Monthly Archives: April 2012

UKCLG: House of Lords Constitution Committee Call for Evidence.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched a consultation exercise on the constitutional position of civil servants.  More information on this, and a chance to contribute, can be found here, on the Parliament website.

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Mark Elliott: The Brighton Declaration: where now for the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights debate?

The Brighton Declaration, which emerged from last week’s High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights, has already attracted a substantial amount of comment—including by Noreen O’Meara on this Blog and Ed Bates on the UK Human Rights Blog. In this post, I revisit some of the arguments I made earlier this year, in the light of a draft of the Declaration that was leaked in February, concerning the possible implications of the Brighton process for the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and the debate about a UK bill of rights. In this piece, I argue that the final version of the Brighton Declaration—viewed from the perspective of the UK’s domestic human rights regime—is less drastic. I go on to suggest that the Brighton process has therefore failed to carve out any significant latitude that might have been exploited by those proponents of a UK bill of rights whose agenda essentially reduces to the weakening of judicial protection of human rights.

The February draft

In my post on the February draft of the Brighton Declaration, I suggested that the relative potency of the HRA is attributable to two key considerations. First, while the Act leaves the legal doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty undisturbed, the Act reduces Parliament’s political capacity to exploit that doctrine by legislating in breach of fundamental rights; this the Act achieves by enabling courts publicly to condemn ECHR-inconsistent legislation via the issue of a declaration of incompatibility. Second, the HRA permits international law to disrupt the national legal and political processes by ascribing a notably high profile at the domestic level to the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The February draft of the Declaration would, if implemented, have substantially weakened the HRA system. By diminishing (in ways outlined below) the role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) as the ultimate judicial authority capable of policing compliance with the ECHR, the Convention would have become a less concrete legal constraint upon the UK. This, in turn, would have undermined the legal weight of domestic courts’ judgments under the HRA, because it would have been open to the government—to a far greater extent than before—to argue that such judgments might not reflect the Strasbourg Court’s view, safe in the knowledge that the Court, had the February draft been adopted, would have been less likely to have an opportunity to render a decisive judgment on the relevant matter.

What, then, of the final version of the Brighton Declaration? Is the scenario sketched above—a dystopian one for the human rights enthusiast; quite the reverse for the sceptic—likely to eventuate? The answer to that question is “no”, because the final version of the Declaration differs significantly from the February draft in three presently-relevant respects.

“Deference” at the Strasbourg level: subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation

First, the February draft set great store by the notion of subsidiarity and the doctrine of margin of appreciation. The same is true of the final version of the Declaration: but the emphasis is rather different. In the latter version, subsidiarity remains a “fundamental principle”, and reasons of “transparency and accessibility” are still said to call for explicit reference to it—but in the Preamble to the Convention as opposed to the Convention itself. An instrument to amend the Preamble, such that it refers explicitly to subsidiarity—and to the margin of appreciation—is thus to be adopted by the end of 2013. However, the February draft’s characterization of the margin of appreciation as “considerable” is nowhere to be found in the final version of the Declaration. And whereas the February draft said that the Strasbourg Court’s role was to “ensure that [national authorities’ decisions] are within the margin of appreciation”, the final Draft holds that the Court’s task is to determine whether such decisions “are compatible with the Convention, having due regard to the State’s margin of appreciation”. This implies a more marginal, albeit not unimportant, role for the margin of appreciation doctrine: in the final Draft, it is a factor to which the Court ought to have regard when deciding whether a breach of the Convention has occurred, rather than (as in the February draft) the key factor which frames the question (“Has the margin been exceeded?”) lying at the core of the Court’s adjudicative function.

These aspects of the February and final versions of the Declaration, like the differences between them, are relatively subtle—but they are certainly indicative of the State parties’ consensus view of the nature of the ECHR regime and of the Strasbourg Court’s place within it. Understood thus, the final Declaration postulates a more significant and central role for the Court than the February draft, and signals that the desire of the UK (and, no doubt, certain other States) to substantially limit the role of the ECtHR has ultimately yielded little. Of course, that conclusion can only be provisional, in that the wording of the revised Premable—and so the nature of the newly explicit textual references to subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation—remain to be seen. It is highly unlikely, however, that the revised Preamble will invest those notions with content that breathes new life into the more radical approach envisaged in the February draft. The upshot, then, is that in cases that reach the Court, its approach is unlikely to be significantly different as a result of the Declaration and the revised Preamble.

