The European Court of Human Rights got off lightly in the Prime Minister’s In-Out speech yesterday, with just a single passing mention. No surprises there, as the speech was about the European Union, a separate organisation from the Council of Europe, which runs the Strasbourg court. Withdrawing from the European Union would not mean withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights.
Yesterday was, however, an exception. Ordinarily, the European Court of Human Rights is a large presence in the in-out Europe debate. And, from the amount of coverage and political argument the court generates, you might be forgiven for thinking it rules against the UK hundreds of times per year. The Court has just released its statistics for 2012, and the figures may surprise you.
In 2012 there were 3,308 applications made by individuals to the Court involving the UK (see this document). Only 21 were declared “admissible”, which means they were substantially considered by the Court. It cannot be assumed that the cases resolved in 2012 were same group as the applications brought. But since in 2011 a similar number of applications were brought (3,663 – in fact more) this suggests that around 99% of applications from the UK are being struck out (technically disposed of, that is struck out or declared inadmissible) in the very early stages.
The 21 UK cases amounted around 2% of the total substantively considered by the Court (1,093). And, of those 21, the Court found a violation against the UK in only ten cases.
This document breaks down the violations by article of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK sample size (10 cases) is so small that it is not possible to extract any meaningful information from the breakdown. But, of those cases, there was a wide spread of violations including Article 3 (torture, inhuman and degrading treatment), Article 4 (anti-slavery) and Article 8 (the right to family and private life).
Context is everything. The UK has to abide by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, but in reality the vast majority of human rights judgments are now generated by our own courts. As readers of the UK Human Rights Blog will know, the UK courts – from the County Courts upwards – are releasing judgments about people’s human rights almost daily. This is thanks to the Human Rights Act 1998, which allowed individuals in the UK to bring human rights cases in a nearby court to be decided by a local judge.
Before the HRA became law, the legislative plans were referred to as Bringing Rights Home. And that is exactly that the act has achieved. The ten or so judgments which the European Court of Human Rights produces each year against the UK are but a tiny fraction (0.5%) of the applications brought from the UK – not three out of four as some newspapers reported, bizarrely and irresponsibly, this time last year.
That is not to say that the European Court of Human Rights gets every judgment right, of course. There are legitimate criticisms made of its rulings, which naturally involve the most controversial topics.
But it is important to remember, when the next fight erupts over ‘unelected’ European judges deciding our law, that in fact they decide only a handful of UK cases. And those case are represent only a tiny sliver of the human rights judgments involving people in the UK, the vast majority of which are, thanks to the Human Rights Act, decided by judges not in Strasbourg but in Swindon (and in other UK courts).
Hardly a monstrous invasion of our sovereignty, is it? Bear that in mind next time we are debating whether to be in our out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
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