases. “Clients in this area are often people who are claiming that they do not have enough money to live on, which is often related to their immigration status,” he continues. “Discrimination also comes up frequently – many such cases are to do with disability.”

Outside of immigration, where he generally acts for individuals, Tim’s practice is split between representing both sides – claimants and public authorities. For example, he does a lot of general human rights work for the government: “I’m on a few government panels and one of the areas that I’m involved in is prisons, as I frequently advise the Parole Board in relation to Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to liberty.”

Many cases involving human rights take the form of judicial review, as this is often the only way to challenge a decision made by a government department such as the Home Office. “As a public lawyer doing judicial review work, you probably have less interaction with clients than other barristers,” Tim explains. “I spend two days a week in court on average, but the variation from week to week is huge – I could be in court every day one week and not at all the next. In any public law practice – and probably most human rights practices too – although the cases are big, they do not usually run for days or weeks in court. Most hearings last for between half a day to three days, so I can find myself in court for four days in one week, but on four different cases. I enjoy the variety, but it can be difficult, as it is much harder to prepare multiple cases and keep them all in mind than to just focus on one.” 

Making a difference

The stakes for many of Tim’s clients couldn’t be higher. “It is incredibly satisfying to win cases on behalf of people who are requesting asylum or resisting deportation to countries where they would be in danger,” he explains. “One case that stands out as an example was when we successfully established that a mentally ill man’s immigration detention was in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as he wasn’t being treated properly at all. I’m also very proud of a social security case in which we established that the government was discriminating against disabled people by not paying them adequate housing benefit. Helping people to access justice and assert their rights in the face of the opposition of the powerful is certainly a big draw of the job. One of the best things about being a barrister is that you get to win cases – nothing is better than winning, especially on behalf of someone for whom the outcome is going to make a real, positive difference.”

However, Tim also gets a lot of satisfaction from his work for the government: “It gives you a different perspective and a policy understanding of the way that government works, which is incredibly interesting. I’m lucky in that I am able to do both sides. The variety in what I do is very rewarding, both in terms of the clients, which range from government and commercial bodies to vulnerable individuals, and the actual subject matter that I deal with. I handle lots of immigration and asylum cases, but a few years ago I also worked on a human rights case about a village green, for example – the human rights element was to do with property deprivation.” 

If you’re thinking about this career path, Tim emphasises the need to be aware of what is happening with legal aid. “The legal aid system has suffered big cuts in the last few years and has been reduced gradually ever since I have been in practice,” he explains. “This is a big deal for people of limited means who need legal representation, as they are not going to be able to have the same high-quality representation that they would have had before, and in many cases will be unable to access representation at all. This also makes the area less viable for lawyers who need to pay the bills. I don’t think the situation is acceptable, but I don’t think that it is going to change either.”

Not what you see on TV

Tim identifies three key skills that are essential for anyone hoping to be a human rights barrister: “You need really good analytical skills, and clarity of written and verbal expression – it’s not so much about making complicated arguments, as making complicated things simple and cutting through to the critical issues. Commitment to your clients and an interest in the work is  also important, as it is this that will keep you going.”

And Tim also has some more general advice for anyone considering a career at the Bar: “You need to think carefully about what you really enjoy doing. People sometimes have a skewed idea of what human rights work is actually like – many of the things that I find interesting are not what you would tell your friends about at dinner parties. Some barristers have practices involving lengthy factual trials, with extensive cross-examination, others never cross-examine and spend their time making legal submissions only. Some go to court every day, some never go to court at all or settle every case. Some have close contact with their clients, some never meet them. These things vary between different areas of practice. Enjoyment of the nature of the day to day work you are doing is just as important as being interested in the subject matter of the cases. So consider carefully what it is that appeals to you. “I enjoy analysing statutes and making legal arguments, and that is at the core of certain kinds of human rights work, so be careful that the things you are really interested in and good at match the reality of working as a human rights lawyer.”