A caveat should, however, be entered. While the Brighton process may, viewed from a particular perspective, have “failed”, some aspects of the vision revealed in the February draft could conceivably be realized in other ways. Indeed, it is possible that the mere floating of the more far-reaching ideas contained in the February draft (and associated posturing) may have been influential—for example, by inviting what Helen Fenwick has called an “appeasement approach” on the part of the ECtHR. So, while the final text of the Brighton Declaration does not clip Strasbourg’s wings in the rather direct and unsubtle ways envisaged in the February draft, the possibility cannot be discounted of the (voluntary) adoption by the ECtHR of a more limited—more “deferential”, in domestic parlance—approach. The Declaration necessarily now forms part of the backdrop against which the Court will seek to understand the proper extent of its role, as in due course will the explicit references to subsidiarity and margin of appreciation that are to feature in the revised Preamble. The latter doctrine is traditionally understood as a function of Strasbourg’s political and cultural dislocation from individual States parties—and thus as recognition on its part of the limits of its institutional competence. In contrast, while the notion of subsidiarity remains ill-defined in this context, it arguably reflects something of the concerns which, at the domestic level, coalesce around the notion of the judicature’s limited constitutional competence. In other words, “subsidiarity” may very well not be a synonym for “margin of appreciation”, and its express inclusion in the Preamble will, at the least, invite fresh reflection upon the proper extent of the Court’s role.

Pending the text of the revised Preamble—and its absorption into the Court’s jurisprudence—further speculation is unwarranted. It suffices to say that while the final version of the Declaration places rather less weight on subsidiarity and margin of appreciation than the February draft, it nevertheless accords them a newly formal prominence. But even if, in the future, greater “deference” is exhibited by Strasbourg, important questions remain about the nature of such deference: in particular, does it invite the ascription of weight, or respect, to the views of domestic courts or to those of national political institutions? If the former, then this might do little to appease State governments troubled by what they perceive to be excessively interventionist domestic courts—and little to diminish the existing capacity of sufficiently interventionist UK courts to uphold fundamental rights in the face of more sceptical political branches.

Advisory jurisdiction: legal and political constitutionalism

Second, the February draft sought to change the means by which some cases reach the Court in the first place, by providing for “advisory opinions” on “point[s] of interpretation”. As I argued in my previous post, this approach, if implemented, could have blunted the ECHR as a legal constraint (at least in relation to States that accepted the envisaged optional protocol). This was so because, according to the February text, when a non-binding advisory opinion had been rendered, the right of individual petition would ordinarily have been displaced, meaning that the Strasbourg Court would effectively be denied the opportunity to render a judgment that would be legally binding under Article 46. But here, too, the final version of the Declaration adopts a more subtle approach. In particular, there is no reference to the notion contained in the February draft that the application by a national court of an advisory opinion should normally preclude the subsequent exercise by the person concerned of the right of individual petition (and hence the prospect of a binding judgment adverse to the State party concerned). Granted, the final Declaration does not rule out this possibility—but the removal from the text of any explicit reference to it, coupled with the characterization of the right of individual petition as the “cornerstone” of the Convention regime, suggests that there is no consensus in favour of limiting that right in the way proposed by the February text.

So even if the envisaged draft optional protocol on advisory opinions—which the Declaration invites the Committee of Ministers to produce by the end of 2013—were adopted, this would not in itself erode the Court’s capacity to render non-advisory judgments that would be binding upon States in the normal way. Viewed from the perspective of the UK’s HRA system, this means (inter alia) that the possibility (which the February draft would have opened up) no longer arises of the UK government disputing a domestic declaration of incompatibility on the ground that Strasbourg might not actually have found national law incompatible with the Convention had the matter reached it other than under the advisory route: use of the advisory route will not now close off the possibility of individual petition.  This, in turn, preserves the capacity of the ECtHR to inject legal force into a national human rights regime that remains ultimately wedded—in the sense that it acknowledges the authority of the UK Parliament to transgress Convention norms as a matter of strict domestic law—to the tradition of political constitutionalism.

Admissibility: the relationship between domestic courts and Strasbourg

Third, the February text proposed that Article 35 be amended “to make clear that” an application is inadmissible “if it is the same in substance as a matter that has been examined by a national court taking into account the rights guaranteed by the Convention”, unless the national court has “seriously erred” or the case raises a “serious question” concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention rights.

The relevant part of the final version of the Declaration differs in three key respects. First, no amendment to Article 35 is contemplated; rather, the Court is “encourage[d] to have regard to the need to take a strict and consistent approach” in this sphere, “clarifying its case law … as necessary”. Second, the final version affirms that an application should be regarded as manifestly ill-founded to the extent that it raises a complaint that has been “duly considered” by a national court “applying” the Convention in the light of “well-established” ECtHR case law—a formulation that draws the category of prima facie inadmissible applications more narrowly than the February text. Third, there is no reference to national courts having “seriously erred” as a trigger for treating as admissible an application relating to a matter already considered at the domestic level.

While the latter feature of the final Declaration appears to make it more restrictive than the February draft (in that a potential trigger is omitted), the broader message is clearly that consideration of a matter at the national level will less readily exempt it from consideration in Strasbourg. Against that background, a “serious error” trigger would be as unnecessary as it would be misleading—the point being that the final version of the Declaration rightly envisages a role for the ECtHR which transcends putting right domestic courts that have “seriously erred” in their application of the Convention.

