Civil liberties & human rights

Civil liberties & human rights

Jocelyn Cockburn

Hodge Jones & Allen LLP

University: University of Newcastle
Degree: History

Human rights law has long been a popular choice for students and practitioners, with universities increasingly offering human rights modules as part of their law degrees, and ever more firms and chambers boasting specialisms in the field. It covers a wide range of legal matters, but broadly refers to the fundamental rights and freedoms set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, which made the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) directly enforceable in the UK courts.


Jocelyn Cockburn charts her progress from commercial trainee to human rights/civil liberties partner: “I did my training contract at City firm Druces & Attlee, but I wasn’t gripped by the work and, unsure about whether the law was really for me, I went travelling. That period cemented the idea that I wanted to do something in the human rights field, so I came back and volunteered at Amnesty for a year and then worked on the land mines campaign, before coming back to the law in 1999.” She spent time at two other human rights firms before joining Hodge Jones & Allen in 2004.

Fighting the good fight

Today, Jocelyn’s expertise is in two of the main protections provided by the Human Rights Act, namely Article 2 (the right to life) and Article 3 (the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment), as well the occasional Article 8 or Article 14 case (rights to a private life and freedom from discrimination, respectively). “One of my main interests is in the state’s obligation to protect vulnerable people in society where there is a real and immediate risk to life,” she explains. “A lot of my work centres on the prison and police context, representing the families of those who have died in custody. For example, I’ve got two cases at the moment where a detainee has died during police restraint; the issues are those of whether the practices deployed were safe, but also give rise to questions of racial stereotyping by the police.”

She notes that since austerity began in 2008, prison conditions have deteriorated , with more deaths in custody and more people with serious mental health issues detained. “There has also been an increase in the amount of private providers carrying out functions that are the state’s responsibility. The concern is that while private companies are subject to human rights laws, there is not the same culture of human rights protections as in the public sector and they may in fact be in direct conflict with those companies’ profit drives. There is also concern that safety is not sufficiently high up on their list of priorities.”

Actions relating to soldiers’ deaths during the Iraq War also feature in Jocelyn’s caseload, including the ongoing Snatch Land Rover Case: “This is to do with allegations that during the war three soldiers were killed because the army vehicles were insufficiently safe to protect against the types of insurgency deployed. The case went through the High Court, the Court of Appeal and finally to the Supreme Court in 2013, when the court ruled on the state’s legal obligations to protect soldiers on the battlefield. The legal issues involved first whether the death of a soldier outside the geographical boundaries of the United Kingdom still come within the UK jurisdiction for the purposes of the ECHR, and second whether there was a breach of the soldier’s right to life by the ministry of defence, or even whether there was a legal obligation owed at all. I meet a lot of families who’ve lost a loved one and who are desperate for help, particularly because they’ve not always been treated very well. I like to show them that there are people who will listen and take them seriously.”

This topical and newsworthy subject matter is one of the main drivers for Jocelyn: “I enjoy current affairs and politics, and naturally I see events though a human rights perspective. I also find the cases themselves really interesting, and I can choose to work on things that I find motivating. One big one for me at the moment is formulating a case on behalf of individuals asserting their right to breathe clean air and the duty of the state to take reasonable steps to immediately reduce pollution caused by traffic. There is evidence that in London alone, around 9,500 people die from pollution every year – many of those are society’s most vulnerable, including children. It is a scandal and the United Kingdom is currently in breach of safe legal limits as required by the European Union. I am personally affected by it and this is why I am trying to use the law creatively to tackle these huge issues.”

“You need to have a strong and persistent character, and enjoy the fight; you need to be somebody who is willing to take on the big guys, whether that is government or big business”

Legal aid and Brexit

The seismic shift in the legal aid landscape over the past few years has had a dramatic impact on the way that Jocelyn’s cases are funded and which of them are viable. “Seven years ago, most of my cases were covered by legal aid – now, it’s only about half,” she reflects. “The rest are ‘no win, no fee’ conditional fee agreements, which is not the best way to run these types of public interest cases. For example, you need ‘after the event’ insurance to protect clients against a costs award, and insurers simply aren’t motivated to insure a case where the legal landscape is uncertain. Fewer cases than ever qualify for legal aid – you may have a viable judicial review challenge to a decision, but you won’t be able to run it if the client is not eligible for legal aid. Many of our clients are not motivated primarily by a desire for compensation; it is about righting a wrong. Recently I was heartened to hear the chief coroner talking about giving “equality of arms” in terms of access to funding for families at inquest where they up against the state, but whether it will happen under this government is another matter.”

Ironically, post-referendum, Jocelyn feels that there may be some good news on the human rights front: “Previously, Theresa May was vehemently against the Human Rights Act and was all for withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Court of Human Rights, so Brexit may have given us a reprieve! The legal complexity of separating ourselves from the European Union is big enough without adding to that disentangling our case law and legal system from the ECHR. This is not to say that the government won’t try to repeal the Human Rights Act and introduce a bill of rights, but there are no details of what that may look like at this stage.” Environmental protections may be in serious trouble post-Brexit however: “Air quality protections are derived largely from Europe and Britain has been vocal about trying to weaken them – I shudder to think what will happen if we don’t have to abide by them at all.” Worth noting is that one possible new avenue of work for human rights lawyers post-Brexit may relate to the dangers of the removal of rights and protections without parliamentary scrutiny.

Realism required

Jocelyn acknowledges that a lot of students are drawn to human rights by a romanticised view of what it means: “Students are naturally quite idealistic, so it makes sense that many are attracted to this type of work. But it’s all about whether you have the necessary commitment – you’re giving up a potentially much higher salary, but on the flipside, there is so much of interest in this work. You’re often pushing boundaries and involved in making, developing and challenging the law.”

So, what are the attributes of a good human rights lawyer? “You need to have a strong and persistent character, and enjoy the fight; you need to be somebody who is willing to take on the big guys, whether that is government or big business. It helps to be tenacious and committed to what human rights and civil liberties stand for. It also helps to be good with people; lots of our clients have difficult stories to tell so being a good communicator and listener is a real skill.”

If you think that sounds like you, then taking opportunities to find out more is essential, including going to relevant talks and absorbing some of the mountain of information that is accessible online. Jocelyn also takes a pragmatic approach to the question of work experience: “While voluntary work experience with organisations such as Liberty, INQUEST or Justice is useful, I know that not everyone can afford to do that. I suspect that more and more graduates are working as paralegals before getting a training contact and it’s a great way to learn more, in a paid job.”