Authors:Bessie Yuill
Last updated:2024-05-24
Talking accessibly about human rights
Marc Bloomfield
Description: PLP
At a time when human rights law has been framed by the UK government as a barrier to securing our borders, it’s more important than ever for the public to understand the reality of human rights and what they do for us. So, how can organisations and lawyers working on the front line bridge the knowledge gap?
Why do we need clear communication now?
At Public Law Project’s anti-discrimination conference on 19 April 2024, speakers discussed how to make the law accessible to those who are most likely to be affected by the decisions of public bodies, like asylum-seekers living in hotel accommodation, people relying on welfare benefits, or overpoliced communities. One recurring theme of that talk was the need to cut through legalese and communicate clearly with the public.
Among lawyers, jargon can speed up conversations. Having access to obscure legal knowledge and vocabulary can also help you prepare a stronger argument. But that inaccessible language can also alienate the people who are most in need of legal help, such as asylum-seekers who don’t speak English as a first language.
There is, of course, no magic key that will unlock fair treatment from public bodies, but there are ways to help people feel confident in communicating their situation. Someone might know that the mould in their council house is impacting their health, but not know how to advocate for their right to adequate housing. If they can say to the relevant authority, ‘I’m concerned that you might be in breach of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018,’ that sentence alone could open doors for them while dealing with public services.
How can we create a Rosetta Stone for rights?
At a purely linguistic level, legal researchers and lawyers are always balancing the urge to be precise with the need to communicate the substance of a topic. So, when they’re addressing the general public or the media, they may need to take a hedge trimmer to any lengthy sentences, use of passive voice, and technical language.
But these tips for breaking down legalese only address the knowledge gap if members of the public are already reading about human rights law. If lawyers and legal researchers really want to empower people to learn more about their rights, they might have to get creative.
In 2018, barrister Christian Weaver created a YouTube video about stop-and-search powers as part of his ‘The Law in 60 Seconds’ series. These powers have been widely criticised for disproportionately impacting ethnic minorities – for example, Black people were seven times more likely to be searched than white people in the year ending March 2021 – and they mostly result in no arrest.
In Weaver’s 2018 video, he spoke about what rights individuals have when they are stopped by the police under these powers. After the explainer reached thousands of views, he followed it up with more videos covering protest rights, health and safety at work, and bailiffs. By using animation and social media, he was able to reach a wide audience.
In 2023, the charity Just Fair announced the pilot for its card game, Human Rights: Not a Game, designed for civil society organisations and activists to spark conversations around rights. ‘As rights holders, people are often their own best advocates,’ the charity wrote about the project, which aims to show people the ‘everyday’ nature of economic, social and cultural rights. ‘But getting your voice heard when your rights are being violated can be hard if you are not confident about who to turn to, or how to use the language of human rights when you get there.’
Public bodies and officials need to be trained in human rights law too, of course, if we want better decisions to be made in the first place. As the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) has highlighted with its awareness-raising workshops, everyone needs to know about human rights – not just the welfare benefits recipients facing an unsympathetic system, but also the advisers making the difficult calls.
What’s next?
There is no one simple way to communicate the importance of human rights to every member of the public, particularly when legal frameworks such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 are so often attacked by politicians and the media. It’s particularly difficult when the law itself is written in a non-accessible way.
But by taking creative approaches, organisations can empower people to know their own rights and advocate for themselves. Accessibility starts with the language we use – and, even more crucially, where we use it.