19 June 2000
Perhaps the most attractive feature of the European Court of Human Rights is that - unlike the Ritz Hotel of legal legend - it really is open to all. As we saw last week, even a former king can demand his human rights. Ex-King Constantine was in Strasbourg to complain that the Greek government had confiscated his estates without compensation. Greece says that if you lose your throne you lose your home - the court will now have to decide whether a royal palace comes with the job.
But how much longer will the court be open to kings and commoners alike? Luzius Wildhaber, who became president of the Human Rights Court after the death of Rolv Rysddal in 1998, has put forward some proposals for reform. It's less than two years since the Council of Europe scrapped the two-stage structure for human rights claims - a Commission to filter applications and a part-time court to hear them. The new full-time court might have coped if the number of states signed up to the Human Rights convention had remained static. But Wildhaber said that, with a jurisdiction covering 41 countries with 37 official languages, from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a population of 800 million, even a full-time court with 41 judges and a hundred lawyers was going to run into workload problems. Applications to the court are now five times what they were just seven years ago. The answer must involve speeding up procedures or reducing the number of incoming business - or both.
Restricting access to the court would require agreement from all the member states. That won't be easy, but Wildhaber plans to launch his proposals at a ministerial meeting held in Rome this November to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Human Rights convention. He said the now defunct European Commission of Human Rights took pride in dealing directly with individuals. But that was no longer feasible. In the president's view it was no longer consistent with the fundamental purpose of the convention, which he saw as guaranteeing common minimum standards of human rights protection at state level rather than offering unlimited redress to individuals. He promised that individual applications would remain central: it was through them that weaknesses in the state's system of protection were identified. But speaking in Strasbourg this month at a closed meeting of judges and lawyers, Wildhaber said: "We must recognise regretfully that it is not every, even meritorious, individual application that contributes to the strengthening of domestic human rights protection or adds to the body of European human rights law."
He believed the court should restrict itself to hearing cases which contributed to preserving or raising the standard of human rights protection in Europe. Ultimately, he thought, the court might go back to a two-tier system, with straightforward cases being decided by a first-instance tribunal. There would then be a smaller "constitutional" court of some 17 judges, operating on "a leave to appeal" basis and perhaps also hearing requests for preliminary rulings submitted by national courts in appropriate cases.
The idea of giving courts more control over their own cases seems all too familiar to us in England and Wales. Perhaps we should unleash Lord Woolf on the European Court - he'd soon sort it out.
Joshua Rozenberg is the BBC's legal affairs correspondent. He can be contacted at email@example.com