The Human Rights Act

All of this suggests that the Brighton Declaration’s implication for the UK’s domestic human rights regime are decidedly modest. Nothing in the final version of the Declaration—in contrast to the February draft—significantly diminishes the effectiveness of the HRA as a real constraint upon not only administrative and other legislative bodies but the UK Parliament itself. Ostensible fidelity to the orthodoxy of parliamentary sovereignty notwithstanding, the HRA domesticates the Convention norms that bind the UK under international law in a manner that renders largely theoretical the possibility of lawfully transgressing them as a matter of domestic law. As noted at the outset of this post—and in more detail in my previous post on this topic—the HRA achieves this by puncturing both the dualist distinction between domestic and international law and the Diceyan division between legal and political modes of constitutionalism.

But as a model that is necessarily grafted onto the ECHR, the HRA’s success is ultimately contingent upon the nature of the Convention scheme to which it gives effect at the national level. The February draft of the Brighton Declaration would have altered that scheme significantly: by diminishing the role of the Strasbourg Court, it would have reduced the juridical bite of what appears at first glance (given the absence of any strike-down power) to be an ultimately supine domestic human rights system. Such a characterization of the UK system is, of course, wide of the mark. But that is, in large part, precisely because behind a British judicature lacking constitutional authority to invalidate rights-incompatible legislation stands an international tribunal willing and able to render judgments that are binding upon the UK as a matter of international law. And, importantly, such judgments are likely anticipated by national judicial decisions under the HRA that Parliament is free to ignore only when the matter is viewed through the parochial lens of purely domestic legal theory. By avoiding the substantial curbs upon the ECtHR’s role contemplated by the February draft, the final version of the Brighton Declaration thus preserves the essential characteristics of the Convention regime that underpin the HRA’s potency.

The bill of rights debate

Finally, what of the debate concerning a UK bill of rights? In a post on this Blog published in 2011, I observed that the terms of reference of the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights reveal a curious paradox. Much of the political rhetoric preceding the establishment of the Commission anticipated that a Bill of Rights would enable, or require, British courts to strike a different balance between individual rights and conflicting public interests—perhaps in order to head-off further bouts of Prime Ministerial nausea such as that which was induced by the prospect of permitting some prisoners to vote. Yet, thanks no doubt to the constraints of coalition, the Commission is in fact required to “investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties”.

An obvious tension arises between, on the one hand, a Bill of  Rights Commission committed through its terms of reference to an ECHR-plus (or at least not an ECHR-minus) model and, on the other hand, politicians’ promises that a UK bill of rights would “mak[e] sure decisions are made in this Parliament rather than in the courts”. One way of resolving that tension, of course, would be to adjust the obligations deriving from the ECHR in the first place, so as to render it (from a pejorative perspective) less of a straightjacket. Brighton was the government’s attempt to do precisely that: not by explicitly amending the provisions defining the Convention rights, but by loosening Strasbourg’s grip on policing their interpretation and application. Doing so, it was presumably anticipated, would in turn have rendered domestic courts’ human rights judgments more contestable, as it would follow with less certainty than at present that Strasbourg would concretely endorse them—whether because the case would never reach the ECtHR (owing to narrower admissibility criteria), or because it would render only a non-binding advisory opinion, or because a generous margin of appreciation (or doctrine of subsidiary) would cause it to stay its hand. However, for the reasons set out above, these objectives are not actually realized by the Brighton Declaration.

The result is that the Brighton process has not created the sort of latitude that might have been exploited by those in favour of a bill of rights that takes a looser form than the HRA: it does not offer an escape route from the constraints which derive from the realpolitik of coalition and the Bill of Rights Commission’s resulting terms of reference. Political rhetoric that (perhaps paradoxically) postulates a bill of rights as a vehicle for creeping dejuridification and the elevation of the interests of the “law-abiding majority” is therefore—at least for the time being—as empty as it is misleading.

Mark Elliott is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge.

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Noreen O’Meara: Brighton rocked! Next steps for reforming the European Court of Human Rights

A blaze of controversy erupted over the disputed timing of Abu Qatada’s referral request to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights this week.  Whilst raising a juicy legal question for proceduralists (examined incisively here and here) the inevitable media hysteria coincided with efforts to reform aspects of the Strasbourg court and the publication of fresh research on the UK-ECHR relationship.  The contrast of the media frenzy with the relatively low-key (by international standards) Council of Europe Ministerial Conference in Brighton was stark.  However, the resulting Brighton Declaration, formally agreed on 20 April 2012, may inject some measured logic into an often misinformed debate on the role and working practices of the European Court of Human Rights.

Lively legal debate was generated in the lead-up to the Brighton Conference despite limited leaked information on the successive draft Declarations.  NGOs shared a broad platform issuing two Joint Statements against more extreme proposals apparently seeking to curb access to the court.  Prior to the Conference, evidence from the Court itself seemed to share this cautious approach; its openness to considering (previously mooted) initiatives, such as extending advisory jurisdiction, tempered by calls not to rush any reforms—to allow more time for recent measures introduced via Protocol 14 to the Convention to embed in the Strasbourg system, and to assess their mid/long-term impact on the Court’s docket.  While Brighton represents the latest in a series of efforts to reform the Court—most recently in snowier/sunnier climes (Interlaken (2010) and Izmir (2011))—the UK government’s motivations for reform during its current chairmanship of the Council of Europe were expressed in terms which promised something altogether more radical.

