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Overcoming businesses' misconception of human rights

Overcoming businesses' misconception of human rights


Junior lawyers are well placed to promote shared values and benefit from those who fail to see their importance, writes Matthew Allan

Human rights law is good for business. That is the bottom line. There has been a marked shift in corporate thinking which recognises the benefits to be had of treating people fairly. This goes not just for those firms applying fairer procurement policies to ensure rights are maintained throughout international supply chains, but also to adhering to anti-slavery legislation and improved corporate social responsibility policies.

The broad conceptual umbrella of human rights stretches far beyond the impact of our domestic Human Rights Act. This broadness should be embraced, not feared. However, stagnant thinking within law firms has led to a reductionist view of human rights; they are for the unfortunate few and not the many.

This view is magnified by notions that the very concept of human rights may not be applicable to a firm’s business model because the red tape entailed outweighs the benefit. Or, those clients with human rights concerns won’t pull in the money to make it worthwhile. This thinking will leave firms lumbering towards irrelevance as savvier outfits capitalise on consumers’ increasing demands for accountability and transparency in their businesses.

It seems that the first hurdle to overcome is the misconception that ‘human rights’ are of limited practical use to the general public. That those who employ them do so for personal gain. That they are of limited social utility and merely act as a shield for conniving ne’er-do-wells. As home secretary, Theresa May helpfully provided (fictitious) evidence of such skulduggery and noted that human rights will even help you avoid deportation if you own a cat. (They won’t.)

At this year’s annual Grotius lecture, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, highlighted a similar theme. He noted that ‘human rights law has long been ridiculed by an influential tabloid press here in the UK, feeding with relish on what it paints as the absurd findings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg’. So, this discourse has been propagated by the media and politicians alike, but why should firms care?

Beyond the portentous moralisings of some human rights proponents, there are tangible benefits to people and businesses that can’t be ignored. Employment rights and equality and diversity programmes enhance the lives of those working in all sectors. Improved corporate governance and due diligence policies are prime examples within a business context.

The UK was the first nation to develop an action plan on business and human rights following the unanimous endorsement by the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2011. The UK has remained a trailblazer in promoting the benefits of human rights awareness and the Law Society has been at the forefront of these endeavours. A series of seminars and a practical guide for law firms have added to the resources available for solicitors and their clients. A concerted effort has been made to ensure the profession stays ahead of the curve.

In the current environment, clients are demanding more from their legal advisers. There is an ever-greater squeeze on the market, acutely felt after the influx of new competition (note the Legal Service Board’s recent recommendation that the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales should become an approved legal services regulator).

For these reasons alone it should be clear to firms that where they are able to provide both legal and professional advice on issues of importance, their worth only increases. Junior lawyers in particular are well placed to promote these values and to benefit from those who fail to see their importance.

Matthew Allan is a council member for the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society

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