Brexit has exposed uncertainty over the UK's human rights commitments post-Brexit. With Human Rights lawyers becoming increasingly politicised by the likes of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, the effectiveness of their jobs is being devalued, argues Vicki Prais.

Priti Patel and Boris Johnson's recent broadside denouncing 'lefty human rights lawyers, activist lawyers and do-gooders' lies in stark contrast to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's clarion call "to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you." As a human rights lawyer, with 24 years' experience in the sector, my work has taken me behind the prison gates in Japan to lobby the authorities on behalf of British nationals in detention and to the immigration and asylum tribunals in England as an advocate representing asylum seekers seeking safe haven in this country. Such monikers are nebulous at best and decry and devalue the work that we do as a community of lawyers.

Whilst Priti Patel's comments are principally directed at immigration and asylum lawyers who are, in her view, frustrating the asylum process, they deeply undermine the Rule of Law. As a former immigration and asylum lawyer for a large national charity in the UK, I represented my clients before the immigration and asylum tribunals; my primary role was to ensure that the UK adhered to its international legal obligations and grant refugee status to individuals in line with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Nothing more. Nothing less.

We are, sadly, seeing a chipping away and gradual erosion of the Rule of Law where lawyers are now, according to the President of the Law Society, at risk of physical attack for doing their job. On 7 September 2020, a knifeman threatened to kill an immigration solicitor at a law firm which, it is alleged, was directly linked to the Home Secretary's comments. This is not mere 'mudslinging'; this is something of a palpably different order.

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Human rights lawyers play a vital role in seeking to hold the government to account, testing the boundaries of government policy and ensuring that the Executive does not act 'at will' or outside the remit of the law. The UK is a party to international human rights standards and treaties and, as such, it behoves us to ensure that the government does not fall short in meeting its international obligations. Our role is to seek positive change for all and, in my case and for many others, to advocate on behalf of those groups and communities who are often marginalised, 'left behind' or simply unable to raise their voices and exercise their rights. Whilst we invariably operate in a highly charged political environment, our work is about the law and acting within the confines of the law. As Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council notes, "The law, not politics, is what matters to a profession that upholds the rule of law."

And we have seen palpable, positive change thanks to human rights lawyers working tirelessly on behalf of their clients. In the twenty years of the Human Rights Act, human rights lawyers have helped to protect survivors of domestic violence, victims of Stafford hospital scandal and the armed forces in operations overseas.

These comments come at a time where there is deep uncertainty about the UK's human rights commitments post-Brexit. Negotiations continue apace and it remains to be seen where and how the Human Rights Act will figure in any future deal. There are plans afoot to "opt out" of certain sections of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which would see the accelerated deportation of asylum seekers and cushioning British troops overseas from legal action. If we walk away from the Council of Europe and withdraw from the ECHR, or sign up to an ECHR-lite, we do so at great risk and will have Belarus as our bedfellow. This prospect is a deeply worrying one.

My call to action is simple. We live in times where our human rights and civil liberties are fragile and precariously balanced against the public health imperative. It is more important than ever that human rights lawyers are afforded the opportunity to work in an enabling environment.

Many are talking about 'recovering better' from the COVID-19 crisis, and if our new normal is focused on reducing inequalities and improving rights for all, then how we treat the guardians of the law and the legal community should be front and centre of that conversation.

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