The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR or ECtHR; French: Cour européenne des droits de l’homme) is a supranational or international court established by the European Convention on Human Rights. The court hears applications alleging that a contracting state has breached one or more of the human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights set out in the Convention and its protocols.
An application can be lodged by an individual, a group of individuals, or one or more of the other contracting states. Aside from judgments, the Court can also issue advisory opinions. The Convention was adopted within the context of the Council of Europe, and all of its 47 member states are contracting parties to the Convention. The Court is based in Strasbourg, France.
History and structure
The Court was established on 21 January 1959 on the basis of Article 19 of the European Convention on Human Rights when its first members were elected by the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Convention charges the Court with ensuring the observance of the engagement undertaken by the contracting states in relation to the Convention and its protocols, that is ensuring the enforcement and implementation of the European Convention in the member states of the Council of Europe.
The jurisdiction of the Court has been recognized to date by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. On 1 November 1998, the Court became a full-time institution and the European Commission of Human Rights, which used to decide on admissibility of applications, was abolished by Protocol 11.
The accession of new states to the European Convention on Human Rights following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to a sharp increase in applications filed in the Court. The efficiency of the Court was threatened seriously by the large accumulation of pending applications.
In 1999, 8,400 applications were allocated to be heard. In 2003, 27,200 cases were filed and the number pending rose to approximately 65,000. In 2005, the Court opened 45,500 case files. In 2009, 57,200 applications were allocated, with 119,300 pending. At the time, more than 90% of applications were declared to be inadmissible, and the majority of cases decided—around 60% of the decisions by the Court—related to what is termed repetitive cases: where the Court has already delivered judgment finding a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights or where well established case law exists on a similar case.
Protocol 11 was designed to deal with the backlog of pending cases by establishing the Court and its judges as a full-time institution, by simplifying the procedure and reducing the length of proceedings. However, as the workload of the Court continued to increase, the contracting states agreed that further reforms were necessary and in May 2004, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Protocol 14 was drafted with the aim of reducing the workload of the Court and that of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which supervises the execution of judgments, so that the Court could focus on cases that raise important human rights issues.
Protocol 14 entered into force on 1 June 2010, three months after it was ratified by all 47 contracting states to the Convention. Between 2006 and 2010, Russia was the only contracting state to refuse to ratify Protocol 14. In 2010, Russia ended its opposition to the protocol, in exchange for a guarantee that Russian judges would be involved in reviewing complaints against Russia.
Protocol 14 led to reforms in three areas: The Court's filtering capacity was reinforced to deal with clearly inadmissible applications, new admissibility criteria were introduced so that cases where the applicant has not suffered a significant disadvantage would be declared inadmissible, and measures were introduced to deal more effectively with repetitive cases.
Protocol 14 amended the Convention so that judges would be elected for a non-renewable term of nine years, whereas previously judges served a six-year term with the option of renewal. Amendments were also made so that a single judge could reject plainly inadmissible applications, while prior to this protocol only a three judge committee could make this final decision. In cases of doubt, the single judge refers the applications to the Committee of the Court.
A single judge may not examine applications against the state which nominated him. The three judge committee has jurisdiction to declare applications admissible and decide on the merits of the case if it was clearly well founded and based on well established case law. Previously the three judge committee could only declare the case inadmissible, but could not decide on the merits of the case, which could only be done by a chambers of seven judges or the Grand Chamber.
Protocol 14 also provides that when a three judge committee decides on the merits of a case, the judge elected to represent that state is no longer a compulsory member of this committee. The judge can be invited by the committee, to replace one of its members, but only for specific reasons, such as when the application relates to the exhaustion of national legal remedies.
Protocol 14 empowered the Court to declare applications inadmissible where the applicant has not suffered a significant disadvantage and which do not raise serious questions affecting the application or the interpretation of the Convention, or important questions concerning national law. The European Commissioner for Human Rights is now allowed to intervene in cases as a third party, providing written comments and taking part in hearings. In order to reduce the workload of the Court, Protocol 14 states that the Court should encourage the parties to reach a settlement at an early stage of the proceedings, especially in repetitive cases.
The Committee of Ministers supervises the settlement's execution. Protocol 14 also allows the Committee of Ministers to ask the Court to interpret a final judgment if there are difficulties in the execution of a final judgment. In order to prevent repetitive applications concerning structural problems in contracting states on which the Court has previously made a final decision, the Committee of Ministers can in exceptional circumstances and with a two-thirds majority, initiate proceedings for non-compliance with a final decision in the Grand Chamber of the Court.
Article 17 of protocol 14 allows the European Union to become party to the Convention. In turn the Lisbon Treaty, which entered force in December 2009, provides that the European Union should accede and become a party to the Convention. The Committee of Ministers is to evaluate in 2012 to 2015 the extent to which the implementation of Protocol 14 has improved the effectiveness of the Court. The Committee of Ministers is to decide before 2019 whether more reforms of the Court are necessary.
