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UK plans for Human Rights Court reform revealed

29 February 2012

The UK Government's proposals for restricting the right to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg have been revealed in the media.

Ministers have circulated a draft "Brighton Declaration" to the other Council of Europe member states ahead of a summit to take place in the Sussex town in April, during the UK's six-month presidency of the Council.

Under the plans, applicants seeking to take a case to the Human Rights Court would have less time to do so, perhaps as little as two months from the date of final judgment of the national court instead of six as at present.

The court would also be precluded from taking on cases that are "identical in substance to a claim that has been considered by a national court", unless the national court had "manifestly made an error in its interpretation of the Convention", or the case "raises a serious question about the way the Convention is interpreted or applied".

The UK wants to restrict the ability of the court to intervene in cases such as prisoners' voting rights, and the deportation of the Islamic cleric Abu Qatada. Ministers further propose that the principle of "margin of appreciation", applied by the court to give national governments some leeway in how they apply the Convention, should extend to how governments implement the court's judgments. The further principle of subsidiarity would also be extended to require the Human Rights Court to consider whether a decision taken at national level on how to implement a decision was within a state's discretion.

It also suggests a new procedure under which the Human Rights Court could offer non-binding advisory opinions, under a procedure analogous to referring a case to the Court of Justice of the European Union on a point of EU law.

The court's backlog of about 160,000 cases should be tackled by appointing more judges, the draft states. Meanwhile a commission should be set up to rethink the future of the court and the Convention.

All 47 member countries would have to agree any reforms before they can take effect, and while there is said to be support for reform, the proposals to curb the court's powers are likely to prove controversial. Judges at the court itself have been critical of the UK's approach.


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