Ken Clarke hails deal to overhaul European Court of Human Rights


Justice Secretary Ken Clarke: "Get rid of all the trivial cases. Get rid of all the years of delay"

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Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said an agreement reached at a conference in Brighton will make "a big difference" to the European Court of Human Rights.

The 47 member countries have been discussing UK plans to curb its powers.

Court president Sir Nicolas Bratza said the Brighton declaration would "not change the way we do our jobs".

But Mr Clarke said it would reduce the "appalling backlog" of cases and "scandalous delays" that currently dog the court.

The UK has criticised some judgements, including giving prisoners the vote and blocking the deportation of Abu Qatada.

At the end of last year, judges in Strasbourg faced a backlog of nearly 152,000 cases, of which an estimated 90,000 will end up being categorised as "inadmissible".

Opening the Brighton meeting, Mr Clarke said "huge progress" had been made in tackling the number of inadmissible cases, but the court was still receiving more admissible cases than it could handle in "a timely manner" - some 3,000 a year, compared with a manageable workload of 2,000.

He said some of those "stuck waiting in that queue" would be serious cases that "should not wait years before they are determined".


Sir Nicolas has suggested that reform was already under way and the backlog was being tackled.

Start Quote

Sometimes minority interests have to be secured against the view of the majority”

End Quote Sir Nicolas Bratza President of the European Court of Human Rights

But at a press conference following the agreement of the declaration, Mr Clarke said he did not take "so leisured" a view as the court president.

"I won't accuse him of complacency, but I'm a little less relaxed than Sir Nicolas about the progress that's been made before the Brighton Declaration, which I think will make a big difference," he said.

Sir Nicolas said he was "uncomfortable" with governments trying to "dictate" the court's operations.

"In order to fulfil its role the European court must not only be independent, it must also be seen to be independent," he added.

He said it was "not surprising that governments and indeed public opinion in different countries find some of the court's judgements difficult to accept".

"[But] it is... in the nature of the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law that sometimes minority interests have to be secured against the view of the majority."

'Very trivial cases'

Mr Clarke said he understood Sir Nicolas's "defensiveness", but member states had a duty to make sure the court operated efficiently.

Start Quote

Whatever cosmetic concessions are made will really not mean very much”

End Quote Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky Former member of commission on UK Bill of Rights

"Tackling the logistics of the court which are leading to delays... is not in my opinion threatening the independence of the court in the slightest."

The justice secretary went on: "We're making sure that we require the court to act more promptly on the sort of cases that this court should be dealing with.

"Stop being so slow in getting rid of some of the triviality, stop hearing some of the very trivial cases where there's no substantial damage... and just to give prompt decisions on those fewer cases which require a decision."

The UK had sought agreement on the principle of "subsidiarity" - to limit the court's ability to overrule cases already determined by national courts.

The other main principle demanded was to allow a "margin of appreciation" - giving national governments greater leeway in applying the judgements of the court.

Mr Clarke said earlier there could not be "an absolute rule" giving pre-eminence to national courts or parliaments, but it would not "very often happen" that a domestic decision would be overruled.

The UK government estimates this could happen within a couple of years.

'Underlying issue'

Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, told the BBC earlier that individual member states - "where the convention has not been implemented fully" - were responsible for the court's problems.

Speaking alongside Mr Clarke later he said the declaration would make it easier for the court to "put aside" unsuitable applications.

But Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, who recently resigned from his position on the commission considering a UK Bill of Rights, said that although some "generally useful words and goodwill" might come out of the conference, it would not resolve "the underlying issue, which is, where does the buck stop?"

"The document says quite clearly that that final authority rests with Strasbourg, so whatever cosmetic concessions are made will really not mean very much."

Critics of the UK's desire to reduce the court's workload say it risks damaging access to justice in some member countries, including Russia and Ukraine.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    It's very clear Ken Clarke has never studied any Human Rights law. What he is calling for, a margin of appreciation, already exists, and is used very regularly by the court. The crux of his argument, when it boils down to it, is that he doesn't like it that Strasbourg can overrule UK decisions... but once you get rid of that. you may as well have no European supervision at all.

