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In the following blog the authors of the third edition of a leading text on the Law of the ECHR (Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick, The Law of the European Convention on Human Rights, David Harris, Michael O’Boyle, Ed Bates and Carla Buckley, OUP, 2014) look back to the circumstances surrounding the publication of the first edition, in 1995, as a basis for reflection for today, with talk of the UK’s withdrawal from the Convention in the air. A significant part of what follows draws on the Preface to the third edition of the authors’ book, the intention being to bring the comments made there to a broader audience than the book itself would have reached. The post that follows is written in the authors’ personal capacity.
Back in 1995 the Preface to the first edition of Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick noted that the growth of support for a bill of rights in the UK created the possibility that the provisions of the Convention could be directly applicable in UK courts. It was also noted that ‘if this were to come about, the law of the Convention would be thrust to the fore of university legal curricula and would achieve an immediacy and relevance that would dynamise, if not revolutionize, the United Kingdom’s constitutional system’.
The Human Rights Act, and dialogue between Strasbourg and national judges
All of this has come true since the entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998, the judicial interpretation of which has given rise to a home grown corpus of human rights law developed first by the House of Lords and, subsequently, the Supreme Court. Both of these courts have based themselves on the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and have not been fearful of pointing to inconsistencies and lack of clarity in Strasbourg law when this was called for. Strasbourg, for its part, has welcomed this new form of ‘dialogue’ inter alia with the Supreme Court and looks with admiration at the manner in which Convention principles have been applied and interpreted in an impressive body of national case law.
The relationship has run into episodic difficulties in cases like Al-Khawaja and Tahery v UK and Taxquet v Belgium (where the UK was an intervener), when, with the opportunity to reconsider the chamber judgment, the Court’s Grand Chamber listened carefully to the arguments of the UK, and adjusted its case law to take into account the specificities of the UK legal system, as pointed out by the Supreme Court, and in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity. As has been noted by many commentators, there has developed over the years a healthy cross fertilisation between the two courts and their respective judgments are eagerly and expertly parsed and dissected by each other. The same can be said for the Court’s relationship with the superior courts of other countries—Germany and France being prime examples.
The importance of this form of judicial dialogue for the orderly development of the law cannot be overstated. But it has also given rise to a realization that while the Strasbourg Court may not be able, as a judicial institution, to defend itself against the buffetings and criticisms it regularly receives from political figures, as in the UK, it can intensify its relationships with the national superior courts through the medium of ‘dialogue’ as a more appropriate and more adapted response to such criticisms. For it must not be forgotten that the essence of the notion of subsidiarity resides in the daily application by the national courts of Convention law.
More possibilities for dialogue with Strasbourg in the ‘age of subsidiarity’?
Opportunities for dialogue will be enhanced when Protocol 16 enters into force, for those States which opt to ratify it. This provides for the possibility of a national superior court to request an advisory opinion from the Court on issues relating to the interpretation of the Convention. It has been dubbed the ‘Dialogue Protocol’ because it offers the prospect of another form of adjudication in Strasbourg, distinct from individual and inter-state complaints, involving the superior courts as willing partners in the elucidation and development of the case law rather than as the potentially irritated subjects of violation verdicts.
In the meantime, and (arguably) against the background of the reform process initiated at Interlaken, including the valuable contribution made by the UK in the context of the Brighton Declaration, there are very strong signs that the Court has met the States’ request to ‘give great prominence’ to ‘principles such as subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation’. In that connection reference may be made to a recent lecture entitled Universality or Diversity of Human Rights? Strasbourg in the Age of Subsidiarity, in which the Icelandic judge in Strasbourg, Robert Spano, responded to criticism levelled at the Court by some former members of the senior judiciary in the UK to the effect that it too easily overrides the views of national decision-makers. Adopting a careful analysis of recent case law, he argues convincingly that Strasbourg has been refining its approach to subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation, ‘adopting a qualitative, democracy-enhancing approach in the assessment of domestic decision-making in the field of human rights’. Judge Spano has suggested that the next phase in the Convention’s life might come to be known as the ‘age of subsidiarity’.
The principle of subsidiarity has always been a fundamental one in the Strasbourg jurisprudence. However, the prospect that the Strasbourg system is indeed embarking on an ‘age of subsidiarity’ should be a vital consideration informing the debate with respect to its role and relationship with the UK. This point is of major significance if the time comes when the future of the Human Rights Act is reconsidered – for the Act facilitates subsidiarity as well as a Strasbourg-UK judicial dialogue – and is thus at the heart of the issue of the UK’s membership of the Convention itself.
‘Rights Brought Home’ and the Convention under attack in the UK
In 1995 the Preface to the first edition of Harris, O’Boyle and Warbrick observed that many of the issues examined in Strasbourg touch on highly sensitive subjects such as prisons, immigration and the administration of justice, and that political figures and media commentators in the UK frequently complain, in ‘strident tones of indignation, of interference in the domestic affairs of the state by uninformed and ill-qualified foreign jurists’. So it has not only been since the passage of the Human Rights Act that the influence of and jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court has become contentious in the UK.
