Angela practices in public law and civil cases with a human rights element. She has a particular interest in the implementation of international human rights standards in domestic law.
You’re currently a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. What does a typical day look like?
It’s hard to say that there is a typical day. I’ve recently returned to practice and I’m focusing on different areas of human rights law, from inquests and inquiries to community care. My practice incorporates both domestic and international human rights issues. For example, I’m currently working on a case on the right of resettlement on the Chagos Islands but I’m also advising on a number of cases on compensation for families affected by unlawful decision making by local authority children’s services departments.
Most days involve juggling a number of cases and other commitments.
My days can be a mixed bag - from deeply intellectual to incredibly practical. There’s no point in making the most brilliant legal argument if you fall foul of a procedural requirement or if your skeleton argument doesn’t make it to court.
Why were you attracted to a legal career?
My mum would say it was because I am really gobby and I watched too many television programmes about lawyers. I’ve always really enjoyed making and winning an argument.
My career choice was influenced by the community in which I grew up. I was brought up on a council estate in Glasgow. My mother was disabled and we lived with my elderly grandparents. The law was something you never thought about unless someone you knew was being evicted or arrested. For my friends, neighbours and family it was distant and definitely something that was done to you. I was an angry and engaged seventeen-year-old and a career in the law seemed an opportunity to help people who were disenfranchised better understand the system.
That’s how I see the law now - especially human rights law - as a tool to put people at the heart of good government.
Whether I actually understood that when I was making my university applications is another question.
In the time that you’ve been practising, do you think there have been steps forward in terms of the law putting people first?
There have definitely been steps forward, but we are at a moment of real challenge.
After WWII, of course, there was a crucial leap forward in both international human rights standards and in the way that national constitutions are used to protect individual rights. In this country, even before the Human Rights Act, public law has been evolving to provide greater protection for individuals against unwieldy executive or administrative decision making. Since then, knowledge and understanding of human rights law have grown exponentially, not only in our courts but in Government and Parliament.
Now we’re seeing a retrenchment globally from international cooperation towards increasing isolationism. This is reflected on a domestic level, not just in the UK, by politicians being increasingly hostile to scrutiny, including by the media, and through parliamentary oversight. At the forefront of this aggression is a real distaste for judicial oversight. No one will ever attack you unless what you’re doing is working. If every Government in the world was 100% satisfied with the limits placed upon them by human rights law, we might cynically have to ask whether those standards were sufficiently robust.
In light of these challenges, who should be responsible for reinforcing public trust in the rule of the law and judiciary?
If it’s just lawyers who are speaking up for a balanced form of government, it becomes a little bit like special pleading.
The problem is the language which is being used to debate the issue. From the Daily Mail’s ‘enemy of the people’ cover to David Cameron saying he felt ‘physically sick’ about ECHR judgements, these soundbites are used to undercut our legal system and human rights standards by making them sound bad for the majority of people.
This pushes populist buttons. An explanation that “undercutting the judiciary is really damaging for everybody because it reduces democracy to simple majoritarianism”, is difficult to put in a snappy one-liner.
Those of us who are defending human rights law need to talk in ways that bring people into the conversation. Would anyone want a decision whether or not their child should be imprisoned to be made by someone driven by their personal politics? No? Then why criticise “unelected judges”?
As well as being a barrister, you chair the Human Rights Lawyers Association (“HRLA”). Could you tell me a little bit more about what this involves?
The HRLA brings together solicitors, barristers, academics and government lawyers who use human rights in their jobs. Its goal is to support human rights learning and to drive conversation about the state of the law in the UK.
The HRLA also provides a bursary each year for students who want to do internships. Everyone hates unpaid internships, but they do exist. Each year, the HRLA helps a handful of students who just don’t have the money to invest in their legal development and take up opportunities not otherwise open to them. Our students are exceptional and do brilliant work across a range of human rights organisations.
You currently work in private practice, but you used to work in Parliament. Tell me a bit more about your work on the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Law isn’t all about courts and litigation. Parliaments have a particularly important democratic responsibility for making human rights real. Legislators can ensure that the law respects human rights and can fix it when violations happen. In their oversight role, they can hold Government and agencies to account, including for human rights abuse. At the JCHR, I was privileged to provide advice on draft legislation, treaty ratification and oversight to a committed group of men and women dedicated to public service. My work ranged from counter-terror and data protection, from free speech to equality; through the operation of the national DNA database to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
When you work in Parliament, you have to be scrupulously non-partisan. To be trusted you must be inscrutable. When acting as an independent legal advisor, your advice should never be motivated by your personal views; but the management of that independence is particularly important in an environment where your clients come from across the political spectrum to work together and are facing their own political pressures daily.
What are you most proud of having achieved in your career?
It changes on most days. It could be anything from having accommodation secured for a homeless three-year-old to doing work with lawyers in Uganda to look at how MPs could better use the Ugandan Constitution to hold the government to account.
I think it’s really important to take pride in whatever you do. There will always be dull days at work, so you should take your wins where you find them and be proud that you’re making a contribution.
How do you turn off at the end of the day, and keep your professional and personal lives separate?
It can be really hard, especially when you think a decision is wrong, because it has resulted in bad law or because you feel for your clients. There is only so much the law can achieve. If you’ve done your job to the best of your ability, you have to cut yourself some slack. You have to have really thick skin to work in the human rights field, as an activist, policymaker or a lawyer. Many of the most important arguments are ones which take years to win. You have to be resilient because if you collapsed every time you didn’t win, you’d never get out of bed. If we never got out of bed, there would be nobody left to fight.
I also really enjoy bad TV boxsets and taking regular holidays in places where the wi-fi is terrible.
What would you say to people who are considering becoming human rights lawyers, but are deterred by the financial cost and job competition?
There are a lot of different ways to be a human rights lawyer. You have to decide what works for you. You can be an advocate in a charity, or in a law centre, or within government, trying to persuade a minister that your legal advice is right. When thinking about your career, it’s perfectly reasonable to think about what you want your life outside work to look like. Also, nothing is forever. Choices are not permanent and you can change direction.
Building a legal career, particularly at the bar, is competitive and challenging. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone invest in it until you’re sure it is what you want to do.
However, you should never rule yourself out of any choice because of fear or apprehension alone. I love the law. I still think that understanding the rules makes it easier to influence them for the better. The law has allowed me to build a rewarding career with massive scope for autonomy and the potential to make a real impact for the community and for individual clients.
A job for those who like the good fight? You even get to win sometimes.