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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Human rights law industry: criticisms from the left

The following material is highly critical of certain aspects of human rights law and practice in the United Kingdom. These preliminary points should be noted:

  • These criticisms should not be taken as in any way supporting the semi-literate and populist abuse directed at human rights organisations by a number of journalists.

  • The general argument is that human rights in the UK need to be extended, rather than restricted.

  • The UK has developed a profitable and expanding human rights industry. Human rights have developed into a commodity, including career paths for lawyers, academic career development and increased profits for multinational publishing companies.

  • Human rights law has become so complex, largely because of the involvement of lawyers, that it is now extremely difficult for non-lawyers to access the law. Victims of human rights violations are largely dependent on individual lawyers in private practice to enforce their rights.

  • In common with other areas of law, human rights law is in desperate need of demystification and simplification. There is a basic human right of access to laws set out in understandable language. For example, the law dealing with the right to a fair trial is now so complex that very few non-lawyers, and not many lawyers, can negotiate a route through it. You need a lawyer to explain how you can get a fair trial, and if you can’t afford a lawyer, or can’t get someone else to pay, you will never understand the law of human rights. This is examined in detail in Chapter 6 (Mystery).

  • British human rights organisations should, at the very least, engage in discussions as to the incorporation of social and economic rights into UK human rights law and should press for this expansion.

  • UK human rights law has developed without any serious or searching theoretical analysis. This contrasts, for example, with the extensive analyses carried out by the South African Constitutional Court.

  • Human rights organisations should disclose the levels of fees received by lawyers who act in human rights cases, whether through public funding or funding from those organisations or through public funding. Lawyers’ earnings are fully discussed in Chapter 1 (Money).

  • As a longstanding member of Liberty, and its predecessor, the National Council for Civil Liberties, I have always supported organisations which campaign for individual civil human rights. This does not prevent me from criticising the current English preoccupation with such rights and to argue that there is an almost total lack of discussion, in academic and practising circles, of the theory of human rights and the need for collective social rights to receive equal protection with individual rights. In 2010 Liberty issued a publicity poster asking “What not to love?”. The poster featured a heart-shaped statement of the rights protected by the Human Rights Act 1998. Economic and social rights were not mentioned. This lack of discussion may be peculiar to Western neo-liberal democracies.

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