On any reading of the final text, it is clear that the reforms in the Declaration have been substantially toned down (see initial overviews from Joshua Rozenberg and Antoine Buyse).  While the Brighton Declaration may have made just enough changes to allow the UK to claim some kind of political success, the reality is that the changes are—for the moment— marginal.  Will the Declaration deliver anything meaningful in tackling the Court’s voluminous caseload?  There is far more in the Declaration than a short piece can handle.  The impact (if any…) of adding references to subsidiarity and margin of appreciation to the Convention’s preamble will be ripe for discussion on the blogs and in the courtroom.  The comments below focus on select procedural issues.

Time-limit to apply to the ECtHR

The Conference agreed that the time-limit to apply to the Strasbourg court under Article 35(1) ECHR should be reduced by one-third, from six months to four.  On paper, this was the most likely of the tabled reforms to be agreed.  The proposal to reduce the time-limit in the original draft Declaration was lifted directly from the Court’s Preliminary Opinion, which had suggested a reduction to two/three/four months.  It will relieve many that the Conference chose to minimise the extent of the reduction.  However, critics of any change to Article 35(1) ECHR may argue that reducing the time-limit could lead to a greater number of knee-jerk applications, more poorly drafted/advised applications, or applications made without legal advice.  This change may well risk prejudicing applicants with genuine claims from mounting well-reasoned applications.  These risks may be real (and merit research) but unless a spike in applications or tangible evidence of such increased prejudice to applicants becomes apparent, it will be difficult to measure any impact of a reduced time-limit to apply.

Admissibility

Reformed admissibility criteria proposed in an early draft were a key concern to both the Court and NGOs.  The Brighton Declaration preserves the essential criteria, with the most criticised docket-control element dropped.  The proposal that applications should be rendered inadmissible unless a national court “erred” in interpreting Convention rights (para 23c of the earliest public Draft) has been abandoned.  The Declaration’s affirmation in para 15d that the Court should adopt “a strict and consistent approach” in rendering applications inadmissible under Article 35(3)(a) ECHR (inter alia) unless a “serious question concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention” is raised marks nothing new.  The track changes on a subsequent pre-Brighton Draft suggest this point particularly exercised the drafters, but the end result seems to be nothing more than a gloss on the existing admissibility criteria, and one which will not trouble the Court—which rightly remains firmly in control.  However, an amendment to Article 35(3)(b) ECHR (removing the words “and provided that no case may be rejected on this ground which has not been duly considered by a domestic tribunal”) was agreed by the Conference.  This would rectify what some regard as an anomaly with the “significant disadvantage” test introduced by Protocol 14 ECHR.

Some parts of the Brighton Declaration provide the kind of praise for the Court which has been in scant supply recently.  The Strasbourg court’s “extraordinary contribution” to the protection of human rights in Europe (para 2) is noted, with the impact of admissibility measures taken in the context of Protocol 14 is described as “encouraging” (para 6), the Declaration noting “with appreciation” the Court’s objective to dispose of the clearly inadmissible applications pending before it by 2015 (para 20b).  This recalls the Court’s observations in its Preliminary Opinion and emphasised by President Bratza in evidence to the Joint Committee of Human Rights that a range of measures taken by the Court have already begun to alleviate its backlog, and that further measures should help accelerate this process in the near future (for example, greater use of the “significant disadvantage” criterion, greater scope for the use of single judges).

The irony of multiple references to greater transparency and clearer communication of court procedures, admissibility criteria and time-limits may not be lost on Home Office lawyers awaiting the ECtHR’s decision on Abu Qatada’s referral request.  In calling for “stricter application” of the time limit in Article 35(1) ECHR and reiterating “the importance of the Court applying fully, consistently and foreseeably all the admissibility criteria including the rules governing the scope of its jurisdiction”, para 15b of the Brighton Declaration alludes to the fractious debate on subsidiarity behind the drafting process.  Yet in welcoming “the increased provision by the Court of information to applicants on its procedures and particularly on admissibility criteria” (para 15e) the Declaration identifies a significant issue.  The Court must ensure that its procedural rules and criteria are clearly drafted and publicized; the Declaration’s bid to reduce the time-limit for admissibility makes this all the more important.  In the slightly different Abu Qatada context of referral to the Grand Chamber, lawyers, academics and commentators have been split on the deadline issue.  There is no need for this level of confusion.

Advisory jurisdiction

One of the most interesting (if very loosely drafted) proposals survived the original draft and may yet introduce a new dynamic in relations between national courts and the ECtHR.  The possibility of extending the ECtHR’s rarely invoked advisory jurisdiction to enable highest national courts to seek ‘advisory opinions’ from the Court (in a manner somewhat similar to the preliminary reference mechanism in the EU legal context) managed to elicit fairly broad support.  Though this proposal is not new, it does appear to have gained momentum in the recent negotiations.

