Back to basics, then, as the new academic year starts. Which courts decide human rights cases, when, and by what rules?
Well, the easy one is domestic courts. They decide whether a public authority has acted or omitted to act unlawfully under the Human Rights Act.
If the act is a decision about housing or immigration status or prisoners’ rights, the courts can quash it, and so tell the decision-maker either to decide it again or if there is only one lawful answer, tell the decision-maker what decision to take. If it was a past course of conduct (unlawful detention, intrusion into privacy, unacceptable pollution), they may award damages for human rights breaches. If the domestic law is itself unlawful, and cannot be interpreted HR-compliantly, the domestic courts can make a declaration of incompatibility under s.4 of HRA – it does the claimant no good in respect of his claim, though it throws a huge gauntlet down to Parliament to do something about the non-compliant law. And in the criminal courts, the obvious sanction is to dismiss the prosecution for some abuse of process involving the defendant’s human rights.
C-619/10, Trade Agency Ltd v. Seramico Investments Ltd, CJEU, 6 September 2012
This case in the EU Court of Justice may sound rather abstruse, but is actually quite important. When someone starts a claim in the English courts for, say, a debt owed, and the defendant does not put in a defence, the claimant can simply ask the court to enter judgment for the sum claimed, and can bring enforcement proceedings based upon that judgment. In this procedure, the court is acting administratively, and typically no judge will be involved in the process. All very simple then.
But that is not what happened in this case. The complication was that the claimant wished to enforce the English judgment in Latvia. It could do this using an EU Regulation about the enforcement of judgments. But the Latvian court was concerned by two aspects of the case, firstly that, according to the debtor, it had not been informed of the commencement of the English proceedings, and secondly that the default judgment gave no reasons. So they asked the EU Court for its guidance. Hence this judgment of today.