Desert road, Flickr, Creative Comms licence, moominsean

Desert road, Flickr, Creative Comms licence, moominsean

I was recently described during an argument as, ‘one of those University types.’ Peter Hitchens once audibly growled at me when we sat on a panel together debating about the death penalty. And, was recently described as a ‘human rights barrister’ by the Guardian.

In all those circumstances it will come as no surprise that I fall solidly into the ‘pro human rights camp.’ In fact, I am an extremist. I am an extremist in that I cannot fathom how any properly informed person could be against human rights.

But being an evangelist for human rights will not save them in 2015. What will save human rights is convincing the majority of households that in the cupboard, under their stairs, beyond the fusebox and the old scrabble set is a shield. And it’s a solid shield that they can hold up whenever they need it, to protect against unlawful treatment by the government; the local council; the police, whomever.

At the moment, human rights aren’t a shield at all. Instead, they are a card dealt to some people and not others.

And human rights are such an easy target for right wing ridicule because of the people who can protect their rights and who can’t. The obvious example is prisoners. Prisoners’ human rights claims cause such outrage, not because people believe that prisoners should go to prison to be mistreated, but, because people with problems outside of prison cannot access resources to solve them.

Prisoners can access legal aid, specialist lawyers and the courts without paying fees. That access is by no means universal, nor is it what it should be, but at least it is something.

Comparatively, there are urban and rural communities who live in a rights vacuum. Their rights exist but are unenforceable for want of specialist lawyers. In a prison, lawyers who profess a speciality advertise in the prison newspapers, the prisoners themselves can ask for peer recommendations and every prisoner can pick up the phone to the Prisoners’ Advice Service.

And so to prove a point, I have taken three relatively small English counties: North Somerset; Herefordshire and Torbay. In each I have searched for solicitors who deal with relatively common ‘human rights problems’: (i) police harassment; (ii) disability discrimination; (iii) forced marriage.

In North Somerset it is easy to find criminal law firms and those who do some motoring work. But I couldn’t find anybody who would sue the police. Ironically, one of the firms that appeared highest in the search were a firm favourite of the Police Federation. Cover for disability discrimination work was much better, but, it was limited to the employment context for the most part. Forced marriage was a little easier, although the only firm really advertising are a commercial firm based in Bristol.

As for Herefordshire, the partner at a well-known national firm says on his blog that he has represented a number of claimants in actions against the police from the area. One large regional firm said they would advise on disability discrimination as part of their employment service. Again, a commercial firm offered representation in forced marriage cases although some distance away.

In Torbay I found a firm that did criminal work and offered prison law, but no actions against the police. Although one of the bigger firms in the South West advertised a disability discrimination practice, the website linked through to Exeter and then no solicitors professed to practice in the area. One thing I did find when I looked was a Torbay welfare rights advisor asking for help in this regard on a website – a theme I shall return to later. As for forced marriage, that was difficult, although I did find a barrister in nearby Exeter who was direct access and had applicable experience.

Of course this is not a scientific experiment in any respect. But it does illustrate my point. Rural communities and smaller towns are unlikely to have access to lawyers with substantial public law experience focussed on human rights protection and enforcement.

And, I accept that is, to an extent, a supply and demand issue. There are not as many article 2 inquests each year as there are Magistrates’ Court trials. There is more conveyancing work compared to human trafficking. But, that cannot be an excuse for denying people access to those public law lawyers as required.

Part of it now, unfortunately, is legal aid. Swingeing cuts and the uncertainty of the landscape of judicial review do not make it an attractive area for regional or high street firms to begin to explore. And save supporting the regional High Court centres, the Public Law Bar has not taken steps to make itself more accessible.

The result is that the haves can enforce their rights nationally if persuaded to visit their lawyers and to make payment. The have-nots cannot enforce their rights unless they live in area where they can access a legally aided lawyer with the necessary expertise.

And, the reality is, if you fall into the have-not category, unless you live in or affordably commutable to London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield or Leeds then you have little chance of accessing specialist advice.

