Is 'Human Rights' overrated?

Everywhere you go these days you read and hear about 'Human Rights'. Try as you might, you can't avoid it, whether it be politicians on the TV bleating about prisoners' voting rights (quite how that would cause the end of society as we know it, I'm not sure), or entire blogs devoted to the subject.

It all makes you think that lawyers must talk about nothing else, but just how important are human rights in practice?

Well, obviously the answer to that question will depend upon where you practise, but the vast majority of lawyers work in general practices, doing the 'bread and butter' work of criminal litigation, civil litigation (debt collection, landlord and tenant etc.), family litigation, conveyancing and probate. How often do they have to consider human rights issues?

Very rarely, I would suggest. In my experience human rights had little or no bearing upon legal work 'at the coal-face'. As a family lawyer I never came across it other than in articles and seminars - certainly not in practice. As for my colleagues, I didn't know any criminal lawyers in the period after the Human Rights Act came into force so I can't comment about that area, but I don't remember any civil litigators mentioning the subject, and it was certainly never raised by conveyancers or probate practitioners.

Of course, my experience was very limited, but it makes sense: irrespective of section 3 of the Human Rights Act (which says that legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights), our legislation and procedure is already likely to be compatible with the Convention - it would be extremely odd if it were not. Thus, for example, the vast majority of family law matters will be decided in accordance with family law rules, without needing to refer to human rights.

Human rights certainly has some importance, but in the real world of practising law it should surely be little more than peripheral, rather than hijacking centre-stage in the way that it has.


  1. Oh dear me, this is a dangerous game. Human Rights is a jealously guarded branch of the law. It seems to attract a particular class of practitioners to this often comfortable branch of employment.

    Anyone who attempts to relegate Human Rights to a 'peripheral' status will almost certainly release ferocious accusations of violations of 'our human rights' and even 'racism'.

  2. :-)

    Yes, I know. I like to live dangerously...

  3. Great post John - well said. :-)

    At dinner parties / similar social events, I like to drop the line, "ahh - human rights... what a load of baloney. I'm not a huge believer in them to be honest" casually into conversation. As conversational hand grenades go, it takes the proverbial! ;-)

    "A particular class of practitioners" ... there's a euphemism if I ever heard one!!! But yes, you're absolutely right. I won't try and define that class (as tempting as it is) as I don't want to be hounded off the internet and have to go into hiding.

  4. You should be more careful, Michael. They know where you are...


  5. human rights? it's what i do every day. it simply isn't a divisible kind of law; rather it lies at the heart of all criminal and public law, as well as having importance within all other areas.
    maybe michael and i would have fun over dinner.


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