    PG Law Student.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    The ECHR has caused serious embarrassment to Labour and Conservative government alike and allowed miscarriages in justice to those who wish to hide behind and abuse the rights law . There are many criminals in this country who have married purely to avoid being deported on the grounds to the rights to a family life . This is an abuse pure and simple . Change is necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Yes, reform of the European Court of Human Rights is a good idea, but:
    - As for the Abu Qatada case, issues involving possible torture and death are about as serious as it gets, aren't they?
    - Who decides whether a case is trivial?
    - Who decides "where there's a serious argument they have manifestly erred"?
    Someone has to make the assessment: the ECoHR just needs to do it efficiently.

  • Comment number 192.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    181. Centres for Stuff I Heard from Some Guy
    Cake and eat it time?"

    That may or may not be a fair observation. However, separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary are critical aspects of modern constitutional democracies. Compromise these at all our peril.
    Have the powers ever been separated that way, apart from on paper?

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Your point seems valid on the face of it - surely the French are subject to the same rules as we are?

    One thing's for certain, May won't stick her neck out unless she's got a list of scapegoats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    I wouldn't put it past the Conservatives to have engineered this debacle so that they will meet less opposition when then choose to arbitrarily opt out of the Human Right Convention. Qatada's no threat to anyone anymore - even under house arrest he poses no threat. But if the Conservatives make the EHCR look like a threat to British citizens then railroading their own agenda through will be easy

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I think May is right on the deadline. Abu Qatada didn’t appeal until May’s announced. He and his lawyers are just playing with laws. We disgust them.

    Is it their human rights to lie to public or play with deadline regulations?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    How instructive it is to see opposition MPs scoring cheap political points over the interpretation of the ECHR deadline for appeals. What matters is that all MPs act to reflect the crushing majority view of we, the British People, that Qatada is deported to Jordan asap. Perhaps too, that view extends to our withdrawing from the ECHR.

  • Comment number 186.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    The issue about the ECHR is that it has exceeded its purpose. It was set up to prevent extremism populist govt and protect against torture. It decided to re-interpret the treaty as a living document and has now become a tool to impose soft left socialist thinking as "rights".

    I agreed with ECHR on the Quatada case that was within original remit but not about prisoner votes

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Mrs Odicean thinks this Abu Qadada business could have been sorted out more quickly if the Home Office put someone in charge with more qualifications than a mere secretary. Teressa May should go, and she should go nowq. She even doesn't know what day of the weak it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    In a speech in January, Mr Cameron said some rulings by the court were having a "corrosive effect" on people's support for civil liberties.
    And here I thought it was the other way around, or haven't the British People realized their civil liberties have been slipping away?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    People need to distinguish between bad law, and bad judgements made under that law.

    I'd suggest those who are angry are usually so because of the latter, but wrongly target their fire at the first.

    There have been some poor findings under HRA, mainly when new, but better precedents are being set as time passes.

    I'd defy anyone reasonable, to find serious fault with the safeguards of HRA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Cake and eat it time?"

    That may or may not be a fair observation. However, separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary are critical aspects of modern constitutional democracies. Compromise these at all our peril.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Basing a "complex financial instrument" on the ability of broke people to maintain mortgage repayments and then selling the "repackaged" (or disguised as ordinary people would call it) product as an investment comes far closer to the description of fraud than initiative. The results of their 'initiative' had been paid for by ordinary people.Is that justice?

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Human rights legislation that protects us from torture, guarantees freedom of expression etc -fine.

    Human rights that lumbers us with foreigners we don't want, absolutely not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    Any legislation that seeks to give people some slack gets abused eventually. Essentially, adults are just big children and if you give them a finger, they'll take the whole arm. Western 'Liberal Fascism' is devastating our society at present, particularly the honest, hard working of us who simply want to get on with life. Law-wise, anything would be better than what we have now, even Sharia Law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Anyone who has never read a single judgment of the ECtHR (I'm assuming about 80% of you) please do my sanity a favour and don't leave a comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    "Tsunami of Rants
    Stop supporting terrorism!"

    How dare you suggest that I or anyone else who upholds the rule of law and demands that the state and all others do too is a supporter of terrorism. Rather it is those such as yourself who would curtail the hard won rights, liberties and freedoms in this country who do the terrorists' work for them.


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