But that could change. I appreciate for small firms of solicitors it may be a burden too much to train up a member of staff. However, nationally there are networks of ‘rights advisors’ – most of whom work for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and allied charities. All of whom have paid advisors and volunteers who often advise about welfare benefits, housing and employment rights. As part of their training they already have a basic grasp of natural justice and highly technical knowledge of specific areas of law. There is no reason why these advisors cannot be given the tools to at least identify potential human rights challenges.

To empower these rights advisors to undertake a wider public law diagnostic function would make human rights more accessible nationwide. From diagnosis of an issue, then clients could be triaged to firms with public law contracts, to the Bar Pro Bono Unit or to direct access barristers.

Making rights, less, ‘Londoncentric’ is laudable. Removing physical and financial boundaries to accessing human rights practitioners is crucial for maintaining the rule of law. And by being able to show that everyone has access to lawyers the human rights argument will easily be won.

Profile photo of Ian Brownhill About Ian Brownhill
Ian is a junior barrister who specialises in criminal defence, extradition, prison law and public law and civil actions relating to the criminal justice system. Prior to coming to the bar, Ian was the first man to be employed as the women prisoners’ caseworker at the Prisoners’ Advice Service.

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4 Comments

  • George Gretton February 9, 2015 9:42 am

    Hail, Fellow (bloody) “University Type”….. that gets growled at….

    I get “Harassment Complaints” duly and dutifully recorded against me by surprisingly obliging (to well-established criminals) Police Officers, and “Unprofessional Behaviour” and other false and bogus “Complaints” against me at my equally enthusiastic ICAEW; tomorrow a case is presented against me, in my enforced absence, to the “Investigation Committee”, which is supposedly SEPARATE from the ICAEW, but which does not seem to have any Legal Status to do what it does, including “Sentencing”… and issuing “Injunctions” to silence, not that I respect them… and not that I am going to pay a “Fine” of £2,650 and “Costs” of around £5,200… in respect of my “Gross Misconduct”, which includes calling SIMON JAMES JACKSON, Company Secretary and Chief Executive of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, on over £100,000, a “Simpleton”…

    If that is the TRUTH, then why should I NOT announce it?

    And there was I thinking that the Star Chamber was illegalised back in 1641.. silly me. Are you familiar with the expression “Kangaroo Court”?

    I am something of a “University type” as well, and note that what gets up some others’ noses is that we can think and articulate honestly and clearly, and that is AGAINST ALL THE RULES OF DECENT BEHAVIOUR, as CARRIED OUT BY DECENT CHAPS…DON’T YOU KNOW..

    [I note that I am for the re-introduction of Capital Punishment, notwithstanding that mistakes happen. The lack of it GUARANTEES even worse crimes.]

    When it comes to making Police Officers ACCOUNTABLE, I’m working the IPCC system. In one case I’m now running Perversion of the Course of Justice against a group of Officers, and indeed a Civilian, in a Force that will remain name-less just for now; since THAT complaint of mine can’t just be bunked back to THAT FORCE’S OWN “Professional Standards” Department.

    I’m very good at playing dirty, and I warm to your words and approach…

    Yours,

    George Gretton

  • shirley jones February 9, 2015 12:46 pm

    Does anyone ever read the comments left I wonder, other than the writer perhaps? Let’s hope so.

    As a victim myself, who also has a disability, who is not working thanks to my employer, a city council’s stance against me because I needed chemotherapy, I can confirm that when I needed legal help it was not available to me. I could not get legal aid because my husband was working, not earning much but that didn’t make a difference. I believed so much that what my local council was doing against me was so wrong, a true breach of the relatively new DDA at the time, and because I didn’t want others to suffer as I was, that I took them to an Employment Tribunal myself. I could not get a solicitor to help me, I did try several, not that I didn’t have a case because I did, but for 2 reasons, one was that legal aid would be refused me and I couldn’t afford to pay and also that none were willing to take on the ‘big organisation’ i.e. a City Council because they’ve tried to take them to task before and failed. I would never succeed against them they said, go home and concentrate on getting better. This actually made me more determined.

