Radical changes are afoot in Strasbourg. Protocol No. 15, whose outlines were agreed at the Brighton Conference of 2012, is primed for ratification, while at the start of 2014, new Rules of Court will come into effect. Both have the potential to have a wide-ranging impact on applicants. Protocol 15 rewrites the Convention’s preamble, emphasising the Court’s “subsidiary” role in the protection of human rights.
It also modifies two of the admissibility criteria for petitions, pairing back the safeguard clauses initially erected around Protocol 14’s new criteria of “no significant disadvantage” and trimming the time available for applicants to lodge their cases from six months to four.
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.
This is a short version of an article on the subject to be published by John Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Human Rights at London University
There have been three major conferences over the past two years (at Interlaken, Izmir, and Brighton) to discuss the functioning of the European Court of Human Rights and possibilities for its development and reform. Each provided an opportunity to scrutinise such important components of the Court’s work as the subsidiarity principle, the (quite separate) principle of the margin of appreciation, the prioritisation of Convention articles, admissibility criteria, the idea of “European consensus”, “just satisfaction”, and “significant disadvantage” as well as broader topics such as the future role of the Court and whether a court of individual petition with case law as its only corpus of wisdom is the best way of promoting and protecting human rights in Europe. On each occasion debate was hijacked by the singular topic of reducing the backlog of cases. Wherever one of these components had a bearing on the Court’s overload, discussion was virtually confined to how it could be amended to cut the backlog and bring applications and judgements into balance. Continue reading
C.N. v. THE UNITED KINGDOM – 4239/08 – HEJUD  ECHR 1911 – read judgment here.
The European Court of Human Rights recently held that the UK was in breach of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to have specific legislation in place which criminalised domestic slavery.
Thankfully Article 4 cases (involving slavery and forced labour) are rare in the UK. Indeed this is only the fifth post on this blog about Article 4, which perhaps shows just how few and far between they are, and the UK has a proud history of seeking to prevent slavery. Although British merchants and traders, to their great shame, played a major part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade throughout the 1600s and 1700s, Britain was then at the forefront of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery from 1807 onwards and the common law has always considered slavery to be abhorrent (as the famous case of ex parte Somersett in 1772 made clear).
Tragically, however, slavery has not been consigned to the history books. Across the world new forms of slavery are prevalent. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are a minimum of 12.3 million people in forced labour worldwide, and one particular form of modern slavery – human trafficking – is one of the fastest-growing forms of human rights abuse. The UK, as a major destination country for trafficking victims, is not immune from this trend.
In a couple of weeks’ time, the government’s relationship with the Council of Europe will reach something of a turning point.
If the UK is going to comply with its international treaty obligations, ministers will have to “bring forward legislative proposals” by 22 November that will end what the European court of human rights calls the “general, automatic and indiscriminate disenfranchisement of all serving prisoners”.
That’s all the government has to do. There’s no need to give all or even most prisoners the vote. Parliament doesn’t even have to approve the proposals, although its failure to do so would lead to further challenges in due course.
But the prime minister painted himself into a corner last month. It’s true he offered to have “another vote in parliament on another resolution”. But a resolution is not the same as a bill. And David Cameron said, in terms: “Prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.”
Another brief guide to the admissibility conditions to the Strasbourg Court. This one is on the “six months rule” laid down in paragraph 1 of Article 35.
The Court may only deal with the matter … within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken.
Easy enough to state; the difficulty lies in identifying the “final decision”, in other words the point at which the six months starts to run. Here are the broad guidelines to be identified from the case law (and for this I am indebted to Karen Reid’s excellent and detailed Practitioner’s Guide (Third Edition 2008 Sweet & Maxwell).
1. No waiver
It is worth mentioning at the outset that the six month rule is imposed irrespective of the wishes of the parties or court; the rule cannot be waived (X v France (1982):
The Contracting States cannot, on their own authority, put aside the rule of compliance with the six-months time limit. The deposit bv a State of a declaration made under Article 25[now 35] of the Convention does not affect the running of this delay Continue reading
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.