Strasbourg is not the Vatican…yet.
6 December 2011
Behind the Times paywall Anthony Lester today declares that “Sniping at Strasbourg will only hinder reform”. In his guest column, he says that Court is suffering unfair criticism from “sections of the British media” and “politicians who accuse it of over-reaching its power”. That may well be the case, but the most searing and authoritative criticism comes not from politicians or the press but from Lord Lester’s own profession – see Jonathan Sumption QC’s recent broadside (and our post) and Lord Hoffmann’s much-discussed analysis (posted here).
If the Court is indeed hobbled by unfair squibs and arrows from a resentful sector of the British populace, as Lord Lester suggests, why is the prisoner votes example the only one he can come up with? That is an important fight, at least from a constitutional angle, but not the only flashpoint; the Court’s tendency to act as fourth instance appeal tribunal particularly on deportation and terrorism cases is arguably far more “dangerous” and certainly of concern to more people than votes for prisoners.
As for the recent criticism of the Strasbourg Court’s tendency to overreach itself, Lord Lester’s answer is the (soi disant) Strasbourg mantra that “national authorities are better placed than an international courts and parliaments have a wide margin of discretion…”
With respect, this is like arguing a defendant’s innocence by repeating his own claim that he didn’t do it. Read my lips, say the Strasbourg judges. We’re not going to interfere, but..
The other difficulty with this article is Lord Lester’s conviction that the “furore” over the Court’s controversial judgments is getting in the way of its efforts to improve.
Despite the need for reform, the Strasbourg Court deserves defending.
The use of the word “deserves” is puzzling. The problem is not the word itself, which bears the ordinary meaning of “merits”. The issue is the implied opposition between those who criticise it (“sniping”) and those who, like Lester, feel that the Court is our only bastion against the “tyranny of majorities and the abuse of state power”. This implies an oddly impoverished notion of what it takes to be, and function, as a supra-national institution whose task it is to patrol the precincts of the Council of Europe to check that its members are staying within Convention constraints. If this institution is so weak that it can only be defended because it would otherwise crumble, it is not worth defending.
It is now no longer considered blasphemous to subject legal institutions – even international ones – to critical debate and discussion. Strasbourg is not the Vatican. As a Liberal Democrat peer, Lester might be forgiven for his general pro-Strasbourg stance. But as a defence of Strasbourg and its jurisprudence against the very serious charges recently levelled at it, this would not stand up in court.
Whilst we’re behind the paywall, a few gems from Matthew Parris, who is also given to mulling over human rights matters, although not quite in the Lester vein. A couple of weeks ago he questioned the logic of the “established order”, wondering what exactly the Equality and Human Rights commission is for, and why it had conducted an inquiry into home care for the elderly?
If home care is a matter of equality and human rights, what isn’t?
Parris’s point is that if the EHRC really exists to enforce entitlements and equality in the name of human rights, do we really need all the other publicly funded organisations whose job it is to police more or less the same things? The recent NICE recommendation that all women should be entitled to childbirth by Caesarean section is surely just as much a matter of human rights as home care for the elderly. In fact there’s work for the EHRC all over the place, such as preventing the UK Border Agency from targeting high-risk flights and individuals, also reported in an earlier edition (November 24th). Everywhere you look, there are issues crying out for attention of this sort –
Snippet three reports a refund by Microsoft for online Xbox users whose accounts have been hacked into by thieves. No rights involved here? Internet users are humans, surely? The fourth report is about E. coli killing two babies in a neonatal and maternity ward in a Swansea hospital. Is this any less an EHRC matter than substandard care for the elderly?
Parris concludes his musings with the suggestion that the EHRC’s excludes very little in the field of domestic governance, under ‘our ever-sloppier definition of the words ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’”
Both terms being essentially meaningless, there is no core to the concept and it becomes impossible to know where the periphery might end.
Perhaps this is ultimately the weakness at the core of the European Court of Human Rights and its constituent institutions, a flaw which is manifesting itself in the multifold problems of case overload, inconsistent and unpredictable jurisprudence, and interference in sovereign matters.
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