The politics of the day in the mid- to late-1990s were different, however, as is evident from the Labour Government’s White Paper, Rights Brought Home: The Human Rights Bill. Looking back today it is interesting to note that reference was made to the scheme of supervision provided by the Strasbourg Court as one that was ‘now well tried and tested’ it being established that Convention ‘rights and freedoms’ were ‘ones with which the people of this country [were] plainly comfortable’. Those rights therefore ‘afford[ed] an excellent basis for the Human Rights Bill’ (para 1.3).
Given the concerns recently expressed in the UK with respect to the Convention as a ‘living instrument’ the speech delivered by Jack Straw (‘Human Rights and Personal Responsibility – New Citizenship for a New Millennium’, St Paul’s Cathedral, London (2 October 2000)) then Home Secretary, on the day that the Human Rights Act 1998 entered into force, may be looked upon with some interest. He acknowledged that the Convention was not a ‘monument to history’ but that its ‘living instrument’ character was an answer to those ‘who assert that the convention has been developed in a way not anticipated by its draftsmen’. Straw stated that he had no ‘problem with the living instrument explanation’, but saw matters in ‘a slightly different way’. The ECHR he said, was ‘relevant to the UK today – and tomorrow – because the basic values at its heart are timeless’. They were ‘about the equal worth of all, and the belief in our responsibility to create a society that advances such equal worth and dignity’.
These comments could be made with respect to the judgments against the UK in cases such as Hirst (No.2) (prisoners’ votes), Vinter (whole life sentences) and Othman (Abu Qatada ) (deportation to Jordan). Yet, on the basis of such rulings, the level of criticism in the UK against Strasbourg has developed to an intensity that could hardly have been predicted back in the 1990s. As has been widely reported the point has been reached whereby certain Government ministers have suggested that not only should the HRA be repealed, but even that UK withdrawal from the Convention system should be considered, some going so far as to challenge the Court’s legitimacy as an institution.
UK withdrawal from the ECHR?
Against this background we refer back to 1995, when the Preface to the first edition of our text had asked the rhetorical question whether the Strasbourg system had developed to the point where no European state could seriously contemplate withdrawing from the Convention. What should one make of this today?
It is a measure of the continued success of the Convention system that the question remains a valid one in 2014 for the large majority of the treaty’s 47 High Contracting Parties, indeed, possibly all other States except the UK. For it is our contention that the intensity of the UK debate about the sovereignty of Parliament and the legitimacy of the Court is not replicated in other countries. Of course, there are episodes of criticism elsewhere but, as far as the authors are aware, it would appear that the UK is somewhat isolated in terms of the depth of its apparent opposition to Strasbourg. A detailed study published just last month (J Gerards and J Fleuren ‘Implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights and of the judgments of the ECtHR in national case law’) looked to the reception of the ECHR in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. It concluded that ‘[in] Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, the overall legitimacy of the Court and its judgments is hardly subject to debate’ [at 369], even if the Court comes in for occasional criticism in respect of specific, individual judgments. A debate about the Court and its influence with respect to the Netherlands did gain some, initial momentum in 2011-2012, although ‘the critical wind subsided’ [at 256].
Would it be an exaggeration to say, then, that the depth and intensity of the debate about the Court in the UK, and which regularly gives rise to talk of denunciation, is a peculiarly British one? If so, one might ask, ‘why’?
It may also be asked whether opposition to Strasbourg in ‘the UK’ is genuinely replicated in large parts of the nation. That this is at least open to question is suggested by the comments made by two members of the Commission on a Bill of Rights (Baroness Kennedy QC and Professor Philippe Sand QC) who argued that it was ‘abundantly clear that there is no [lack of] “ownership” issue [as regards the HRA] in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (or large parts of England), where the existing arrangements under the [HRA] and the European Convention on Human Rights are not merely tolerated but strongly supported’ (para 88.v).
Reform of the Court
Of course, it is not claimed that the Court is a perfect institution. Nor is it maintained that the Convention’s member States embrace everything Strasbourg does with spontaneous love and affection. Yet it was precisely to preserve the Strasbourg system and its effectiveness for future generations that there has been a determination on the part of the Contracting Parties collectively to reform the system, and to overcome the challenges resulting from the overloading of the Court that were starting to become apparent as far back as the 1990s.
The reform conferences held in Interlaken, Izmir and Brighton revealed a strong political will to put the European system on a more solid footing and to give it the tools to deal more effectively with its worrying backlog of cases without seeking, at the same time, to clip the Court’s wings or to weaken the level of protection it provides. Overall there is a clear political attachment to the ECHR amongst Council of Europe States and an endorsement of the Court’s contribution to the development of human rights law and democratic standards. The reform agenda has placed the focus on the issues inter alia of delay in the examination of applications, the margin of appreciation and the notion of subsidiarity (as discussed above), interim measures, the election of judges and the vexed problem of the enforcement of the Court’s judgments (where serious compliance problems have arisen since the first edition of the book).
