The land of May-believe

Research shows ECHR is not as obstructive as politicians make out

Timing bomb: May’s extradition gambit was foiled after ECHR appeal date muddle
Timing bomb: May’s extradition gambit was foiled after ECHR appeal date muddle

There was uproar in Whitehall last week over the influence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on domestic legislation, but research has revealed that onlya tiny minority of rulings by the Strasbourg Court have gone against the UK Government.

Calls for the powers of the ECHR to be curtailed grew louder after Home Secretary Theresa May insisted the deportation case of radical cleric Abu Qatada had “no right” to be referred to the court.

Qatada’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce of Birnberg Peirce & Partners, launched an eleventh hour appeal bid last Tuesday to the ECHR after May ordered Qatada’s rearrest and deportation. The Home Office order was given because it was believed the time limit in which the appeal could be launched had elapsed.

As a row over the limitation period broke out, the ECHR found itself under fire yet again from the Coalition, which accused it of interfering in domestic business. The timing could not have been worse. The brouhaha kicked off just as Brighton hosted a high-level conference on the future of the court, aimed at reaching agreement between 47 member states on a package of reforms. On Friday new measures were agreed to cut the number of cases eligible to be heard in the ECHR.

According to Government statistics, the court has seen a steep rise in its workload, and has a backlog of around 150,000 applications, of which 90 per cent are not qualified for the ECHR.

Yet research published by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission states that of the almost 12,000 applications brought against the UK between 1999 and 2010, just 3 per cent cleared the first hurdle and, of these, only 1.8 per cent were successful. Figures for 2011 show a rate of defeat of just 0.5 per cent – one in every 200 cases.

The research also claims to show that, where the UK Parliament has sovereignty over implementation, domestic courts have the flexibility to interpret
the European Convention on Human Rights differently from the Strasbourg court.

Whether such research will derail plans to reform the court is another matter, however. When the Government gets itself into a tangle over appeal dates, having the ECHR to blame could undermine its determination to instigate reform.