UK Politics

European Court of Human Rights reform 'will take time'

President of the European Court of Human Rights, Nicolas Bratza (left) with his predecessor Jean Paul-Costa
Image caption Ministers believe the European Court's judicial reach has stretched too far

Ministers have said attempts to reform the European Court of Human Rights will "take time" as the UK must persuade 46 other nations of the need for change.

The UK is pushing for an overhaul of the court when it takes on the chair of the Council of Europe next week.

Europe Minister David Lidington said the court was hearing too many cases and must focus on those involving "substantive" breaches of human rights.

MPs have been angered by rulings, such as one on prisoners' right to vote.

They say such matters should ultimately be decided by elected politicians in national parliaments rather than unelected judges in Europe.

'Never intended'

The debate over the future of the court comes at a time of increased tensions within the coalition and the Conservative Party over Europe after more than 80 Tory MPs defied the party leadership and backed calls for a referendum on EU membership.

The government insists it is committed to abiding by the court's judgements and to remaining a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the UK was one of the founding signatories.

But it has made reform of the European Court in Strasbourg its priority during its six-month stint as head of the Council of Europe - the 47-member organisation which seeks to defend human rights in Europe.

During a Commons debate on the issue, Mr Lidington told MPs that the court had a backlog of 150,000 cases, which was growing by 20,000 a year, and more than 90% of cases brought before it were found to be inadmissible.

This increase in workload, he argued, was evidence of the fact that the court had strayed from its founders' original vision and had become "an additional tier of appeal for routine domestic judgements".

"Enforcing rights in situations where the drafters of the convention never intended them to be is the wrong direction of travel for the court and this situation is getting worse and it actually undermines both the court's authority and its efficiency," he said.

Getting the court to concentrate on "real, substantive breaches of human rights" would make it stronger and more effective, he added.

'Intensive negotiations'

But Mr Lidington said all Council of Europe members had to agree to any changes and the UK would have to build a consensus for change by the end of its six-month chairmanship. It would then hope to persuade its successors to press ahead with implementing them later.

"Reform requires the agreement of all 47 member states. There is no getting around the fact. No one should be in any doubt that delivering on these goals is going to take time. It is going to take a lot of intensive and complicated negotiations."

Labour's Michael Connarty said it was "absolutely incredible" that a court as important as the European Court of Human Rights was "clogged up" by a level of bureaucracy that "you would not imagine in the most disorganised country in the world".

"There is no sifting process, there's no filter process," he said.

Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood said reform was needed but the UK should not focus solely on "the mechanics of human rights" but use its chairmanship to take a stronger line on human rights cases in European countries such as Belarus.

An independent commission is considering the case for a British Bill of Rights, to potentially incorporate the UK's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In an interim report last month, the commission said the European Court of Human Rights was facing "serious problems". It suggested new procedures to "screen" the number of cases and increase the amount of "well-qualified judges".

The way judges are interpreting the European Convention of Human Rights was at the core of a recent row between Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke surrounding the role of a pet cat in a deportation case.

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