Colm O’Cinneide: In Defence of the Strasbourg Court

The European Court of Human Rights and the influence that its judgments exert over UK law have recently come under sustained attack. The Court’s critics include Lord Hoffmann, the think-tanks Policy Exchange and Civitas, an assortment of Tory and Labour MPs ranging from Dominic Rabb to Jack Straw, and right-leaning newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Sun. The judges of the Court have been criticised as being of variable quality, while its judgments are said to lack clarity and rigour. Furthermore, the Court also stands accused of foisting a form of undemocratic human rights imperialism on the UK, and of failing to show sufficient respect to the views of national politicians and judges.

These attacks on the Court surfaced with particular force during recent debates on whether prisoners should be given the right to vote. They have given impetus to the campaign for a British Bill of Rights and also triggered strident (if vague) demands for ‘reform’ of the Court. However, much of this criticism has been based on questionable assumptions about the role and functioning of the Strasbourg Court, which at times seem to be based on little more than an unhealthy dose of common law parochialism.

To begin with, the accusation made by Lord Hoffmann and others that the Court is insufficiently deferential to national law and practice in how it interprets the text of the when it decides cases under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is difficult to reconcile with the raison d’etre of the Court’s existence. When state parties ratify the ECHR, they effectively make themselves accountable to the Strasbourg Court for how they respect individual rights. The Court’s role is to interpret and apply the text of the Convention in a manner that ensures that individuals are not denied effective and meaningful enjoyment of these rights. Its job is not to interpret the ECHR as a minimalist promise by states to behave themselves, or to apply an overwhelming presumption that the law and practice of state parties is above reproach, or to confine its attention to flagrant breaches of human rights norms, as its critics have advocated. None of these interpretative approaches would be consistent with what is now established practice in international law. The Court cannot give a general carte blanche to state law and practice while remaining faithful to its prescribed task under the Convention.

Furthermore, the Court has been happily applying its interpretative approach for decades. Recent controversial decisions such as  Hirst v UK (2006) 42 EHRR 41 (prisoner voting rights) have been decided on a similar basis as earlier decisions such as Dudgeon v UK(1981) 4 EHRR 149 (ban on homosexual sex contrary to the ECHR), Smith and Grady v UK (1999) 29 EHRR 493 (ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention) and  Goodwin v UK (2002) 35 EHRR 447 (failure to give legal recognition to the change of gender of a post-operative transsexual also incompatible with Article 8 ECHR). Its critics are very vague when it comes to identifying what exactly they dislike about the Court’s decision-making, or how decisions like Hirst differ from these earlier judgments which are now widely recognised as having being correctly decided.

The argument that the Court is less than competent in how it goes about its business is also highly questionable. The Court is groaning under an excessive case-load. Like all courts, it makes the odd dubious decision. Furthermore, some of its judges may not always be top-quality. However, there are two sides to this particular story. Many of the Court’s judges are intellectually outstanding, and they receive good quality support from the lawyers in the Registry of the Court. Its judgments may sometimes be relatively opaque to common law eyes. However, its task is not to produce precedent fodder for English courts, and its reasoning is often crystal clear on the essentials of a case. Furthermore, an arguable case could be made that the Strasbourg Court often gets things more consistently right than many of its national counterparts. The Court’s decisions in the  Marper v UK (2009) 48 EHRR 50 (DNA evidence) and   Gillan v UK (2010) 50 EHRR 45 (anti-terrorism stop and search powers) cases reversed earlier decisions of the House of Lords, and now are being given effect with enthusiasm by the coalition government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill.

Its critics also complain that the Court contains judges from small and apparently insignificant jurisdictions. For example, Lord Hoffmann in his lecture to the Judicial Studies Board in 2009 poured especial scorn on the effrontery of a Slovenian judge who had the cheek in a concurring opinion in  Von Hannover v Germany (2005) 40 EHRR 1 to criticise the free speech jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court. However, this comment oozes common law insularity. There is no intrinsic reason why a Slovenian judge would be less capable of passing comment on comparative free speech case-law than would, say, a Scottish judge, or one from Northern Ireland.

Indeed, Lord Hoffmann’s example neatly undermines his own case. The Slovenian judge he mentions, Judge Zupančič, served on the Slovenian Constitutional Court and the UN Committee Against Torture before joining the Strasbourg Court, and has both a LLM and a SJD from Harvard Law School. He thus appears to be extremely well-qualified both to decide claims under the ECHR and to make comments on the US case-law, notwithstanding the alleged handicap of his Slovene nationality.

Criticisms of how the Strasbourg Court goes about its business of interpreting the ECHR are thus often wide of the mark, or based on casual generalisations that begin to fall apart under close scrutiny. This in itself will not assuage all the critics of the influence that the Court currently wields over UK law, many of whom object to an international court deciding important questions of law and policy irrespective of how well or otherwise it performs its adjudicative task. However, critics of how the ECHR jurisprudence has come to infuse UK law should think twice before basing their arguments on a caricature of how the Court operates.

Over the last decades, the Strasbourg case-law has often forced a re-assessment of common law complacency and the insularity that periodically afflicts UK constitutional thought. It would be regrettable if the ongoing Bill of Rights debate were to be distorted by attacks on the Strasbourg Court that appear to lack real substance.


Colm O’Cinneide is a Reader in Law at University College London.