UK Politics

European Court of Human Rights 'not interfering in UK'

Abu Qatada Image copyright AP
Image caption The Strasbourg court's decision over Abu Qatada has angered the UK government

The European Court of Human Rights is not "interfering" with the justice system in the UK, its president says.

Sir Nicolas Bratza, who is British, said only a small percentage of claims against the country resulted in findings of a violation of law.

He also praised the UK's "high level of complicity" with human rights conventions, in evidence to a committee of MPs and peers.

The government says the court is too unaccountable and needs reform.

It is calling for the European Convention on Human Rights to be substantially rewritten so national courts have a greater say.

Using the UK's six-month presidency of the Council of Europe, it has circulated a detailed paper on the subject to be debated at a summit in Brighton next month involving all 47 states who have signed up to the convention.

'Frustrated'

The development comes amid growing criticism of the Strasbourg-based court's role in preventing the deportation of crime suspects, particularly Abu Qatada, who has been accused of being a "key UK figure" in al-Qaeda.

A UK judge ended the radical cleric's six-year detention last month after the European Court of Human Rights blocked his deportation to Jordan, amid fears he might not get a fair trial and that some evidence against him could have been obtained by torture.

During the hearing of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Conservative MP Rehman Chishti said to Sir Nicolas: "People in this country get frustrated when people who are dangerous to this country cannot be deported. Can you understand why that frustrates people?"

Sir Nicolas replied: "I can certainly understand it but our function is to determine whether, if somebody is sent back to a country, they face... a real risk of death or ill-treatment.

"There's nothing exceptional in our court saying there's a responsibility on the country that's returning somebody to those conditions. I don't think anyone in the government of this country would dispute that."

The committee discussed the role of the court's Rule 39, which allows it to impose "interim measures which are binding" on a country which has signed up to the human rights convention, if the applicant "faces a real risk of serious, irreversible harm" if deported.

'Mischievous'

Sir Nicolas said: "We had something like 776 such applications last year alone. We used Rule 39 in 34 of those cases, something like 4%.

"We do examine very carefully the situation. The case law is very clear that (the rule can be invoked) where there's a genuine risk that someone will be ill-treated."

Conservative MP Dominic Raab criticised Sir Nicolas for suggesting in a recent article that most of the criticism in the UK of the court's workings was created by the popular press.

But Sir Nicolas replied: "There's a pretty mischievous report that, since 1966, dealing with the United Kingdom, that we have found violations in three out of four cases brought against the country.

"This, to my mind, is a gross distortion and one that does clear damage to the standing of our court."

He argued that, in 2010, only 23 out of 1,200 cases even reached a judgement: "That's something like 2%, out of which only half have reached a finding of a violation."

Sir Nicolas said that, last year, just eight out of 955 cases led to findings against the UK government

He added: "The vast amount of cases are declared inadmissible. This is due in large part to the high standard of complicity with the convention in this country.

"Where there's disagreement we have, I hope, explained exactly where our disagreement is and on what basis we disagree."

It was unfair say the court was "interfering in the way matters are dealt with domestically", he said.

Sir Nicolas was repeatedly challenged by MPs and peers over the court's decision that prisoners should not be subject to a blanket ban on voting, but he refused to comment because a case in Italy dealing with this issue is currently under consideration.

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