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Wednesday 25 January 2012 | By Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
Prime minister to accuse court of unnecessarily overturning judgments reached in credible national courts
David Cameron is to warn that the European court of human rights is in danger of turning into a “small claims court” that fails to deal with serious violations of human rights, unless it embarks on reforms.
Amid anger in Britain at last week’s decision of the court to block the deportation of the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, the prime minister will on Wednesday accuse the court of undermining its reputation by unnecessarily overturning judgments reached in credible national courts.
In a speech to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Cameron will say the ECHR has a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to reform its work to ensure it focuses on the original intentions of its founding fathers – upholding human rights across the European continent.
The court enforces the European convention on human rights, drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, which is designed to ensure universal human rights across Europe. The council has 47 members and is separate from the 27-strong EU.
The prime minister will say: “The court should be free to deal with the most serious violations of human rights; it should not be swamped with an endless backlog of cases. The court should ensure that the right to individual petition counts; it should not act as a small claims court. And the court should hold us all to account; it should not undermine its own reputation by going over national decisions where it does not need to. For the sake of the 800 million people the court serves, we need to reform it so that it is true to its original purpose.”
Britain, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of Europe, wants to implement the reforms by the first half of 2014, when Austria will take over the presidency.
Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, is to chair a meeting of fellow justice ministers in April to agree on a ministerial declaration, which will have three elements:
• Immediate steps that the court can take to reduce the backlog of cases, which now stands at 152,800. It is estimated that two-thirds of these cases are inadmissible under the court’s rules. Cameron will say that there should be new and more transparent rules for the appointment of judges on the court.
• Look at amending procedural parts of the convention to set out more clearly which cases the court should have the power to examine.
• Look at the future of the court over the next 20 years to ensure it does not become a court of fourth instance in which appellants seek a “fourth bite at the cherry” if they are unhappy with the decision of their national courts.
The UK government privately believes the court should spend less time focusing on countries such as Britain, France and Germany, which have well-regarded legal systems and a strong record on human rights, and more time focusing on countries such as Russia and Ukraine with less impressive records. Russia accounts for 26.6% of the backlog at the court. Cameron contrasts Britain’s record with other Council of Europe member states, which face cases over extrajudicial killings and torture.
The court found against Bulgaria after an inmate was forcibly placed in a psychiatric institution and held against their will for years. It found against Ukraine over the ill-treatment of prisoners in “training exercises” by special forces, and it found against Russia over the persecution of the children of Chechen dissidents.
The prime minister will make clear that the court should focus on such violations, and will say Britain has a long and exemplary record on human rights. “Human rights is a cause that runs deep in the British heart and long in British history.
“In the 13th century, Magna Carta set down specific rights for citizens, including the right to freedom from unlawful detention. “In the 17th century, the petition of right gave new authority to parliament; and the Bill of Rights set limits on the power of the monarchy. By the 18th century it was said that this spirit of liberty is so deeply implanted in our constitution, and rooted in our very soil, that a slave the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws, and with regard to all natural rights becomes instantly a freeman.
It was that same spirit that led to the abolition of slavery, that drove the battle against tyranny in two world wars and that inspired Winston Churchill to promise that the end of the ‘world struggle’ would see the enthronement of human rights.
“These beliefs have animated the British people for centuries – and they animate us today.”
Nick Clegg told the cabinet on Tuesday that he wholeheartedly supported Cameron’s campaign on the grounds that defenders of human rights should support the government as it seeks to tackle a backlog of 150,000 cases at the court. The cabinet discussion took place after Sir Nicolas Bratza, the British president of the court, criticised “senior British politicians” for pandering to tabloid newspapers over the court.
In an article in the Independent, Bratza 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.”
The intervention by Clegg shows that Cameron has been careful to calibrate his reforms. The Liberal Democrats agreed in the coalition agreement to establish a commission to “investigate the creation of a British bill of rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European convention on human rights”. The commission has been carefully balanced to include critics and defenders of the court that enforces the convention.
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said: “David Cameron – instead of engaging in a positive debate about ensuring the workings of the European court on human rights are fit for purpose in these modern times – resorts to the peddling of myths that denigrate the human rights successes of the court and the convention.
“It smacks of throwing ‘red meat’ to the hungry pack of Conservative backbenches so recently emboldened by the prime minister’s waltzing away from the European negotiating table.”
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