From the perspective of workload and the backlog of cases, Protocol 14 has now entered into force. The reforms that it introduces, together with internal reforms such as the provisions for pilot judgments and the prioritisation of important cases, have started to ease the Court’s workload. At the end of June 2014 the number of pending cases stood at 84,850 —a considerable reduction from a figure in excess of 160,000 of some two years before.
In this regard a new mood of optimism may be emerging at Strasbourg, and one aspect of the reform debate may be coming to the fore. Noting that the recent phase of reform was commenced at Interlaken under the notion of a ‘shared responsibility’ for the Convention between Strasbourg and the member States, the President of the Court has recently stated that it is living ‘up to its responsibility to achieve greater efficiency, improve its performance, to allocate its resources more effectively and to concentrate increasingly upon priority cases, without abandoning any other cases’. For the reform process to succeed he has called for ‘improvements at Strasbourg’ to be ‘reflected by improvements at the national level, through better observance of the Convention and the existence of effective domestic remedies in case of breach’. As he puts it, ‘[e]ach State must live up to its responsibility’ and ‘the Committee of Ministers must act more effectively in supervising the execution of judgments – the joint and several responsibility of States under the Convention, as it were’.
The responsibility weighing on the UK today
In this last regard the weight of responsibility bearing on the UK during what remains a difficult time in the Convention’s life must be brought into real focus. What is at stake for the Convention system and Europe overall as a result of the hostility directed toward Strasbourg by the action of a State held in such high regard as the UK cannot be underestimated. ‘Europe overall’ – for one only has to visit the Court’s web site to appreciate the broader importance of the Court given the nature of some of the disputes it has been grappling with recently – an inter-state case brought by Georgia against Russia concerning a collective expulsion of Georgian nationals, the resolution of a long-standing dispute between a variety of Balkan states concerning foreign currency savings in the banks of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the detention of accused persons in cages during their trial, the hospital treatment of an orphan Aids victim etc.
It is difficult to imagine that one of the leading founders of the system could turn its back on the Convention without inflicting serious damage on the entire edifice by inspiring other States, beset by more fundamental problems of human rights, to follow suit. Some of those States may be from central and eastern Europe, who were encouraged to join the Convention in the 1990s at a critical time in their history, viewing full membership of the Strasbourg system as a necessary component of the legitimacy credentials associated with a democratic, European State. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe has argued before the Parliamentary Joint Committee examining the prisoner voting issue (para 109) that the UK’s withdrawal from the Convention would imperil not just the Convention but the 47 member State Council of Europe as a whole.
Similar comments apply to the potential confrontation that lies ahead with respect to the prisoner voting issue. Former President Sir Nicolas Bratza has underlined how the position adopted by the UK is likely to have consequences for those member States whose human rights records need significant improvement. In a recent lecture he explained that he was ‘convinced… not only of the fragile nature of the hold on democracy and the rule of law which there exists’ in some of the newer member States, ‘but [also] of the vital importance of the wholehearted support for the Convention system in preserving those ideals’. The UK’s failure to implement the judgment in Hirst has had, he explains, a ‘corrosive effect in Russia and Ukraine’, demonstrating that ‘compliance with the Convention obligations by the established democracies does matter’. Fearing further ‘erosion of the hard-won Convention standards in many parts of the Continent’, Bratza maintains that ‘the damage done by the withdrawal of support for the system by one of its key players would be simply incalculable’. He concludes:
‘That system may indeed be imperfect. But it is the only one that we have. What is needed is not to turn one’s back on that system but to work within it, to make it more effective and, in doing so, ensure that, 60 years after it came into effect, the Convention becomes not a dead letter but the vital and living instrument it was always supposed to be’. [N Bratza, “Living Instrument or Dead Letter – the Future of the European Convention on Human Rights”, (2014) EHRLR 116 at 128 – based on the text of the Miriam Rothschild and John Foster Human Rights Lecture (9 November 2013)
We conclude with the following observations. While the issue of UK membership has come to the fore in UK politics in recent years in ways which could hardly have been foreseen in 1995, it cannot be predicted with any certainty what the outcome will be, either in the short or long term. But we respectfully submit that the particular constitutional difficulties encountered by the UK in recent years are straight-forwardly outweighed by the advantages of being a party to the Convention, and the important role played by the ECHR in developing human rights standards throughout Europe and beyond as part of a collective guarantee of human rights—a role that is intimately bound up with peace and security in the region as recognized in the Convention’s Preamble. That point applied back in the late 1990s when the British contribution to the Convention was a cause for celebration under the banner ‘rights brought home’. But it applies today, and with even greater force, given the reform phase that the Convention system is going through, and the strong evidence that it is indeed proving to be effective, including with respect to some of the criticism that has been levelled against the Court in the UK as regards the principle of subsidiarity and Strasbourg’s relationship with national decision-makers. To put in jeopardy what has been patiently built up over more than 60 years would be a disservice to Europe, the rule of law and to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
D Harris, M O’Boyle, E Bates and C Buckley.
(Suggested citation: D. Harris, M. O’Boyle, E. Bates and C. Buckley, ‘UK withdrawal from the Convention? A broader view.’ U. K. Const. L. Blog (24th July 2014) (available at: https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)