Angela Patrick is a qualified barrister. Before joining JUSTICE, from 2006 – 2011, she was assistant legal adviser to the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. In this role, she was responsible for advising on a broad range of human rights issues. Following pupillage at Matrix, Angela practised at Hailsham Chambers. Angela has published and lectured widely and is a contributing author to Sweet and Maxwell’s Human Rights Practice.
Can you describe for us what being Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE involves on a day-to-day basis?
Every day at JUSTICE is different – that’s part of what I love about my job!
Broadly, I’m responsible for dealing with our strategy on human rights and our work on how the justice system works to protect human rights. On any given day, this can include speaking to officials at Whitehall or decision makers at Westminster about our concerns on specific pieces of legislation, policy or practice, or managing any one of a number of third party interventions which JUSTICE is making in the domestic courts or in Strasbourg. It could involve going out and speaking to our members, our funders or the press about our work or it could see me sitting at my desk drafting a new briefing or content for a new JUSTICE report.
Today’s “to-do” list involves finalising a plan for our work in 2015-16 and the crucial post-election period, agreeing a research plan for written submissions in an intervention before the Court of Appeal with counsel, and setting the programme for our Annual Human Rights Law Conference in October. The day will involve thinking about human rights topics ranging from the future of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, necessary reforms to our legislative framework for surveillance and the legality of the introduction of a residence test for legal aid.
Our work is never dull!
What path led you to JUSTICE?
A reasonably winding one.
I was the first person in my family to go to University. Although I studied for a law degree, I wasn’t precisely sure what I planned to do with it. After extending my studies with a Masters degree, I planned to go to the bar. However, I was happily distracted by an offer to work with Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC as a legal officer supporting his parliamentary work at The Odysseus Trust. As a first legal job, the timing of this job was a gift. I started work the week that the Human Rights Act came into force and stayed for two years; working on the Freedom of Information Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the panoply of counter-terrorism legislation introduced after 9/11. Thankfully, this early work in Parliament confirmed my early view that the job of lawyers and the law stretches far beyond litigation and the courtroom.
I qualified, completing my pupillage at Matrix and then practising from Hailsham Chambers. I found this work deeply rewarding. Working closely with clients on their legal problems is a privilege. However, it was easy to see bigger picture problems either in law, policy or practice, which were not easily solved in a single case.
I left private practice in 2006 and went to work for the Joint Committee on Human Rights as a specialist legal adviser. This involved providing accurate, accessible and independent legal advice not to a single client, but to a cross-party Committee, its Chair and staff. The work was demanding and diverse. It required independence and objectivity, political awareness and party-political neutrality. I learnt a lot about how the law is made and the challenges faced by MPs and Peers who want to subject Government to close scrutiny.
At JUSTICE, I combine work on both litigation and policy, drawing on my experiences both in practice and at Parliament. It’s a balance that, for me, is just right.
You are also currently an expert trainer for the International Bar Association and lecture widely. What do you think is the first, and most important thing, someone should know about human rights?
No matter where you are, I think that the most important thing anyone can understand about human rights law is that it is a tool which should help put people at the heart of government.
Whether in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the US Bill of Rights or the Ugandan Constitution, in the Canadian Charter or in the Human Rights Act 1998, the purpose of a human rights framework is to set basic rules from which we all benefit in our relationship with the State, by nature of our shared humanity.
It’s often forgotten that the Human Rights Act isn’t all about lawyers and courts – it has at its heart an obligation on all public authorities – from the Director of Public Prosecutions to your local council – to exercise their powers in a way which respects the rights of us all.
If more people understood what the Human Rights Act is designed to do; perhaps they’d better understand why some members of Government don’t really like it.
Did you always want to be a lawyer?
When I was in my early teens, we were given a silly careers aptitude test at school and I was told that I should either be lawyer or “something in art”. I think I always wanted a job which could combine an intellectual challenge with something which I could feel passionate about.
However, I didn’t know much about the law. Growing up, coming into contact with the law usually meant that a neighbour I knew was being evicted or had been arrested. The real picture seemed a million miles from Rumpole, LA Law or Ally McBeal.
I chose the law because a truly brilliant history teacher helped me see how changes to the law have helped shape society through the ages, whether for better or worse. Understanding how the law can help or hinder people in their daily lives, and shape how our Government functions, helped me see a legal profession beyond the sharp-suits of the TV dramas.
(Mind you, my family have always said that I chose the law as it was the only profession where I could get paid to talk for a living!)
What do you think is the greatest challenge – or opportunity – for human rights law in the UK?
The greatest challenge – and opportunity – is in helping people understand what rights mean for them. This is really difficult when for most of us; the benefit of human rights law is likely to be invisible, and pretty irrelevant to our daily lives.
We need new human rights messages which go beyond the caricatures of prisoners voting and Abu Qatada. There are stories out there about parents of disabled children who have used human rights to keep them at home and out of residential care; about victims of trafficking and domestic violence using human rights to secure justice and about bereaved families using the law to draw out the truth about the death of their loved ones.
These stories don’t make the headlines. They shouldn’t need to. In other countries, they teach children the importance of constitutional guarantees in primary school. Perhaps we should too.
Tell us about your best day at work.
This is a really hard question, the answer to which is likely to differ on a daily basis!
Two JUSTICE stories stand out, one policy-related and another from our litigation work.
During my first week at JUSTICE, I took responsibility for our then latest report, Freedom from Suspicion: Surveillance Reform for a Digital Age. Years before Snowden, we were calling for wholesale reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. After three weeks of work to ready the report for launch, I was pleasantly surprised to see our work take over the front page of the Daily Mail. I think that some distant relatives might yet see my greatest achievement as being quoted on page 4.
I was truly chuffed after the first Supreme Court intervention I led for JUSTICE – arguing in Rahmatullah against a narrow interpretation of the doctrine of habeas corpus – was described by Lord Kerr as “powerful and significant”.
Do you have a top-tip for any student thinking about a career in human rights law?
Follow your interests and don’t be too obsessed with the “human rights” label. A lot of important human rights work doesn’t come with human rights branding.
Who, or what, inspires you most and why?
I have the greatest of respect for human rights defenders who work thanklessly on the frontline for their entire careers, often for little reward. The number of people working on cases in countries where their work is life-saving for their clients and life-endangering for them is both inspirational and terrifying. No-one should be frightened that the cost of speaking up for human rights should be their life.
Anyone who works in a law centre or a citizens advice bureau, or who works to better secure respect for the rights of children living in poverty, people with disabilities and victims of domestic violence in this country works to secure the same respect for human rights and the rule of law. Without committed individuals, ill-behaved Governments would operate with impunity and without fear.
Mind you, if you ever get a chance to hear Albie Sachs – a former Supreme Court Justice from South Africa – speak, go. He is a truly inspirational man and a wonderful storyteller.