Statutes, no limitations

Ryszard Piotrowicz argues that international law must once again become a core component of UK legal curricula

January 19, 2012

The Arab peoples have a legal right to democratic governance. Or do they? The UK can deport foreign criminals. Or can it? British lawyers don't need to know international law. Or do they?

Too few law graduates are aware of the impact of international law on their work. Any competent lawyer needs to have some knowledge of the subject and it should be a core, compulsory module in every law degree. But the legal profession still thinks you can be utterly ignorant about it - a subject that impinges upon almost every area of national law in every country in the world - and get by.

International law remains concerned fundamentally with governing the relations between states, but its reach is far greater than that. Of course, if you plan as a lawyer to specialise in wills and conveyancing in the UK, you certainly don't need to know much about the legality of the use of force against Libya or the delimitation of the territorial sea. But you would not need to know much about criminal law or the British constitution either, yet no one suggests that a proper law degree can omit basic instruction in these subjects.

When it comes to understanding the place of international law, we are all (including the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish) little Englanders, our heads buried in the sand, hoping that the subject will go away. But it won't. The difference with international law is that we (the converted) face a constant struggle to persuade the heathens (non-international lawyers) of the relevance of the discipline.

So here goes. International law affects just about every area of national law, whether we like it or not. Good lawyers need to know about it, not even for itself, but for how it may be relevant to their own specialisms. Sometimes this is obvious: an immigration lawyer, for example, needs to know about refugee law, and that is based on international law: the 1951 Refugees Convention.

Sometimes the significance of international law is less clear: do we really need to know about the International Criminal Court when studying criminal law? We do, actually. The UK has ratified the court's statute. Consequently it has obligations that could affect suspects who are in the UK. Crucially, British criminal law has been amended to take account of this. You cannot acquire a full appreciation of the scope of criminal law in this country if you are not aware of the International Criminal Court.

International law has influenced, and is part of, UK law. Frequently, change happens because the UK must bring its law into conformity with its international obligations. That can be a good thing: for instance, the ratification of the Palermo Protocol on combating human trafficking meant that domestic law on the issue had to be modernised.

The confusion over international law is apparent in the debate about the impact of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on the UK. Many British lawyers were unaware of European human rights law: it was a treaty, it was international law and it did not concern them. The Human Rights Act changed all that. Suddenly, human rights were part of British law. A lot of money was made by experts (some more expert than others) offering courses to legal professionals frozen rigid by fear of this thing from le Continent that was going to infect them, like rabies. Many were unaware that the convention already affected British law anyway.

The precise status of the European Convention in this country is a matter for our constitutional law (which all law students study), but that is not all. To understand the scope - including the limits - of human rights law, you need to know some international law and how it relates to national law. None of that will happen by denouncing it or pretending that it is not there.

International law used to be a compulsory first-year course at Aberystwyth University in the old days when the Berlin Wall was still standing, popes were Italian and British students got universal grants. Some things have changed for ever; others have gone for good. But international law needs to be on the core curriculum, and the sooner the better.

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