Last Friday, 5 April, saw a break-through in negotiations as to how the EU is to accede to the ECHR – see the Draft Agreement on Accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. There has been a lot of speculation (e.g. my post of June 2012) about how the roles of the EU Court (the CJEU) and the Strasbourg Court might be fitted together. Now at least we have some of the proposed answers, though there are a number of formal steps to be undergone before it comes into law.
The move is a culmination of a process trailed as long ago as the 1970s, though kick-started more recently by Article 6 of the Lisbon Treaty of European Union. This entered into force in 2009, and says that the EU “shall” accede to the ECHR. Negotiations started in earnest in 2009/10, initially with negotiators from 14 Convention countries (7 in the EU, 7 ECHR but non-EU members) who met with members of the European Commission, and latterly involving all 47 Council of Europe countries. Those negotiators have now reached agreement.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami et al v. European Parliament opinion of Advocate General Kokott, 17 January 2013, read opinion, on appeal from the General Court read judgment & my post on it
The EU makes a rule. When can the ordinary person affected seek annulment of the rule on the basis that it is unlawful? This is the big issue tussled with in this important and informative Advocate General’s opinion. You might have thought that if the basic ground for challenge was unlawfulness (and that is a high hurdle in itself), then as long as you were in some way affected by the decision, then you should be able to complain about the decision. That is broadly how we do things here in our UK system of judicial review.
But when you get to the EU Courts very different rules of engagement apply – far fewer people can complain about the illegality directly.
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.
In my post of today about checks on EU legality, I made the point that no institution formally monitors the EU apart from EU institutions. Moves are afoot to change that, though not in a form that diehard Eurosceptics are likely to relish. Article 6 of the Lisbon Treaty of European Union says that the EU shall accede to the ECHR. As and when that occurs, the European Court of Human Rights will assume a formal role in adjudicating upon the legality of EU measures. The details of accession could not be settled by the purely EU Treaty of Lisbon, hence the ongoing negotiations.
However, things have been happening very recently. Yesterday, 19 June, a joint informal body of members of the European Parliament and Council of Europe parliamentarians welcomed the prospect of talks resuming on EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, and, last week, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided to pursue negotiations with the European Union with a view to finalising the legal instruments setting out the way in which the EU would accede to the ECHR.
In a recent post I mentioned that there has been criticism of the scope of the EU Aarhus Regulation inserting provisions about transparency, public participation and access to justice into EU processes themselves. It struck me just how confusing the whole area of EU challenges to EU measures is, so I thought I would summarise it as best I can in this and a following post. Here goes; the going may get a bit bumpy, but it is important stuff. I hope also to give some EU context to the debate about whether something is or is not a legislative act under Aarhus which I trailed in that post.
The EU signed up to the Aarhus Convention on environmental matters, as have all the member states. And the EU has made member states implement Aarhus-compliant procedures in major areas such as environmental impact assessment and industrial emissions, via the 2003 Public Participation Directive. The EU also requires member states to introduce a wide-ranging right to environmental information, transposed in the UK via the Environmental Information Regulations. The European Court has also chipped in with its own Aarhus gloss in the Slovakian Bear case; whenever a member state is considering some provision of EU environmental law, it must interpret that provision, if possible, so that it complies with Aarhus standards of public participation, even though those standards may be in the parts of the Aarhus Convention which have not received their own direct transposition into EU, let alone domestic, law.