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European Court of Human Rights

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

I am working closely with the Foreign Secretary and the Justice Secretary, and talking to many member states and to key figures in the Court and the Council of Europe. Only last week, I spoke at the seminar on court reform for European civil society organisations. There is a keen appetite for reform of the Court and we are confident that we can gain agreement on a reform package.

There is an incredible backlog of 150,000 cases. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that undermines the Court’s ability to perform its role efficiently, and that something needs to be done soon to improve that efficiency?

Yes, there is no doubt about that. The Court itself knows that. Some efforts have been made to reduce the backlog, particularly by streamlining the sitting hours of completely hopeless applications. The problem remains that there is a large number of cases that is in excess of the number of cases that can be heard each year. It is for those reasons that the United Kingdom, as part of its reform package, has asked those who are interested to examine how principles of subsidiarity can be introduced so that fewer cases have to be considered by the Court, with cases instead being resolved properly at national level wherever possible.

Does the Attorney-General not consider that there is a strong argument for fast-tracking certain cases, for example cases of national security, through the European Court? We will hear later about the case of Abu Qatada. That is an example of how it takes a long time to get a decision out of the European Court.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have no doubt that things could be done better. The Court already has a system of prioritisation. I have no doubt that the reform process will look at whether the Court can do better in identifying cases of particular importance. As he is aware from remarks that I have made on another occasion, the length of time that someone may be detained in custody while a case is being considered at the European Court of Human Rights level is something to which great consideration should be given.

I welcome the efforts that Ministers are making. Is there an appetite among the mature democracies, as the Attorney-General indicated, to ensure that the Court gives priority to cases of gross abuses of human rights, rather than to the refinement of the law in countries that have well-developed human rights?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s sentiments would be echoed by most member states that are asking for reform to take place. At the same time, I want to make it clear that any reform package must still leave autonomy for the European Court of Human Rights. Its own processes must be reformed, and it must have control of them. Those issues are being examined, and I hope that the reform package that we will initiate will make a real and substantial difference to how the Court can approach its work load and continue doing its important work.

In his reforms to the European Court of Human Rights, will the Attorney-General ensure that we do not end up by default making it much more difficult for people bringing human rights abuse cases from, say, Russia, Hungary or other places where there are serious abuses of human rights, by pushing them back to the national jurisdiction? The influence of the Court can be a force for good and help to curtail some of the most vile human rights abuses that are taking place across Europe.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we share his view that the Court has been of immense benefit in member states across the European continent in improving human rights standards. In that context, as I have indicated, there can be no suggestion that the right of personal petition, for example, should be removed. Although we need to ensure that the Court keeps its autonomy, there is widespread acknowledgment that there must be reform if it is to continue doing its work properly.