Civil liberties & human rights

Civil liberties & human rights

Susie Labinjoh

Hodge Jones & Allen LLP

University: University of Hull
Degree: Philosophy

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.


For civil liberties specialist Susie Labinjoh, a career in law presented a way to make a positive difference: “When I finished my philosophy degree, I was looking everywhere for jobs – there aren’t many for philosophers, as you can imagine – and I saw job advert for a mixed administrative and HR role at Hodge Jones & Allen. I joined the firm and saw what the solicitors were doing – how they could change clients’ lives – and thought ‘I really want to do that’.”

Determined to become a solicitor, Susie continued working while studying the GDL in the evenings part time, before going full time for the LPC. She then secured a training contract at the firm: “My previous role did not mean that there was an easy way in, though. I still had to complete the usual application process.”

Miscarriages of justice

Civil liberties work encompasses many different areas of law. Broadly, Susie’s practice centres on miscarriages of justice and wrongdoing by the state. “I work on civil claims against the police and public authorities, for example, inquests involving deaths in prison or police custody, or in other forms of state detention, such as mental health detention,” she explains. “My work also includes judicial reviews and compensation claims for miscarriages of justice – something I used to do much more of before the government changed the compensation scheme. A recent development has been an increase in Data Protection Act claims, where the police have released information that they shouldn’t have about somebody.”

"I work on civil claims against the police and public authorities, for example, inquests involving deaths in prison or police custody, or in other forms of state detention, such as mental health detention"

The current political climate presents serious challenges to solicitors working in civil liberties, particularly in securing funding from the Legal Aid Agency for otherwise meritorious cases. “We are in an age of austerity where cuts in legal aid funding have made resources far scarcer,” Susie observes. “The lack of any increase to rates in many years also works as a real-terms cut.”

The result of the cuts driven through by the austerity agenda of the last three successive governments has been that “the number of people eligible for legal aid has been drastically reduced,” she explains. “This is to the point where even a student’s maintenance loan will be considered ‘income’ that makes their case ineligible for funding, which seems bizarre given that student loans have to be repaid. Access to justice is a massive challenge for most people, because unless you are rich and have the resources to pay, or your income is so low that you are eligible for legal aid funding, you will be among the majority of people in the middle who cannot afford to address wrongs when they happen to you. Securing public funding for cases is also incredibly tedious and bureaucratic, and while legal aid is not always the only means of funding available, it is vital for many of the cases on which I work.”

In a democratic society, there is no substitute for a properly funded legal aid system. Nonetheless, Susie and her colleagues have been doing their bit to find creative ways to fund cases: “Cases have been crowdfunded in a few examples, and crowdfunding is a new area that is likely to expand in the future. Meanwhile, we have to keep fighting to secure the provision that there is.”

A vocation, not just a career

That provision is vital because it is often the only way of setting right issues that would otherwise result in injustice for people of modest means. And it is the chance to prevent – or at least overturn – injustice that drives Susie in her work, even when her efforts don’t succeed, as a major case from earlier in her career illustrates: “I took a case to the House of Lords in the days before the Supreme Court was established in 2009. The claim sought compensation for a miscarriage of justice, where people found to have been wrongly imprisoned after their convictions were overturned had applied for compensation, only to find that the government now intended to deduct thousands of pounds for ‘board and lodging’ from their awards – they were effectively being charged for their food and accommodation costs whilst they had been in prison. The case wasn’t ultimately successful, and the House of Lords upheld the principle, but it raised the issue on a national level.”

As a solicitor, she relishes the opportunity to see cases through from start to finish – a privilege not often shared by her barrister colleagues. “I enjoy the challenge and the fact that if you succeed, you are righting a wrong,” she continues. “And remember that you can be a solicitor and do advocacy – you don’t necessarily have to go to the Bar. Most of the solicitors in our criminal department have higher rights of audience.”

Remember the spider

To succeed in this highly challenging area, she advises that “you have to be resilient, tenacious, extremely organised, empathetic, a good communicator, and to have a great eye for detail. You also need to be creative and flexible in the way that you approach problems.”

With that taken into account, there is no better way to find out if this is the career path for you than to try it. “Do some vacation schemes and mini-pupillages,” she urges. “Volunteer at law centres or branches of Citizens Advice. You will gain a sense of whether you want to be a solicitor or barrister, and whether you want to work with people or with businesses.”

And for those who share her sense of justice and determination to succeed in this area, Susie finally counsels patience: “Remember the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider – he watched one try – and fail – to spin a web between two points on his ceiling before it succeeded on the third attempt. You might apply for work experience or a training contract and not get it, but don’t be dissuaded – keep going. Rejections are good training for navigating the challenges and obstacles you will come up against on the job.”