Unsurprisingly, the Opinion of the EU Court (just before Christmas – my post here) that the proposed accession of the EU to the ECHR on current terms would be unlawful has not gone down well in Strasbourg.
An excellent post today by Tobias Lock on the Verfassungblog tells the story here, but these are the highlights. In short, the President of the Strasbourg Court, Dean Spielmann, added some text to his review of 2014, in a speech given yesterday, 29 January – here.
Lots of interesting stuff on the 2014 ECtHR case law (and case load), but his withering bit on the CJEU’s Opinion is worth quoting.
Bearing in mind that negotiations on European Union accession have been under way for more than thirty years, that accession is an obligation under the Lisbon Treaty and that all the member States along with the European institutions had already stated that they considered the draft agreement compatible with the Treaties on European Union and the Functioning of the European Union, the CJEU’s unfavourable opinion is a great disappointment.
In short, the CJEU is out of line with the views of the member states, and not least with the obligation in Article 6 of the Lisbon Treaty that the EU “shall” accede to the ECHR.
But Spielmann did not leave it at that, as we shall see.
Opinion of CJEU, 18 December 2014 – read Opinion
Well, here’s a thing. The EU top court in Luxembourg has decided that it is somehow against the EU treaties for it to defer in specific instances to the other European top dog, the ECtHR in Strasbourg.
Accession of the EU to the ECHR has been a very slow-burn process, with the Commission starting things off in 1979 (sic). The breakthrough, or so it appeared at the time, was the entry into force of Article 6 of the Lisbon Treaty of European Union, in December 2009. This (Art.6(2)) makes it a treaty obligation that the EU
“shall accede to the ECHR”.
Nice and simple then? No, not exactly, when you look at the extremely complex Draft Agreement on Accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights, concluded in April 2013- my post here. This seeks to make the adjustments to both the EU and ECHR institutions enabling a non-state organisation such as the EU to sign up to the ECHR.
One of the steps contemplated by the draft Agreement was the obtaining of an opinion from the CJEU on whether the Agreement was compatible with the EU Treaties. And the CJEU’s firm “non” to that question will inevitably set back the process, if not lead to its complete derailment.
The Opinion has already been well analysed by Aidan O’Neill QC here and Steve Peers here, neither in terms flattering of the CJEU. It is of some importance, so here is my penn’orth.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami et al v. European Parliament, CJEU, 3 October 2013 (read judgment), following Advocate General Kokott, 17 January 2013, read opinion and my post
This important case is all about “standing” before the EU courts, namely the ability to complain about some EU act that affects you. Lack of standing means that even if a measure was wrong and unlawful, you cannot get your foot in the door of the court. Domestic rules are quite relaxed, though proposals by Government to make it more difficult to sue Government and other public authorities are currently being consulted upon. But you cannot say that an EU law is unlawful without going to Luxembourg.
The EU Courts have always been very restrictive about the circumstances in which an individual can do so. A brief blip (C-50/00 UPA) a few years ago by a UK Advocate-General suggesting that things be done differently was squashed by the Court. And since then it has been one-way traffic in the EU Courts, brushing off criticism from NGOs and indeed the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in 2011 (see here). For a good summary of the EU case law up to 2011, see the ACCC at -
Recent Treaty amendments in Lisbon have, it will be seen, made little difference to the result.
C-501/11P Schindler v. European Commission, CJEU, 18 July 2013 – read judgment
Two things of general interest to the human rights lawyer in this unsuccessful attempt by Schindler to challenge a fine of a mere €143 million for anti-competitive behaviour before the EU’s top court.
The first is that the Commission’s role as investigator, prosecutor and enforcer was not found to be in breach of Article 6(1) – because its decisions were subject to “full review” by the EU judges. The second is the remark in the CJEU’s judgment that the EU status of Article 6 ECHR will change when the EU accedes to the ECHR – I shall look at whether this change will be formal or substantive, given the presence of an equivalent right in the EU Charter, within Article 47.
Like a lot of decisions involving issues of high principle, the underlying facts do not reflect well on the offending company, in this case Schindler. It, with three other companies (Kone, Otis and ThyssenKrupp), stitched up the lift and escalator markets in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Somebody tipped off the Commission, who conducted a massive investigation, and fined all these companies. As is standard, the process of investigation did not involve any oral hearing, with some limitations on the access by the accused companies to all the material which the Commission received.
As my image shows, cartel fines by the Commission involve big big money, and I dare say they dwarf any fines levied by member states on “true” criminals.
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.