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European Court of Human Rights: Rule 39

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the benefits of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, provided by Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, to grant interim measures where there is imminent risk of irreparable harm to a claimant in an ongoing application.

In memory of my late noble and learned friend Lord Morris, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, if I may, I associate myself with the tribute to the late Lord Morris.

The Government recognise that interim measures can be an important mechanism for securing individuals’ convention rights in exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, the Government want the interim measures process to achieve a better balance between transparency, fairness and the proper administration of justice. Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have had constructive discussions with the Strasbourg court about reform. The court’s regular internal review of procedures began to look at the interim measures procedures in November 2022.

As always, I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer. Does he agree with me that the current group of interim measures against the Russian Federation precluding the execution of prisoners of war is very important, and that, notwithstanding Russia’s current status outside the Council of Europe, anyone who thinks about ignoring those interim measures should think again? In the spirit of reciprocity, notwithstanding the discussions about process, will the Minister also think again about legislating to allow British Ministers to ignore interim measures from the Court of Human Rights?

My Lords, if I may take the last question first, that issue will be explored in more detail in Committee when we get to Clause 53 of the Illegal Migration Bill. I remind the House that the Rule 39 power is a very important power, particularly in relation to the circumstances affecting Russia. However, it raises at least five quite difficult legal questions. First, what is the basis of the legal power? Secondly, what is the procedure with which the power is exercised? Thirdly, what is the competence, in the civil sense of the term, of the single judge? Fourthly, what is the effect in domestic law of such an order? Fifthly, what constitutes a breach of the order? None the less, the Government’s focus is on constructive and helpful discussions with the Strasbourg court on improving the process.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that in principle, an interim order should be made only after a hearing at which both parties are present and can make their case? If, in exceptional cases, an interim order is made on an ex parte basis, does he agree that the return date should be a swift one and that both parties should then be able to make their representations to the judge?

My Lords, the Government play fast and loose with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. This has not inhibited them in invoking Article 8 of the ECHR—the right to private and family life—in their application for judicial review against the Covid inquiry. Article 8, as well as judicial review, has been demonised by successive Tory Governments—I seem to recall something about a cat, from Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. Will the Government make it a hat-trick of hypocrisy by seeking interim measures under Rule 39 from the Strasbourg court if they do not get satisfaction domestically over that Covid inquiry JR?

With respect to the noble Baroness, that question does not arise. The Government have no intention of going to Strasbourg on that issue. Article 8 is a very important part of the convention, which is also part of domestic law through the Human Rights Act. The subject of today’s question is the Rule 39 power, which is quite a difficult question.

My Lords, with his usual reasonableness, the Minister appears to accept that such emergency and interim measures are not uncommon in international legal matters. He confirmed that the difference this time is that a group of right-wing people, led by the Home Secretary, take issue with one decision by a judge seeking to protect the human rights of other individuals.

My Lords, interim measures play a very important part in the international jurisdiction. I respectfully point out that as far as I know, the process by which the Strasbourg court grants interim measures is different from that of the International Court of Justice, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all of which provide for a proper hearing, a return date, and reasoned judgments—which are sadly lacking at the moment in the Strasbourg process in some cases.

My Lords, the Minister is quite right to point out that there are important jurisdictional questions regarding the Rule 39 injunctions. However, focusing on the process, is it not a real problem that these orders are made by an unnamed judge? The state has little opportunity to make representations either before or after the order is made. As my noble friend Lord Hailsham said, the return date can be a long time in the future. The process surely needs reform. Does the Minister therefore agree that the Government are right to be engaging with the Strasbourg court to improve the processes of that court?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Wolfson, particularly where the interim measures order, in the circumstances that he relates, overrides three reasoned judgments by the domestic court at first instance, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. None the less, the Prime Minister is fully engaged and discussed this very question in Reykjavík recently with the president of the Strasbourg court.

My Lords, I have asked the Minister about the difficulty that we lose credibility if we do not engage with the use of this particular interim measure order. It has been so useful, for example in relation to Russia, because interim measures have already got in under the wire and now, of course, Russia has been expelled from the Council of Europe. Does the Minister agree that, eventually, when people are brought before the International Criminal Court, the fact that Russia has failed to abide by those interim measures will be evidence of their culpability in war crimes?

My Lords, I have already agreed on Russia. I emphasise that the Government’s approach to this is to engage very closely, respectfully and constructively with the Strasbourg authorities and the court’s working party, which is considering this very question.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that interpretation of a treaty is informed not just by the court that is set up to adjudicate on it, but by state practice? The member Governments of the Council of Europe, including our own, have repeatedly confirmed the binding nature of interim measures under Rule 39—in the Committee of Ministers, and in the Izmir and Brighton declarations. Is the Minister proud of the United Kingdom’s record of compliance with interim measures, particularly in comparison to some founding members of the European Union?

On the latter point, I do not presume to cast any kind of judgment on or make any comparison between the United Kingdom and other contracting states. On the general point about acceptance in practice of the position of interim measures under the convention, there are two legal views.

My Lords, the context of this Question requires consideration of more than one case. Between 2020 and 2022, of the 161 applications for interim measures against the UK Government, only 12 were granted by the European Court of Human Rights. Secondly, the Minister’s responses thus far indicate that the Government no longer stand by Clause 24 of the Bill of Rights Bill, which, if enacted, requires courts to ignore interim measures. Until now, we have been told that that is an expression of the Government’s manifesto commitment to reform the Human Rights Act.

My Lords, on the first aspect, if I may speak on behalf of the United Kingdom and all Governments, the Government have a commendable record on interim measures. I fully agree that you cannot judge the underlying legal and practical questions by just one case. On the issue of the Bill of Rights Bill, I think the focus should now be on Clause 53 of the Illegal Migration Bill, which I am sure we will discuss in great detail in Committee.

My Lords, it is most important that we maintain a good relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. The context of this Question follows the decision of the judges in this jurisdiction about the flights to Rwanda. An anonymous judge then gave a ruling that, on the face of it, was not entirely compliant with natural justice. However, is it not right to say that the Home Secretary entirely accepted that ruling? There was no question of ignoring it. The Government have proceeded by trying to improve the process in a way that is more satisfactory and complies with most people’s notions of how interim relief ought to be obtained.