    Initially I did get some support from a young but exceptional Disability Rights Officer at my local Law Centre, which was stopped because the Council (the same one I was fighting by the way) stopped their grant to them completely, causing the Law Centre to close down. He believed in my case so much that despite him now being unemployed himself, that together we took this to an Employment Tribunal. It seemed like half of the Council’s staff turned up to back them up but undaunted I purposely sat where I could look at them all in the eye as one by one they came into the room. So few could actually return it. The Council eventually employed a Barrister from London, after I had proven stage 1 of my case, so I employed my own too, borrowing the money from my mum. To cut a long story short I successfully proved my case and set a legal precedent that would help lots of other people and would impact on Council’s and other organisations. Sadly I gained very little from it financially as the Barristers fees had to be taken from the paltry sum I received but it wasn’t about the compensation, something more valuable to me was at stake, my human rights to have my case heard. The feeling as I left the building that day, as I had to pass this group of decidedly despondent individuals in reception, was simply euphoric for me. I held my head high smiled as I left.

    The DRO that assisted me in my hour of need has risen to much greater heights, he turned out to be an excellent lawyer and now is a Partner at Leigh, Day & Co. A position he truly deserves and I will never forget him. He’s gone far, he deserves that.

    As for me I have continued to stand up against some of the injustice in the world. I was the first to use the new FOI Act to gain access to what were referred to as ‘secret’ Ofsted files. Apparently when a school goes in to Special Measures, as my Daughter’s did after what can only be describes as negligent merger with a bad School, just so the council could get their greedy hands on PFI funding for others, as parents you were only entitled to see the report that places it in Special Measures and the one that takes it out of, but not those in between. I became the first person to use the FOI for that reason, my finger had been poised that January on the day it came into force ready to send my request. I did eventually get all the reports and learnt why they didn’t want anyone to have them, let alone parents. We tried to take legal action for the children who were denied the required standard of education and who did definitely suffer the exam rates proved that, but we were refused legal aid.

    Now once again, the system has let us down it seems, thus far at least. I’m trying to find out where or to whom do we report that a so called ‘expert witness’ currently giving evidence as a Toxicologist, who has absolutely no relevant qualifications and so not legally qualified to act as one, not only has acted as one before but even when a judge had to consider him and his lack of qualifications, ruling that she could not accept him or his evidence as such because he was not qualified to act as a Toxicologist, (this was in a large group action case) he still had the nerve to once again, possibly more than once we suspect, go on to act once again specifically as a Toxicologist, including in a case where he had no relevant experience either. I’ve also proved that he was not the ‘Professor’ that he was saying he was in court, that so impressed a judge, and also uses it elsewhere too. I did this partly by using the FOIA. He always acts for the defence including Government Departments, paid for from public funds no doubt. But is it him that has committed crimes such as perjury, perverting the course of justice, obtaining monies by deception, fraud, etc., on the basis he has knowing allowed himself to be portrayed as a Toxicologist, which even a judge says he’s not qualified to do, or is it the fault of the legal system for allowing it to happen in the first place? Where does an ordinary member of the public go to report this to, when we have the evidence to completely back it up? Worst is that I’ve also found out that the other defence toxicologist used in the same case, was also not qualified to act as a Toxicologist and does not have the relevant experience either, he’s an Industrial Chemist by his own admissions with experience only in a completely different industry. I’m currently looking into other so called ‘expert’ witnesses and I don’t like what I’m finding. It seems the rigors of the legal system are sadly lacking when it comes to checks on ‘expert’ witnesses. Is it a human right for a victim to get legal representation that is appropriate for the case?

    Any suggestions on this matter, as to where to report these things to regarding this ‘expert witness, would be gratefully received, as once again the legal system is flawed and is letting every victim or client down.

    Kindest regards, Shirley Jones.

  • Saiful Islam February 10, 2015 12:44 pm

    Excellent article Mr Brownhill. But do take care when you call yourself an extremist. Not sure if you know but Dr Zakir Naik (a Muslim scholar from India) was refused a visitor’s visa to travel to the UK partly because he called himself an extremist in that he is extremely kind. 🙂

  • John Bradley February 10, 2015 8:03 pm

    Strangle enough advice is also available in Liverpool, which is bigger than Bristol. I imagine it is also available in Leicester and Newcastle.

    http://www.broudiejacksoncanter.co.uk/services/actions-v-police/ is but one in Liverpool.

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