The Aire Centre has been at the forefront of European human rights law for 25 years. Matt Evans writes about its achievements and challenges ahead
I’d like to say that my interest in the law derived, like seemingly so many human rights lawyers, from reading To Kill a Mockingbird when I was young. However I am afraid that although it clearly tapped into a sense of fairness, my legal career owes more to the 1980’s US legal drama LA Law, set in and around the fictitious Los Angeles-based law firm McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, than to Harper Lee’s Pullitzer Prize novel.
I was clearly not alone in my love of LA Law. Apparently the number of applicants to US law schools rose significantly during the show’s run, and it was not hard to see why, given how it both glamorized and caricatured the legal profession. For a kid who went to school in Leytonstone, it was impossibly sleek and enticing.
By the time I qualified at Alexander and Partners, a legal aid firm in Harlesden, and about as far removed for the glitz of LA as it was possible to get, my dreams of becoming the next Arnie Becker had been put on hold. However I had also come to understand the power of the law to change things, and that this was what I wanted to do with my days. Over the next 13 years I was fortunate enough to work with some fantastic lawyers during my time at firms such as TV Edwards, Hickman & Rose, and Hodge Jones and Allen. I also had six wonderful years managing the Prisoners Advice Service, a charity dedicated to (and staffed by equally dedicated individuals) offering free legal advice and support to prisoners in England and Wales.
However the most significant thing that has happened in my career has been joining the AIRE Centre. It is an honour to lead such an important organisation, which is now approaching its 25th year. Not many Human Rights NGOs make it to 25, and even fewer have anywhere near the impact of the AIRE Centre.
The AIRE Centre has been at the forefront of European human rights law. Its achievements have ensured that families, children and those most marginalized in society benefit from their rights under European law. To identify and list its most important cases is an impossible task, but a few of these would include the ECtHR cases of Osman v UK and Z v UK protecting vulnerable children, and Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (still the lead case on State responsibilities towards trafficking victims), the domestic interventions at the UK Supreme Court on marriage discrimination in R (on the application of Quila and another) v Secretary of State for the Home Department; R (on the application of Bibi and another) v Secretary of State for the Home Department, and Jessy Saint Prix, heard in the CJEU, and which clarified the rights of women EU workers who stop work due to pregnancy.
This year the AIRE Centre has been involved in the UKSC cases of Janah (the compatibility of the UK’s State Immunity Act with Human Rights and EU law), HC (R) (Zambrano carers and their right to social assistance support), as well as the challenges in the High Court around the consultation undertaken in respect of unaccompanied minors under the Dubs Amendment, and Operation Nexus (a joint initiative between the Home Office Immigration Enforcement and the Metropolitan Police Service). In Europe, we have intervened in Coman (a case which has significant implications to same sex couples who are seeking to live in EU countries where same sex marriage is not itself legally recognised), and Chowdhury and others v Greece (a landmark judgment vindicating a group of migrant strawberry pickers, shot at by employers for asking for their wages after months of unpaid labour, and which led to an award of €588,000 in damages, and the largest ever compensation award made by the European court). In the words of Judge Ledi Bianku, of the European Court of Human Rights, at AIRE’s 20th anniversary, ‘When AIRE is around you can breathe European human rights law.’
In addition to its strategic litigation, the AIRE Centre deals with around 2000 advice line queries each year, and provides pro bono representation in the First Tier and Upper Tribunals in cases involving enforced removals, access to support for trafficking and domestic violence victims, as well as those facing homelessness or destitution – representation provided in the face of significant State retrenchment; where funding for the justice system has been slashed, legal aid has been cut significantly and where ‘enhanced’ court and tribunal fees have been introduced.
The AIRE Centre also runs a number of projects, working in the areas of EEA Women in Detention, Trafficking/Domestic Violence, Homelessness, Separated Children and the Western Balkans. We have also trained a small army of interns as human rights lawyers, and even accommodated a batch who have gone over to the dark side and become Treasury Counsel.
The struggle for the AIRE Centre, and no question the hardest part of my job, is keeping a small charity afloat. The AIRE Centre runs on a shoestring, reliant upon the generosity of Trusts and Foundations and a small group of individuals and corporates who appreciate the importance of our work. We have to raise around £600,000 a year to keep the charity ticking over.
There is still much we need to do, both in the run up to Brexit and after. The AIRE Centre’s commitment will remain focused on the pursuit of justice, supporting those most marginalised and excluded from societies and strengthening of the rule of law throughout Europe.
Please get in touch if you are interested in becoming a friend of the AIRE Centre, donating to the AIRE Centre to enable us to continue our vital work, or would like to partner with us on some of our projects.