News In Depth
Warning on Euro rights court reform
Europe's human rights court is "uncomfortable" at the suggestion governments can dictate how it should carry out its work and there is no need for new admissibility criteria for cases, its president has said.
Sir Nicolas Bratza's comments risked embarrassing Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke as he tries to reach a deal on reform of the court in talks with the 47 member nations of the Council of Europe in Brighton.
The British judge told governments to leave the court to decide how it carries out its own work and said it did not matter if most people disagreed with its decisions.
Protecting human rights often meant standing up for the minority, he said.
It came as two leading members of the council also called for its members to pay more towards the court's work.
In January, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the court risked undermining its own reputation by "going over national decisions where it does not need to".
And he insisted there was "credible democratic anxiety" that insufficient account was being taken of the decisions of national parliaments on issues such as prisoners' votes.
But addressing the council today, Sir Nicolas said: "In order to fulfil its role the European court must not only be independent, it must also be seen to be independent.
"That is why we are, I have to say, uncomfortable with the idea that governments can in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it."
He said there had been much discussion on "whether some new form of admissibility criterion should be added to the arsenal of admissibility conditions that are already available to the court".
"We welcome the fact that no proposal for a new admissibility criterion is now made in the declaration and we are grateful for the efforts to take on board the court's concerns in this respect," he said.
"In this context may I repeat that it is indeed the court's practice to reject a case as inadmissible where it finds that the complaint has been fully and properly examined in convention terms by the domestic courts."
On the court's unpopular decisions, Sir Nicolas went on: "At a time when human rights and the convention are increasingly held responsible in certain quarters for much that is wrong in society, it is worth recalling the collective resolve of member States of the Council of Europe to maintain and reinforce the system which they have set up.
"It is nevertheless not surprising that governments and indeed public opinion in the different countries find some of the court's judgments difficult to accept.
"It is in the nature of the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law that sometimes minority interests have to be secured against the view of the majority.
"I would plead that this should not lead governments to overlook the very real concrete benefits which the court's decisions have brought for their own countries on the internal plane."
The agreement, expected to be signed later, comes in the wake of the ongoing furore over Government attempts to deport terror suspect Abu Qatada and after European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judges ruled that the UK must give some prisoners the right to vote.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the council's Secretary General, told its members the time had come for states to pay more for the court and set up a fund to help pay for its work.
"We must be honest and realistic about the possible budgetary aspects of certain proposals that have been discussed during the preparation of this very important conference," he said.
"I am highly sensitive to the budgetary situations of our member States.
"But if our words are to be backed up by action, we must recognise that some small budgetary efforts may be unavoidable.
"Now time has come to set up a special fund, in particular for the backlog of the court, to which member states could contribute on a voluntary basis."
His comments were backed by Jean-Claude Mignon, president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, who also called for states to pay more to help fund the court's costs.
Earlier Mr Clarke told the council the declaration would "speed up the momentum of reform".
He wants to improve its efficiency, reduce the backlog of 150,000 cases and the number of cases it hears, and increase the role of nation states in protecting human rights.
"The ultimate goal is not for the court to process ever more cases and deliver even more judgments but for the rights embedded in the convention to be protected," he said.
Senior Government officials also insisted last night that what had been achieved was "very much" what the Prime Minister set out in January.
One official said they were "confident that the impact on the system itself is very much the impact we were seeking to have".
The reforms would lead to "many fewer cases", another said, but Europe's human rights judges would still consider key cases where they felt "there was a serious issue or a new issue for them to consider".
This would include issues like those raised previously over removing innocent people from the national DNA database, the officials said.
It could also include the controversial case of Jordanian terror suspect Abu Qatada, as the court's ruling in January was the first time the court found an expulsion would be in violation of the right to a fair trial. But the officials would not comment on Qatada's case.
The European Group of National Human Rights Institutions also warned the council against bringing in any new admissibility criteria.
"There will always remain situations where the oversight of the court is necessary to the application of convention standards," a spokeswoman said.
"The right of individual petition and the independence of the court must thus remain the cornerstones of the convention system.
"In light of this, the European Group cautions against introducing further admissibility criteria."
She went on: "It is in the nature of the judicial function to apply principles consistently and the court should not be instructed in regard to how to apply legal principles.
"States which faithfully ensure domestic compliance and remedies can have no concerns about undue court oversight.
"In this regard, we caution against proposals to limit the power of the court to grant just satisfaction."
what do you think?
The trouble here, as always, is that each one of the '47' is thinking 'They want my vote - what can I get out of this?'