The date set for publication of the report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights approaches. The Commission was established to consider whether the UK should have a Bill of Rights, and, if so, what it should contain and how it should relate to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (or ECHR). The spur for establishing the Commission was perplexity among some people at the ability of the European Court of Human Rights, an international tribunal, to make authoritative, binding judgments about the compatibility of UK legislation with rights under the ECHR.
People’s attention is thus distracted from the merits of issues, such as when prisoners should be deprived of their right to vote, towards procedural matters, such as whether the UK should be required to accept the assessment of a body with four suspicious characteristics: the judges are nearly all foreigners; the Court operates within a European organisation, the Council of Europe (albeit quite different from the EU, a fact which is often not understood); the judges are mistakenly thought to be unelected (untrue: they are elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a body composed of parliamentarians from the 47 member states of the Council of Europe), and some of them have been—horror!—academics; and they are applying rules which have not been laid down by the Queen in Parliament.
Many of these matters have been incisively addressed by Colm O’Cinneide, Human Rights and the UK Constitution (London: British Academy Policy Centre, 2012) and others (see for example Conor Gearty, ‘Strasbourg has spoken, the case of prisoner voting is closed’. Here, I shall merely explain why the Court’s judgments bind the UK, and why this does not infringe the UK’s national sovereignty or the legislative supremacy of the Queen in Parliament.
The reason is simple: the Court decides because the UK (among other states) has instructed it to do so, not just once but on many occasions.
The ECHR is an international treaty between (now) 47 states. The UK signed and ratified the original version over 60 years ago. It therefore binds the UK in international law. The UK did not immediately accept the jurisdiction of the Court (and originally the European Commission of Human Rights) over applications by individuals who complain that a state has violated their rights under the ECHR. That was at first optional. It was 1965 before a British government declared, under what was then Article 25 of the ECHR, that it would accept the jurisdiction of the Court in relation to individual complaints. That carefully considered decision was temporary. Successive UK governments had to decide whether to renew it, and did renew it, every five years until the 1990s.
At that point, a new treaty, Protocol No. 11 to the ECHR, thoroughly renovated the ECHR’s procedural rules. When negotiating this treaty, the UK agreed with all the other states which were parties to the ECHR that states should all accept, permanently, the jurisdiction of the Court over cases brought against the states by individuals. The UK’s government signed and ratified Protocol No. 11, which came into operation in 1998. By virtue of that, the UK as a High Contracting Party voluntarily accepted what became Article 34 of the ECHR:
‘The Court may receive applications from any person, non-governmental organisation or group of individuals claiming to be the victim of a violation by one of the High Contracting Parties of the rights set forth in the Convention or the protocols thereto. The High Contracting Parties undertake not to hinder in any way the effective exercise of this right.’
As a High Contracting Party to the ECHR, the UK also voluntarily accepted what are now Article 44, providing that a judgment of a Chamber of the Court becomes final after three months if not referred to the Grand Chamber (earlier if the respondent state indicates that it will not seek to refer the case to the Grand Chamber), and that judgments of the Grand Chamber are always final, and Article 46.1: ‘The High Contracting Parties undertake to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties.’
This makes four points clear.
First, the Court decides cases against the UK because the UK (among other High Contracting Parties) told it to do so.
Secondly, the Court’s judgments bind the UK in international law because the UK (together with other High Contracting Parties) decided that they should be binding.
Thirdly, this came about as a direct result of an exercise by the UK of its state sovereignty in international law. It is no more (but no less) a limitation of that sovereignty than any other set of treaty obligations which the UK voluntarily assumes.
Fourthly, it has nothing to do with the legislative sovereignty of the Queen in Parliament. That is a principle of national, constitutional law, which is of no interest to international law as long as it does not breach, or prevent the UK from meeting, its international legal obligations. Treaty-making in the UK is a prerogative of the Crown, exercised by (typically) ministers. They are accountable to Parliament for their actions, and sometimes an Act of Parliament may be needed in order to discharge the obligations which arise from treaties, but ministers’ authority to make treaties does not depend on parliament. That is one reason why constitutional law in the UK does not allow treaty provisions to create rights or obligations in domestic law without legislation: see Jeffrey Jowell and Dawn Oliver (eds), The Changing Constitution 7th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ch. 5. By the same token, nothing contained in an Act of Parliament can affect the obligations which bind the UK in public international law.
David Feldman is Rouse Ball Professor of English Law, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge
Suggested citation: D. Feldman, ‘The European Court of Human Rights and the UK – Why Should Strasbourg Decide On Our Human Rights?’ UK Const. L. Blog (7th December 2012)(available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).