"A great way to gain meaningful experience in human rights law"

The Commission is recruiting for a new Legal Fellow, a 12-month opportunity to gain practical experience in human rights law. Here,  the current post holder Elena Jenny looks back at a year of personal and professional development at the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

For the past year, I have had the privilege of working as the first Legal Fellow at the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Scotland's National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).

The Legal Fellowship is a 12-month contract and as my time comes to a close, I find myself grateful for the opportunities this experience has provided me, and the profound impact it has had on my personal and professional development as a Lawyer.

Before delving into some of the highlights of my time at the Commission, let’s address a question I have often been asked by friends and family – what is a Legal Fellowship?

About the Fellowship  

The Legal Fellowship at the Commission is a great way to gain practical experience in human rights. Simply put, as a Legal Fellow I carry out various research tasks to support the Legal and Policy team, using my knowledge of European and international human rights law.

For example, during my first month at the Commission, I drafted a briefing for the Members of the Commission on the human rights implications of the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Act 2023. 

Fast forward a few months and I am regularly drafting briefings, letters and policy submissions for the Commission, and writing sections of reports for its current Spotlight projects, which include human rights in places of detention in Scotland, and access to justice for human rights breaches.

But the role is so much more. 

As the Commission is a relatively small, independent public body, I have also had the opportunity to be exposed to all aspects of working at a NHRI and to really appreciate the unique role they play. This includes, for example, informing the Scottish Parliament on the human rights implications of proposed legislation, submitting responses to public consultations and engaging with various United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms. 

The highlights 

I have had the privilege of experiencing so many highlights during my time at the Commission, that I had to narrow it down to three.

The first highlight had to be visiting the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and meeting two Judges – in the Grand Chamber, of all places. This was part of a training workshop organised by the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) on how to intervene before the European Court of Human Rights as a NHRI.   

Another highlight was witnessing the UN treaty body mechanism in action for the first time. As part of its role as a NHRI, the Commission monitors the impact of international human rights treaties in Scotland. In March 2024, I accompanied the Commission’s Policy and International Officer to Geneva, to participate in the UK’s state examination under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Reflecting back, I was positively surprised by the Committee’s scrutiny and the depth of the questions they put to the UK Government.

Lastly, another highlight has to be seeing the progression of our Spotlight Project on human rights in places of detention, from the initial desk-based research stage to its near publication.

The project sets out to evaluate Scotland's performance in upholding absolute rights within prisons and forensic mental health facilities. To help examine whether Scotland meets its human rights obligations, I have been looking at recommendations made by UN treaty bodies and the European Committee on Torture and assessing Scotland’s progress using a human rights measurement methodology. The project will be published soon.

Summing it up

There is no getting around the fact that human rights is a difficult area of law to get into. Unlike other practice areas, where there is a clear path from undergraduate LLB to vacation scheme to training contract, it is likely that anyone wanting to get into human rights will have to find alternative routes. The Commission’s Legal Fellowship provides just that – the opportunity to gain paid legal work experience in human rights.

Of course, like any job, being a Legal Fellow has its challenges. Dealing with contentious human rights matters can be challenging at times, but the sense of purpose and satisfaction you get from knowing that your work is making a difference far outweighs that. I would strongly encourage anyone who is passionate about human rights law and wants to make a meaningful difference in Scotland, to apply for the Legal Fellowship at the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

The Commission is now looking for its next Legal Fellow, for 2024-25. To find out more, download the recruitment pack on the Opportunities page of our website.