“Human Right to Make a Killing”, screamed the Daily Mail last week, publishing details from a “damning dossier” which showed “Judges in Strasbourg paid out £4.4m to some of Britain’s worst criminals”.
The figures were taken from the response to a Parliamentary question put by Conservative MP Philip Davies. You can hear me debating him about the issue on BBC Radio 5 Live by clicking here – from 1:41:15 – watch out for the ‘human rights gravy train’ steaming into the debate around half way through.
This is another in a long line of misleading and inaccurate smear stories about human rights. In summary, the articles mostly fail to distinguish between damages (which go to the claimant) and costs (which pay for lawyers’ fees). Moreover, many of the cases mentioned in the table were not brought by criminals at all. It is a real mess.
Court concern at “seriously misleading” UK news articles
This afternoon, the European Court of Human Rights moved to correct “seriously misleading” information which appeared this week in the British media.
One such article appeared in the Daily Mail newspaper on 7 October, entitled ‘Human right to make a killing: Damning dossier reveals taxpayers’ bill for European court payouts to murderers, terrorists and traitors.’ It claimed that Strasbourg judges “handed the criminals taxpayer-funded payouts of £4.4million – an average of £22,000 a head.”
But that is simply wrong, according to the court.
A statement from the Registrar of the Court reads: “Several British newspapers have this week published articles based on a table produced in Westminster in response to a written parliamentary question. The common theme of the articles is that judgments from the European Court of Human Rights since 1998 have caused the UK government to make substantial payments to successful applicants, the clear suggestion being that this constitutes a massive payout to criminals. The figure cited is £4.4 million.
“However, the way in which this has been presented is seriously misleading. First, the figure of £4.4 million includes legal costs as well as compensation. The calculation of the total paid in respect of compensation by the UK since 1998 (as opposed to compensation and costs taken together) is in fact in the region of £1.7 million, less than half the figure of £4.4million.
“The failure to distinguish between compensation and costs creates the impression that applicants were awarded significantly more compensation than they really were and that the sums indicated were for the applicants’ sole benefit. For example, one of the articles suggested that Mustafa Abdi “pocketed £7,237”, whereas in reality he was awarded €1,500 in compensation. It is also indicated that applicant Douglas Vinter was “awarded £34,500”, although he was accorded no compensation whatsoever, the sum cited relating solely to costs and expenses.
“A significant proportion of the amounts referred to were therefore paid to lawyers. The particularly high level of legal fees in the U.K. compared with other Council of Europe countries means that in British cases costs normally exceed compensation. One example would be the case of Financial Times and Others v. the UK in which the Financial Times, the Independent, the Guardian, the Times and Reuters were awarded a total of €160,000 in costs, but received no compensation.
“The articles also imply that the sums in question were invariably paid to criminals. According to one headline “Judges in Strasbourg paid out £4.4 million to some of Britain’s worst criminals”. It is simply not true to suggest that all the applicants in respect of whom the Court has found violations since 1998 were criminals.
“For example, Mr McElduff and his fellow applicants (in Tinnelly and Sons and Others and McElduff and Others v. the UK) were self-employed joiners who were blacklisted from public works contracts because they were catholics, A. (in A v. the UK) was a 12 year old boy who was assaulted by his step father, the Osman family (in Osman v. the UK) the widow and son of man murdered by a stalker and David and Carol Glass (in Glass v. the UK) a disabled child and his mother.
“The calculations were based on the figure of 202 cases “lost” by the United Kingdom over this period (a figure described as “staggering” in one article). That figure has to be set against the total number of applications brought against the UK over the same period, namely 13,515. In other words the cases “lost” represented 1.5% of the cases examined.
“Finally, some of the articles cited a familiar refrain that “because they are political appointees many of the Court’s judges are not even legal experts”. This is simply not the case. Judges are not appointed but elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, composed of delegations from national parliaments, including Westminster. A list of three candidates is put forward by the Government, but before the Assembly proceeds to the election the list is vetted by an independent international panel of senior judicial figures to ensure that the candidates satisfy the Convention criteria that they must “either possess the qualifications required for appointment to high judicial office or be jurisconsults of recognised competence”. In other words they must be shown to be ‘legal experts.’ The judges on the Court come from different professional legal backgrounds, judges, academics, practitioners, but there are absolutely no grounds for alleging that they are not legal experts.
“The Court naturally understands that some of its decisions in sensitive areas give rise to criticism. The operation of the rule of law will not always tally with public opinion and it would be surprising if all its judgments were popular with governments.
“However, it is concerned about the frequent misrepresentation of its activities in the British media, the confusion between the costs (awarded in all properly functioning judicial systems) and compensation being one example of how a distorted picture of the Court’s decisions and work has been put forward.”
Expect a lot more of this as this issue hots up again in the lead up to the 2015 election. The main political parties have already set out their positions and it appears that human rights reform will be a key issue: the Conservatives have said their detailed reform plans, which may include a proposal to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, will be ready early next year. If you have access to The Times, I recommend Lord Pannick’s excellent article on the issue.