As framed in the original draft Declaration, the UK spin on the advisory opinion proposals seemed closely aligned to its approach to subsidiarity which underscored the negotiations (the proposed non-binding character of advisory opinions, and their proposed effect of preventing further recourse to the ECtHR in the same proceedings are clues in para 19d of the original Draft).  Before the Brighton Conference, the ECtHR duly published a reflection paper on the possibility of extending advisory jurisdiction.  Its paper sees the potential value of an advisory opinion mechanism in deepening the dialogue (curiously dubbed “institutionalised dialogue”, para 4) between national courts and the Strasbourg court.  Use of the word “institutionalised” perhaps implying that such dialogue may influence relations on a wider level than simply between courts.  Unsurprisingly, the UK-led view that use of the mechanism should prevent exercise of the right to individual petition in the same proceedings was lanced (para 24, reflection paper).  Although the Brighton Declaration is now silent on this particular point, it is surely unthinkable that an advisory opinion mechanism will be introduced on a basis which restricts the right to individual petition.

The Court effectively agreed to make the advisory opinion mechanism as optional as possible (introduction via an Optional Protocol to the Convention; restricted to highest national courts; limited rights of intervention for third parties) and saw the possible long-term impact which an advisory opinion mechanism may have on the Court’s docket.  However, there are clearly differences of opinion as to its merits both among High Contracting Parties to the Convention and at the level of the Court (the reflection paper notes differing views on whether such opinions should be binding, para 24).  Critics would also be justified in being skeptical as to whether the Grand Chamber will have the capacity in the short-medium term to handle the greater workload which the advisory opinion mechanism would clearly generate.  There is clearly still much to consider: as para 12d of the Brighton Declaration invites the Committee of Ministers to draft an Optional Protocol for a (very much optional) advisory opinion mechanism, its merits will be much debated in the foreseeable future.

No magic bullet

One lesson which can be drawn from the process of concluding the Brighton Declaration is that it was never going to magic away either the Court’s docket or its essential, authoritative role in human rights adjudication.  The hype (in some quarters, hostility) surrounding the negotiation process has not gone unnoticed at the Court.  However, the revised set of proposals in the Brighton Declaration seems to have largely neutralised the more political features of earlier draft versions.

A striking feature of the Declaration, which moves it away from the politicised aspects of the subsidiarity debate, is the prominence of concrete, pragmatic steps which should be taken to enforce the Convention at national level (Section A).  It is no secret that the Court’s backlog is dominated by applications from small minority of jurisdictions.  It is therefore no surprise that the Declaration views the role of the Council of Europe as “crucial” in supporting implementation of the Convention, and in its wider role promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.  This is something which the Council of Europe probably under-promotes, and which would merit being better understood.  Efforts to alleviate the Court’s backlog may start in Strasbourg, but its authority, legitimacy, and its success in tackling it also depend on developments much closer to home.

Noreen O’Meara – Lecturer in Law, University of Surrey; Doctoral researcher, Queen Mary, University of London

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UKCLG: Happy Easter

The Blog is now on a break over Easter.  We will return in May.  Have a nice vacation!

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Helen Fenwick: An appeasement approach in the European Court of Human Rights?

This piece asks whether, in the light of UK proposals for the reform of the ECtHR, and in the wake of the outcry in the UK over the Qatada decision (Othman v UK), the Court is taking an approach that looks like one of appeasement of certain signatory states.  Two very recent decisions will be looked at which, it will be argued, contain appeasement elements. Each can be compared with a previous counter-part decision against the same member state which adopts a more activist approach; and each is not immediately obviously reconciliable with the previous decision. Is the Court revisiting the ‘true’ scope of the ECHR in a more deferential spirit?

British proposals for reform of the Strasbourg Court

This is not the place to discuss the proposals for reform of the ECtHR in detail and most readers will be aware of their general drift in any event. The idea of ‘greater subsidiarity’ has been raised at various levels, and accorded various meanings in advance of the imminent High Level Conference at Brighton on the future of the Court. The reform process began in 2010 with the Interlaken and Izmir declarations. Members of the Bill of Rights Commission, which has a second brief regarding its advisory role on reform of the Strasbourg court, linked to British chairmanship of the Council of Europe, take the view that both declarations reflect a desire for greater subsidiarity. Anthony Speaight, Commission member, has indicated that it will look into the question of creating an enhanced margin of appreciation, allowing for greater subsidiarity, on the basis that that would be in accordance with the Interlaken and Izmir Declarations since “one finds in each of them a statement of wish and aspiration for greater subsidiarity”. When the Commission provided its interim advice to Ministers on Strasbourg reform in 2011, it accompanied it by a letter which raised the perception of some, either expressed to the Commission or of some Commission members, that the Court is at times “too interventionist in matters that are more appropriate for national legislatures or courts to decide”. Areas that the Commission has stated it is inquiring into are those of including a democratic override in the ECHR along the lines of s33 of the Canadian Charter and that of introducing ‘subsidiarity reviews’ by analogy with the EU treaty, on the basis of according a power to the Committee of Ministers to resolve that a judgment should not be enforced if it infringed the principle of subsidiarity. The Commission Chair said in the letter that that “would arguably reflect the Izmir Declaration”.

