Written by Rachel Logan, Law and Human Rights Programme Director at Amnesty, Associate Member (Barrister) of Matrix Chambers
There’s a certain look that taxi drivers sometimes get when you hail them on a busy Friday night in central London and tell them you need to go somewhere in the depths of outer South London. It’s a look that says this is the last thing they want to do, but they know that they have to do it.
It’s also a look which barristers (myself included) desperately try not to assume when a case comes across their desk that they feel they can’t win or might not even necessarily want to win, but they know it would be unethical to refuse.
Just as black taxis are supposed to accept any job under 12 miles in London unless they have a good reason not to, the ‘cab-rank’ rule is one of the defining rules of the ancient Bar of England & Wales: you must accept any client who comes to you. You must then present their case ‘without fear or favour’, no matter how undesirable they may seem.
What’s that got to do with human rights?
Well, for me, as a barrister working primarily in human rights law, I can’t help but spend a disproportionate amount of my time mulling over the role of both fear and favour in our political and legal system, and specifically the often vilified Human Rights Act (HRA).
Since coming into force in 2000, the HRA has significantly affected the way laws are made and public authority decisions are taken in the UK, including requiring government to explain how new legislation is ‘rights compatible’ and public officials to make sure they respect them. Since human rights are something you have simply by virtue of being human, the HRA rightly ensures everybody has the same protections regardless of the attitude of the majority or of those in power towards them or their views, without exceptions grounded in fear or favour.
First off then there’s that ‘fear’ thing.
The fear I would see on the faces of the vulnerable clients who felt completely powerless. The mum struggling to care on her own for her heavily disabled daughter, who just couldn’t afford the extra support the local authority had refused her. The elderly patient about to get discharged without anywhere to sleep that night.
The young female activist locked up indefinitely in a quasi-prison not unlike that she was tortured in back home overseas, simply for trying to seek refuge here.
A fear I was lucky enough to see melt away when they realised that here, because of the HRA, their rights are real – tangible – something we could rely on together to empower them against an often incompetent and sometimes purely unfeeling, unjust state.
So here we come to favour.
When you’ve worked more or less full time as a barrister specialising in human rights law, it’s often rather puzzling to hear that the HRA seems to cause so much anger. It’s not unlike the puzzlement I feel when I hear some Americans ranting against the idea of free healthcare for all – including themselves.
The vast majority of cases that come through a barrister’s Chambers’ doors (and that’s not counting the much larger number of situations where the HRA makes an invisible difference by avoiding abusive decisions and laws in the first place, or where individuals have relied on it to assert their rights directly with no need to see a lawyer) are for ‘desirable’ clients. The sick, the elderly, the concerned citizen trying to save their local children’s services.
Some are edgier, true. The families of dead British army soldiers, trying to ensure future battalions are properly equipped and what they see as needless death avoided. Hillsborough families seeking proper inquiries into what happened that day. Journalists trying to protect their sources. Law abiding citizens sick of being detained or stopped and searched under over-broad security powers.
And then there’s those sometimes perceived as even less desirable– prisoners who want proper toilet facilities, Iraqi civilians abused by British soldiers during the war. The HRA protects them all equally. And no matter which political party you favour, you’ll find those within it who understand that, and why it matters that rights are not something politicians or courts dole out to those deemed worthy.
Rights, like justice, are for everyone.
Rules that seek to ensure equal protection can be a nuisance, and even frustrating. But not only do they preserve the greater good, they ensure both invisible protection and something more tangible for you, should you need it. The UK doesn’t always get it right, but its commitment to human rights is as integral to its reputation overseas as the black taxi is to London.
Like that glowing yellow light on the dark rainy night when you’re all alone and looking for a way home, you would miss it most, if it wasn’t there.