The European Court of Human Rights aims to apply and to protect the civil and political rights of the continent's citizens.
These principles are set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, a landmark treaty that was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II.
The court, which was set up in 1959 in the French city of Strasbourg, considers cases brought by individuals, organisations and states against the countries which are bound by the convention; namely, all European nations except Belarus.
These cases have many forms; they include allegations of human rights abuses, discrimination, the improper conduct of trials and the mistreatment of prisoners.
Countries must comply with the court's verdicts, although the court cannot directly enforce this.
Most of the nations which have signed the human rights convention, including the UK, have incorporated its principles into their own laws. The court will only hear a case when all domestic legal avenues have been exhausted.
Moreover, plaintiffs must show that they have been a direct victim of an alleged violation and they cannot bring cases against individuals or private bodies.
The court was established and is overseen by the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights body.
The council is a distinct entity and is not a branch of the European Union (EU). The European Human Rights Convention is its landmark treaty.
The European Court of Human Rights should not be confused with the European Court of Justice - the EU's highest court.
The court is made up of 47 judges, equating to the number of countries that have signed up to the European Human Rights Convention.
The judges are elected to nine-year terms by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
They sit as individuals, rather than as representatives of their home countries.
Issues and challenges
The court saw its caseload grow rapidly within a decade, from under 8,400 cases in 1999 to 57,000 in 2009.
Much of the increase came from the newer democracies of central and eastern Europe, where there was less trust in local judicial systems. Russia is still the biggest single source of cases.
The court came to be seen as a victim of its own success, and by the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century appeared to be collapsing under its own caseload.
An enormous backlog of cases - running to 120,000 by the end of 2009, which would have taken 46 years to clear if the court had continued to work at the same pace - made it imperative that the court's functions be streamlined, especially for minor cases.
In June 2010, a new system came into force in which the number of judges required to make important decisions was reduced in an effort to speed up the court's work.
The implementation of the new system - codified as "Protocol 14" - had been blocked for some years by Russia in protest at what it considered to be the court's "political" rulings relating to the conduct of the Russian military in Chechnya, but Russia's objections were finally overcome in January 2010.
However, these moves to streamline the system have not put an end to calls for the court to filter cases more effectively to ensure that more important cases are given higher priority.