The government’s plans for reform of the Strasbourg Court have been extensively trailed in the run up to the Brighton Conference in April 2012. It was stated in 2011 (according to Parliamentary written answers and statements, 18th March 2011) that the government would use the Chairmanship to press for placing the primary responsibility for protecting the ECHR rights on states, rather than the Court. Intervening in Scoppola v Italy No. 3, Grieve made a further statement indicative of this plan for reform of the Court. He said that a number of states have restrictions or complete prohibitions on prisoners voting, and “this is, and should be, a political question – by which I mean a question for democratically elected representatives to resolve, against the background of [their state’s] circumstances and political culture”. He considered that acknowledging the doctrine of the margin of appreciation in that way would result in the EtCHR intervening only when “the decision of the national authorities is manifestly without reasonable foundation”.

David Cameron’s speech  to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2012, during the UK’s six month chairmanship of the Council, reiterated the theme of seeking enhanced subsidiarity as a key reform. He referenced terrorism and prisoners’ voting rights as examples of issues on which the Court should be very slow to intervene, once democratic debate on the issue and full scrutiny in national courts, taking the Convention into account, had occurred. Referencing the 2012 Qatada case (above), as illustrating the need for reform, he said “we have gone through all reasonable national processes…including painstaking international agreements about how they should be treated …and scrutiny by our own courts…and yet we are still unable to deport [or detain] them”. The members of the assembly voted unanimously to agree that the court should be “subsidiary” to national authorities – governments, courts and parliaments – in guaranteeing human rights. Clearly, the effect of that decision will depend on the precise reforms agreed upon at Brighton. A draft declaration for that conference was ‘leaked’ on 23 Feb 2012, and published in various forums. It focuses on the grave problem of the back-log of cases facing the Court and makes proposals intended to create greater acceptance of the ECHR at national level, to allow the Court to focus on the more significant claims, and to avoid it being faced by persistent claims that should be dealt with at national level. But among laudable proposals for dealing with the back-log, it includes the following – at para 19(a): “The conference therefore welcomes the development of the Court within its case-law of principles such as subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation doctrine…and encourages the Court to give great prominence to these principles in its judgements; (b) Concludes that the transparency and accessibility of the principles of the margin of appreciation and subsidiarity should be enhanced by their express inclusion in the Convention, and invites the Committee of Ministers to adopt the necessary amending instrument within one year”. Para 23(b) on options for amending the admissibility criteria proposes that an application should be declared inadmissible if it is the same in substance as a matter that has already been determined by the national courts unless the Court considers that the national court “clearly erred in its application or interpretation of the Convention rights or the application clearly raises a serious question concerning the application and interpretation of the Convention”.

Austin v UK and Von Hannover v Germany (No 2)

It is in this context that the cases of Austin v UK and Von Hannover (No 2) are considered, in order to argue that certain of the proposals currently being put forward are echoed in dominant themes within the judgments.

The decision in the House of Lords in Austin v The Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis, finding that ‘kettling’ peaceful protesters and bystanders for 7 hours did not create a deprivation of liberty, has been heavily criticised; it was expected that the ECtHR would take a different stance. In the House of Lords, the key question was whether such entrapment of persons via ‘kettling’ amounted to a deprivation of liberty under Article 5(1). Lord Hope considered that in making a determination as to the ambit of Article 5(1), the purpose of the interference with liberty could be viewed as relevant; if so, he found that it must be to enable a balance to be struck between what the restriction sought to achieve and the interests of the individual (at para. 27). Having found that purpose was relevant to the ambit given to Article 5(1), Lord Hope found that the purpose must take account of the rights of the individual as well as the interests of the community, and therefore any steps taken must be resorted to in good faith, and must be proportionate to the situation which made the measures necessary. If these requirements were met, however, he concluded that it would be proper to find that measures of crowd control that are undertaken in the interests of the community will not infringe the Article 5 rights of individual members of the crowd whose freedom of movement is restricted by them if the measures are proportionate to the aim pursued (at para. 34).

When this decision was challenged at Strasbourg (Austin v UK (2012)), the Grand Chamber took a stance towards the deprivation of liberty question which was very similar to that taken by the House of Lords, finding: “the context in which action is taken is an important factor to be taken into account, since situations commonly occur in modern society where the public may be called on to endure restrictions on freedom of movement or liberty in the interests of the common good….The Court does not consider that such commonly occurring restrictions on movement, so long as they are rendered unavoidable as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the authorities and are necessary to avert a real risk of serious injury or damage, and are kept to the minimum required for that purpose, can properly be described as “deprivations of liberty” within the meaning of Article 5(1)” (at para. 59).

