We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.


03 May 2024 / opinion Print

‘Embed human-rights law in every area of practice’

Art, they say, imitates life, reflecting it back to us so that we understand it better. Law takes a different approach, following life around, notebook in hand, drafting rules and regulations in its wake, writes human-rights lawyer Stephen Collins.

When life is unpredictable, law promises certainty, reassuring us that we know what to expect.

One area of law has become particularly concerned by all it sees.

Human rights and equality law issues arise everywhere in life. From the family to the workplace, from online platforms to live arts, and from lawful activities to criminal, wherever human beings interact, the possibility of human rights violations and discrimination occurs.

It follows that human rights and equality law issues arise in all areas of legal practice too. From aviation law to banking, from criminal to employment law and tax there is no area of practice that is untouched by human rights and equality law issues, not even the law of space.

If an airline refuses to serve disabled people; if a State imprisons people without trial, or if an astronaut on the ISS is harassed on the ground of their race, human rights and equality law issues arise.

Novel matters

From the perspective of a full time practitioner of human rights and equality law, this means that every new matter is novel. It might involve ‘straightforward’ human rights violations such as unlawful detention, discrimination in the transfer of pension entitlements between EU Member States, or the E-Commerce Directive.

In almost every case, human rights and equality law practitioners will have to develop some familiarity with practice areas beyond their own – even those they might have been predisposed to avoid.

The reverse side of this is that all solicitors, whether newly qualified or otherwise, would be well-advised to become familiar with human rights and equality law. Otherwise, they risk giving incomplete or inadequate advice, even if that advice is simply to consult a human rights and equality law expert.

A complainant such as John O’Meara could walk into any general practice in the country tomorrow.

A abuse survivor such as Louise O’Keefe or an NHV could be on the way to a sole practitioner with a problem.

These unknown querists will add their names to the list of important human rights and equality law judgments in years to come.

While it may be thought or assumed that such cases will involve a limited number of solicitors’ offices with expertise in the area, the wide range of offices involved to date would tend to contradict that.

Human rights and equality law issues arise in every part of the country, just as they do in every area of life.

It follows that the area offers significant opportunity for expansion of one’s practice, whether a solicitor works in general practice or in a specialised area.

Equality lens

Who knows, but there might be an area of law whose rules or procedures, seen through a human rights and equality lens, look discriminatory.

There might be another that prefers one gender to another. Yet another might disadvantage natural persons versus corporate ones.

Any of these imagined ‘woods for the trees’ type scenarios require fresh eyes and new perspectives to see them for what they are.

They require a familiarity with the relevant law to act with alacrity when the opportunity arises, to know who to talk to and when, and hopefully achieve that most cherished of goals, change.

There is no question of our having already dealt with, and addressed, all the human rights and equality law issues in the State.

Structural discrimination

The issues are getting more complex, more deeply embedded into systems where they lie hidden: structural and institutional discrimination, for example.

The size and scale of these violations and discriminations is in and of itself a challenge.

Merely identifying them and exploring how they might be challenged takes an investment of resources that few offices are able to afford. There is a need, therefore, for large as well as small offices to become familiar with human rights and equality law.

My hope is that the practice of human rights and equality law becomes part of everyday practice. If and when it does, we will become greater than the sum of our parts, making our collective freedoms and protections stronger and more meaningful.

We will then make advances not only in our own areas of law, but for everyone.

Stephen Collins
human rights lawyer
Stephen Collins is a human-rights lawyer