The Council of Europe, an international organisation that promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is based in Strasbourg and was formed in 1949. The UK is a founding member and holds the rotating chairmanship of the council until 23 May 2012, when it will then pass to Albania.
Reform of the court was a key priority for the UK chairmanship, who believe that that court is being asked for do too much and that it takes far too long for cases to be heard. Throughout the chairmanship, Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed an agenda of increased use of ‘subsidiarity’ – national courts dealing with cases where possible, rather than the ECtHR.
The conference came in the midst of the international legal row over the UK government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada. The UK government wants to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges, but judges at the ECtHR halted those plans amid concerns that Jordan may use evidence in Qatada’s trial that was obtained via torture.
Following institutional changes to the court in 1998, plus expansion to admit new members, the court experienced a substantial increase in its workload. At present, the ECtHR is has a backlog of around 150,000 cases waiting to be heard, and estimates that around 90 per cent of applications made to it are in fact inadmissible under its rules. The court also believes that in about 10 per cent of the cases that are admissible, up to half are repetitive cases about issues that have already been decided by the court.
At the opening of the Brighton Conference, UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared valued in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.”
Under the reforms agreed in Brighton, fewer British cases will go to the ECtHR and more will be resolved in domestic courts. The measures agreed include:
• Amending the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria, and therefore making it easier for trivial cases to be thrown out
• Amending the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation
• Improving the selection process for judges
• Reducing the time limit for claims from six months to four
Critics of the declaration have said they believe the reforms won’t really make any difference to the way the court operates. President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, told council delegates that the court’s judges were uncomfortable with the idea that governments could in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve, or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.
Although these reforms have now been officially agreed, Ken Clarke admitted that it will still take years to clear the backlog of cases the court is waiting to hear.
In the meantime, council members have reaffirmed their commitment to guaranteeing human rights in Europe and anticipate a future court that will be able to act quicker and more effectively.