Applying these findings, and affirming that “subsidiarity is at the very basis of the Convention, stemming as it does from a joint reading of Articles 1 and 19” (at para. 61), the Court went on to find that in accordance with the Engel (Engel v Netherlands (1976)) criteria (for determining when a deprivation of liberty occurs), the coercive nature of the containment within the cordon, its duration, and its effect on the applicants, in terms of physical discomfort and inability to leave Oxford Circus, pointed towards a deprivation of liberty. However, the Court found that, relying on the context of imposition of the ‘kettle’, the purpose of its imposition must be taken into account – to “isolate and contain a large crowd, in volatile and dangerous conditions”. The Court found no reason to depart from the findings of fact of the first instance judge as to the dangerousness of the situation. Although the Court did not refer expressly to proportionality, it clearly adverted to that concept in finding that the measure taken appeared to be the “least intrusive and most effective means to be applied” (at para. 66).  On that basis no deprivation of liberty was found, meaning that it was not necessary to consider the exceptions to Article 5. Thus, in essentials, the Grand Chamber’s judgment did not differ from that of the House of Lords.

A strong joint dissenting opinion trenchantly criticised the findings of the majority on the basis that its position could be interpreted as “implying that if it is necessary to impose a coercive and restrictive measure for a legitimate public-interest purpose, the measure does not amount to a deprivation of liberty. This is a new proposition which is eminently questionable and objectionable…”. It was found to be objectionable since if in the public order context liberty-depriving measures were deemed to lie outside Article 5 if claimed to be necessary for any legitimate/public-interest purpose, “States would be able to “circumvent the guarantees laid down in Article 5 and detain people for a whole range of reasons going beyond the provisions of Article 5(1) (a) to (f), as long as they could show that the measure was necessary”. They pointed out that in A and Others v the United Kingdom (2009), the Court refused to accept the Government’s argument that Article 5(1) allows a balance to be struck between the individual’s right to liberty and the State’s interest in protecting its population from terrorist threat, finding: “If detention does not fit within the confines of the paragraphs [Art 5(1) (a)-(f)] as interpreted by the Court, it cannot be made to fit by an appeal to the need to balance the interests of the State against those of the detainee” (at para. 171).

The decision in Austin can indeed be critiqued, as in the joint dissenting opinion, on the basis that it in effect creates a new, very broad, exception to Article 5, while purporting to avoid doing so by relating the public interest argument to the issue of ambit. Given that the Court relied on “context” to determine the application of Article 5, and given the need to interpret the ECHR as a whole, the fact that the protesters were seeking to exercise Art 10 and 11 rights, could have been viewed as creating differentiation between the crowd control situations mentioned by the court and the context of protest: the Grand Chamber considered the public order context but not – as a determining factor – the public protest one. A new amendment to Article 5 may be needed to clarify this position, but in the meantime the creation in effect of an exception to Article 5 on broad public interest grounds, represents a worrying trend.

The Grand Chamber reiterated, on the basis of a principle of subsidiarity, that it should only interfere in a domestic decision as to facts on very cogent grounds. But it is suggested that impliedly it went further: it applied the principle of subsidiarity not to the findings of fact only, but to the interpretation of Art 5(1). The House of Lords had found that public interest considerations were relevant to ambit, subject to a test of proportionality. The Grand Chamber, as the joint dissenting opinion pointed out, accepted that analysis in effect – though without overtly referring to proportionality – despite the fact that it ran counter to the findings in A v UK on the interpretation of Art 5(1). The result was consistent with the proposition that the Grand Chamber came very close to accepting that it would require very compelling reasons to depart from the decision of a superior national court that had applied the Convention, taking a particular view of its interpretation, to a set of facts – even where that court could not point to ECHR jurisprudence bearing closely on the matter before it. That stance would be in accordance with both para 19(b) and 23(b) of the leaked Brighton declaration. Obviously 23(b) refers to admissibility, not substance, but para 23(b) in effect demands subsidiarity not merely in relation to fact-finding, but also in relation to interpretation of the Convention.

There is a wider message to be drawn from this narrow approach to the right to liberty which, it is argued, was lost in the pursuit of subsidiarity. In an age of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders,  Serious Crime Prevention Orders, and of a range of state powers that interfere with liberty in the contexts of both counterterrorism[1] and public protest, the question whether a “deprivation of liberty” refers to literal physical restraint as in prison, or to something much more amorphous, is of especial importance, and resonates far beyond the public protest context. The varied ways of interfering with liberty now available to the state, render the traditional idea of focusing on physical restraint outdated (this point is touched on in H Fenwick and G Phillipson McGill Law Journal 56(4): 864-918 at 889-890). Had the police arrested the 4 applicants in Austin and detained them for 7 hours, rather than kettling them, there would have been no question as to whether Article 5 applied – the only issue would have been as to the applicability of the exception under Art 5(1)(c). Thus the Court has impliedly accepted that if a non-paradigm case of interference with liberty arises, but there appears to be a pressing need to employ the measure in question on public interest grounds, the “deprivation of liberty” concept should receive a narrow interpretation, placing the measure outside it, even if the Engels criteria appear to apply.

If Austin v UK appeared to rely on an enhanced principle of subsidiarity, Von Hannover v. Germany (no. 2) (2012), also in the Grand Chamber relied, it appeared, on an enhanced application of the margin of appreciation principle (arguably reflecting para 19(a) of the draft Brighton declaration), this time in the context of a clash between protection for private life and for freedom of expression. Relying on the Court’s 2004 Von Hannover judgment, in the first applicant’s case, the applicants had subsequently brought several sets of proceedings in the civil courts in Germany seeking an injunction against any further publication of photos that had appeared in German magazines. They did not obtain relief, however, in relation to an article, partly about the Prince’s illness, accompanying photos of the applicants’ skiing holiday, nor in relation to the photos themselves.

