Last week in Strasbourg the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered an important speech in which he called for reform of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The UK currently holds the six-month presidency of the Council of Europe.  The Council is comprised of government ministers from each of the European Union’s Member States, and plays the principal role in deciding policies in areas where countries have not delegated their powers to the other EU institutions.  It cannot propose new legislation, but has the power of setting political guidelines and Cameron clearly intends to use the remaining months of the UK’s presidency to push for changes in the ECtHR.

As we have noted several times in this blog, our Government has faced fierce ongoing criticism from the British media over its immigration policies.  Scarcely a week seems to pass without some fresh scandal being announced in the press.  The decisions by the ECtHR, and the Human Rights Act itself, are also frequently condemned as causing more harm than good, preventing illegal immigrants who have committed crimes from being deported.  More recently there have been protestations about the case of Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim cleric whose deportation order was overruled by the ECtHR on grounds that he would not receive a fair trial in his home country, and the ruling that the UK Government must allow prisoners to vote in elections, which is at odds with the wishes of Parliament.  Condemnation of the ECtHR and the rights and freedoms which it seeks to protect, appears to be growing more vociferous at present and the press fail to recognise that the rights protected are important ones, which we cannot take for granted.  Clearly, some decisions made by the ECtHR are questionable and deserve to be challenged, but we cannot ignore the very important work it does in safeguarding against abuse of these civil liberties.

David Cameron began his speech by reinforcing both the need to protect human rights and Britain’s commitment to furthering them, declaring ‘we are not and never will be a country that walks on by while human rights are trampled into the dust’.  He used numerous examples of humanitarian causes the UK has supported to highlight that we are a country which takes our civil and moral responsibilities very seriously.

However, he moved on to state ‘the time is right to ask some serious questions about how the Court is working’ and identified three key areas in which reforms should be made.  First, Cameron said that the volume of cases the Court has to deal with is too high, and has created a massive backlog which is slowing the whole process down.  Secondly, he stated that too many ‘spurious’ or trivial cases were coming before the Court, allowing dissatisfied appellants who had already been ruled against three times in the UK to take ‘an extra bite of the cherry…even where that judgment is reasonable, well-founded, and in line with the Convention.’  The PM called for the Court to exercise greater control over the cases it admits.  Finally, David Cameron said that ‘not enough account is being taken of democratic decisions by national parliaments’ and suggested that ECtHR should be giving more respect to national decisions properly made in the UK Parliament or Courts.  He went into further detail on this point by mentioning the problems faced when the Government is barred from deporting those who are threatening national security, but insisted ‘at the heart of this concern is not antipathy to human rights; it is anxiety that the concept of human rights is being distorted.’

Strong words from our Prime Minister, but will they have any effect?  For any changes to happen they will need the support of all member states in the EU, which is no easy thing to acquire.  Cameron’s speech has been attacked in some quarters, notably by the British President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza who wrote ‘it is disappointing to hear senior British politicians lending their voices to criticisms more frequently heard in the popular press, often based on a misunderstanding of the court’s role and history, and of the legal issues at stake.’ 

We agree that many of the press stories related to immigration, human rights and the Court are often inflated and factually inaccurate.  However, Cameron’s proposals do ring true in some areas and we will be interested to see if they are the start of serious changes or merely empty words, soon to be forgotten.

What are your views on these contentious issues?  We’d love to hear them…

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