Row over choice of new UK judge for European court

Ben Emmerson QC Ben Emmerson QC is one of three candidates put forward to become the UK's judge at the ECHR

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The UK is set to get a new judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but some Conservative MPs are unhappy with the candidates put forward by the government.

Widely tipped is the human rights barrister Ben Emmerson QC - a founder of Matrix Chambers, which includes Cherie Blair among its members.

In the words of Conservative MP and lawyer Dominic Raab: "There's some argument if you're trying to rein in the human rights industry you don't appoint its equivalent of Len McCluskey."

The reference to Mr McCluskey - general secretary of the Unite union - is not a term of endearment.

Mr Emmerson has conducted more than 30 cases before the ECHR, acting for and against the UK and other governments.

He has also represented the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Court of Appeal and the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada - alongside other inmates - at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.

'Disturbing rumours'

One Conservative MP - who is also a member of an assembly in Strasbourg that will choose the new judge - said there was concern about Mr Emmerson.

He said: "We want someone who is going to push for reform."

Another Tory assembly member says pointedly he believes Mr Emmerson's public relations efforts have been excellent, and the other candidates should not be overlooked.

The barrister Lord Pannick, who has backed Mr Emmerson for the job, wrote in The Times earlier this month: "There are disturbing rumours that some British Conservatives are working behind the scenes to undermine Emmerson's candidacy because they think that this country should have 'a safe pair of hands' on the European Court."

Mr Emmerson is one of three candidates proposed by the Ministry of Justice to replace the current British judge - court President Sir Nicolas Bratza - when he retires in the autumn.

The others are Paul Mahoney, a former ECHR registrar, and Raquel Agnello QC, an insolvency and pensions specialist.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 318 strong collection of politicians from the Council of Europe's 47 member countries, will vote next week to choose which of the three should be the new judge.

The Lib Dem peer and barrister Lord Lester QC says the decision should be made on the candidates' merits alone.

'Scrupulous'

He adds: "I don't think politicians, whether Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or anything else, should set themselves up as experts on the basis of their political views."

But the court, its judgements and the European Convention on Human Rights are highly politically charged issues; not least after the long running legal tussle over whether the UK has the right to prevent prisoners voting.

In the eyes of some at Westminster, the ECHR is not neutrally interpreting law but pursuing its own interventionist agenda. It needs, they argue, radical reform.

Earlier this year the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said an agreement reached at a conference in Brighton would make a big difference to the way it worked. But Sir Nicolas Bratza said the Brighton declaration would "not change the way we do our jobs".

A spokesman for Mr Clarke said the candidates to replace Sir Nicolas were chosen by a scrupulous and independent process and appointments should be on merit alone.

He said: "One of the UK's strongest arguments for reform of the court has been that the quality of judges needed to be improved."

The secretary of state got to pick the candidates in this race.

Other politicians though will choose the winner. And their decision won't go unnoticed in Westminster.

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