The Grand Chamber noted that after the 2004 Von Hannover decision, the German courts had altered their approach and had sought to balance Articles 10 and 8 against each other in accordance with the Strasbourg stance. The Court accepted that the photos and article fell within the concept of private life under Article 8(1). Thus Articles 8 and 10 had to be balanced against each other. However, the Court found that where the balancing exercise has been undertaken by the national authorities in conformity with the criteria laid down in the Court’s case-law, the Court would require strong reasons to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts (relying on MGN Limited v. the United Kingdom, no. 39401/04, at [150] and [155]). Although the photos were of the applicants on a skiing holiday, the national courts found that they could be linked to and supportive of the article, which did concern a matter of public interest – the Prince’s illness. The Grand Chamber accepted this finding, even though the pictures made little or no contribution to the matter of the illness.

This decision re-confirmed that Articles 8 and 10 are of equal value. But, under the margin of appreciation doctrine, it made it clear that the Court will require “strong reasons” to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts where a balancing exercise between Article 10 and 8 has been undertaken at the domestic level. The Court appears to be contemplating an expanded version of that doctrine, one under which the role of its own assessment of the extent to which paparazzi photos are deemed of value in Article 10 terms is marginalised. The acceptance that the photos in question added something to the article was clearly open to question. The photos were of the same nature as those at stake in the 2004 Von Hannover case which were found to contribute virtually nothing to any significant debate as to public affairs.

The danger may arise that a balancing exercise between Arts 8 and 10 may be apparently carried out domestically, but in a tokenistic manner, allowing flimsy public interest arguments to prevail. In other words, the arguments may be rehearsed by courts without any real attempt to probe the values at stake on either side. The argument accepted by the Court in Axel Springer v. Germany (2012) that since the actor applicant had been arrested and had also played a police officer, the public’s interest in knowing of his arrest was increased, could be applied in broad brush manner domestically, as could the argument that his expectation that his private life would be protected had been reduced since he had placed details of his private life in the public domain.

Conclusions

The suggestion of this piece is that the cases considered may be indicative of a very recent reversal of certain trends in the reasoning of the Court, and may be intended to deflect the criticism that the Court has been too interventionist. The Court in highlighting the role of the margin of appreciation and the principle of subsidiarity in these cases may be seeking to demonstrate that it is receptive to ‘reform’, and softening towards it, rather than being coerced into it. Under the banners of “margin of appreciation” and “subsidiarity” – without creating clear differentiation between those terms – both cases rely on deferring to the nationally created balance between public interest and individual liberty on the one hand, and between two competing rights on the other. The current debate on reform of the Convention system must consider how far pursuit of enhanced subsidiarity can and should represent a welcome attempt to constitutionalise the Convention more fully at national level without relinquishing its role as a means of delivering individual justice, with consequent changes at that level. That debate might also usefully consider the reality behind the desire for reform of senior Conservatives. How far does that desire relate to seeking to create greater respect for the Convention across all member states at national constitutional level, and greater convergence in terms of respecting Convention standards, to reduce the pressure on the Court? In reality, is the key concern to return autonomy in human rights matters to the Westminster Parliament by reducing the likelihood of Strasbourg intervention?

 Helen Fenwick is Professor of Law at The University of Durham.


[1]             Eg the new stop and search power not dependent on reasonable suspicion under Part 4 clause 61 of the Protection of Freedoms Bill 2011 (currently the Terrorism Act 2000 (Remedial) Order 2011 introduced, on an interim basis, replacement counter-terrorism stop and search powers, exercisable without reasonable suspicion), and powers under TPIMs, replacing control orders.

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UKCLG meeting: The referendum in the United Kingdom, 21 May 2012, 6 pm

UK Constitutional Law Group’s next meeting is on

“The Referendum in the United Kingdom”

(The 7th Italian-British Constitutional Conversation)

Monday 21 May 2012, 6 pm

Italian Cultural Institute of London, 39 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8NX

Foreword:  Alessandro TORRE , Chairman of the Devolution Club

Chair: Brendan DONNELLY, Director of the Federal Trust

Speaker: Dennis KAVANAGH, University of Liverpool

Discussant: Peter LEYLAND, London Metropolitan University

The event is organised by the Italian Cultural Institute of London, the Devolution Club, the UK Constitutional Law Group, the Federal TrustLondon Metropolitan University, and the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development.

* Note from Sebastian Payne and Andrew Le Sueur (co-convenors): supporters of the UK Constitutional Law Group who have not already paid their 2012 subscriptions are encouraged to do so.  The £15 sub may either be paid through the new online payments system or cheques may be sent to the Group’s honorary treasurer: Professor Dawn Oliver, UCL Faculty of Laws, Bentham House, Endsleigh Gardens, London WC1H 0EG (including your name and address).

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