UK vs. Strasbourg: don’t believe the hype – Alice Donald
20 April 2012
The Abu Qatada deadline debacle has once again thrust the European Court of Human Rights – and in particular, its relationship with the UK – into unwanted controversy just as European representatives gathered in Brighton to debate the Court’s future. This new fracas over the deportation of Abu Qatada has acted as a lightning rod for well-rehearsed criticisms of the Strasbourg Court – that it is a ‘meddling pseudo-judiciary’ and the enforcer of a villains’ charter.
A new report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission by researchers at London Metropolitan University and LSE, including myself, addresses these critiques as part of a broad analysis of the relationship between the UK and Strasbourg.
Among those interviewed for the report were the President of the European Court, Sir Nicolas Bratza; the outgoing Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg; and, in the UK, Baroness Hale, Sir John Laws and Jack Straw, along with two members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, Lord Lester QC and Anthony Speaight QC. The report also conducts a thematic analysis of case law, as well as examining wider literature and the voluminous statistics produced by the Court.
First, the figures.
As is well known, the vast backlog of cases in Strasbourg – more than 150,000 – is largely due to a few serial offenders: Russia, Turkey, Italy, Romania and Ukraine, which between them account for some 60 per cent of pending applications. The UK accounts for less than three per cent.
Contrary to assertions that Strasbourg frequently overrules domestic courts, the UK’s ‘rate of defeat’ is in fact very low (as this blog has previously reported). Of some 12,000 applications lodged against the UK between 1999 and 2010, only three per cent were declared admissible and less than two per cent resulted in a judgment finding at violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Put another way, the UK ‘lost’ only one in 50 cases brought against it.
The report further analyses these statistics for the effect of repetitive cases – where the violation has the same root cause and therefore multiple judgments are counted as a single judgment, arguably producing a more meaningful picture. The adjusted figures show a rate of defeat between 1999 and 2010 of 1 in 70. Although annual figures are no more than a snapshot, it is striking that the ratio of applications to adverse judgments in 2011 equates to a rate of defeat of just one in 200.
What of criticisms that the Court is meddling in minutiae, involving itself in matters which are best left to domestic decision-makers? Overall our research undermines this proposition. Judgments against the UK, while few in number, have frequently been serious and substantive in nature. Almost one in 12 of all judgments relating to the UK have concerned the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life and to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. UK cases have also gone to the heart of individual liberties: around one-third involved the right to a fair trial.
Our report also examines the relationship between the UK courts and Strasbourg, in the context of the intense debate about the precise meaning of section 2 of the Human Rights Act. We present a typology of cases in which, variously:
- Strasbourg has deferred to national authorities
- Strasbourg has adopted the reasoning and analysis of the UK courts
- Strasbourg and the UK courts have disagreed, or
- the UK courts have consciously leapt ahead of Strasbourg.
Since the Human Rights Act came into force in 2000, the European Court has been particularly respectful of UK court decisions. Jurists in both the UK and Strasbourg told us that this is because of the high quality of domestic judgments, which greatly assists the Strasbourg judges in their adjudications. On the rare occasions that the UK courts have disagreed with Strasbourg case law (and to repeat, they are not bound by it) the European Court has shown itself willing to engage in dialogue with UK courts – as happened recently in the case of Al-Khawaja, concerning the use of hearsay evidence in criminal proceedings. This two-way relationship belies depictions of the Strasbourg Court as a body which habitually imposes its will unilaterally on domestic courts.
Another critique of the European Court is that it has been overly-expansive – inventing rights by applying the Convention in ways that would not have been foreseen by its drafters. The Court does indeed take a dynamic approach to the Convention – and this approach has permitted the development in recent years of positive Convention obligations, the effect of which has been to provide increased human rights protection for vulnerable groups, such as the victims of rape, domestic violence and human trafficking. The Strasbourg Court is of course not alone in adopting a dynamic approach to interpretation: the common law has also done so. We document, for example, the way in which domestic courts evolved the concept of rape within marriage, where previously husbands had enjoyed immunity from such a charge.
The report considers, too, the impact of Strasbourg judgments on the UK through changes to the law or the way that law is applied (see also Guardian readers’ interesting contributions on this issue). Where deaths occur at the hands of the state, the resulting investigatory obligations have been substantially shaped by European Court judgments. Strasbourg rulings have protected people from unwarranted intrusion into their privacy through surveillance and from the indiscriminate retention of their DNA profile. It is due to a Strasbourg judgment that police can no longer stop and search people without needing any grounds for suspicion and that the UK now has a law outlawing forced labour and servitude. Judgments have also been significant milestones towards equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
Strasbourg rulings have had such impact on the lives of people in the UK precisely because the UK has a generally excellent record in implementing judgments against it. The Council of Europe describes the UK as leading by example when it comes to remedying violations of Convention rights. For example, Russian prosecutors investigating grave human rights violations in Chechnya visited Northern Ireland to learn from the Historical Enquiries Team about investigative techniques and how best to engage with bereaved families (see paras. 22 and 23 here).
It is therefore paradoxical that the national discourse about the Court has become dominated by an example of the non-execution of a judgment – the failure by successive governments since 2005 to resolve the question of prisoner voting rights
(see previous posts here and here). We should recall that it was the indiscriminate nature of the ban on prisoners’ voting that Strasbourg found problematic, not the ban as such – a fact ignored by some commentators. As with all Strasbourg judgments, the government has considerable discretion about how to remedy the violation.
We detected palpable concern at the Council of Europe that the UK’s stance on prisoner voting, and the accompanying hostile rhetoric about the Court, could impact upon the capacity of the Committee of Ministers to influence governments, and thus weaken the notion that states should act collectively in order to uphold human rights standards. As Nicolas Bratza put it:
One worries about contagion. There is a risk of this attitude in the UK to judgments of the Court negatively impacting on other states … This could result in a wider refusal to implement European Court judgments across the Council of Europe.
There is much to celebrate in the relationship between the UK and Strasbourg, from the pivotal role played by British jurists in the creation of the Convention (documented compellingly by Dr Ed Bates) to the UK’s largely exemplary record of encouraging compliance by its most egregious violators. This record risks being obscured by an increasingly parochial national debate about the Strasbourg Court. The Wilton Park conference which launched the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe urged politicians and other public figures to ‘tread with conscience’ when discussing human rights protection in Europe – and this exhortation will remain relevant long after delegates have vacated the rain-swept Brighton seafront.
Alice Donald is a Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute, London Metropolitan University
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