Judges are elected for a non-renewable nine-year term. The number of full-time judges sitting in the Court is equal to the number of contracting states to the European Convention on Human Rights, currently 47. The Convention requires that judges are of "high moral character" and have qualifications suitable for high judicial office, or be jurisconsults of recognised competence.
Each judge is elected by majority vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from among three candidates nominated by each contracting state. Judges are elected whenever a sitting judge's term has expired or when a new state accedes to the Convention. The retiring age of judges is 70, but they may continue to serve as judges until a new judge is elected or until the cases in which they sit have come to an end.
Judges perform their duties in an individual capacity and are prohibited from having any institutional or other type of ties with the contracting state in respect of whom they were elected. To ensure the independence of the Court, judges are not allowed to participate in activity that may compromise the Court's independence. Judges cannot hear or decide a case if they have a family or professional relationship with a party. A judge can be dismissed from office only if the other judges decide, by a two-thirds majority, that the judge has ceased to fulfil the required conditions. Judges enjoy, during their term as judges, the privileges and immunities provided for in Article 40 of the Statute of the Council of Europe.
Plenary court and administration
The plenary court is an assembly of all of the Court's judges. It has no judicial functions. It elects the court's president, vice-president, registrar and deputy registrar. It also deals with administrative matters, discipline, working methods, reforms, the establishment of Chambers and the adoption of the Rules of Court.
The jurisdiction of the court is generally divided into inter-state cases, applications by individuals against contracting states, and advisory opinions in accordance with Protocol No.2. Applications by individuals constitute the majority of cases heard by the Court. A Committee is constituted by three judges, Chambers by seven judges and a Grand Chamber by 17 judges.
Applications by individuals against contracting states, alleging that the state violates their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, can be made by any person, non-governmental organisation or group of individuals. Although the official languages of the Court are English and French, applications may be submitted in any one of the official languages of the contracting states. An application has to be made in writing and signed by the applicant or by the applicant's representative.
Once registered with the Court, the case is assigned to a judge rapporteur, who can make a final decision that the case is inadmissible. A case may be inadmissible when it is incompatible with the requirements of ratione materiae, ratione temporis or ratione personae, or if the case cannot be proceeded with on formal grounds, such as non-exhaustion of domestic remedies, lapse of the six months from the last internal decision complained of, anonymity, substantial identity with a matter already submitted to the Court, or with another procedure of international investigation.
If the rapporteur judge decides that the case can proceed, the case is referred to a Chamber of the Court which, unless it decides that the application is inadmissible, communicates the case to the government of the state against which the application is made, asking the government to present its observations on the case.
The Chamber of the Court then deliberates and judges the case on its admissibility and its merits. Cases that raise serious questions of interpretation and application of the European Convention on Human Rights, a serious issue of general importance, or which may depart from previous case law can be heard in the Grand Chamber if all parties to the case agree to the Chamber of the Court relinquishing jurisdiction to the Grand Chamber. A panel of five judges decides whether the Grand Chamber accepts the referral.
Any contracting state to the European Convention on Human Rights can sue another contracting state in the Court for alleged breaches of the Convention, although in practice this is very rare. Until now only four interstate cases have been decided by the court:
- Ireland v. United-Kingdom (n° 5310/71), judgement of 18.01.1978 on inhuman and degrading treatment in Northern Ireland (art. 3)
- Denmark v. Turkey (n° 34382/97), judgement of 05.04.2000 ratifying a friendly settlement of 450.000 DKK regarding a Danish national detained in Turkey (art. 3)
- Cyprus v. Turkey (n° 25781/94), judgements of 10.05.2001 on the treatment of missing persons (art. 2, 3 & 5), the right of return of Greek who have fled to the south (art. 8, 13 & P1-1), the rights of Greeks still living in the north (art. 3, 8, 9, 10, 13, P1-1, P1-2) and the trial by military courts (art. 6). A subsequent judgement of 12.05.2014 awarded 90 million euro in 'just satisfaction' (art. 41)
- Georgia v. Russian Federation (n° 13255/07), judgement of 03.07.2014 on the collective expulsion of Georgians from Russia (art. 3, 5, 13, 38, P4-4) and Russia not cooperating with the Court (art. 38)
The Committee of Ministers may, by majority vote, ask the Court to deliver an advisory opinion on the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights, unless the matter relates to the content and scope of fundamental rights which the Court already considers.
Procedure and decisions
After the preliminary finding of admissibility the Court examines the case by hearing representations from both parties. The Court may undertake any investigation it deems necessary on the facts or issues raised in the application and contracting states are required to provide the Court with all necessary assistance for this purpose.
The European Convention on Human Rights requires all hearings to be in public, unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the holding of a private hearing. In practice the majority of cases are heard in private following written pleadings. In confidential proceedings the Court may assist both parties in securing a settlement, in which case the Court monitors the compliance of the agreement with the Convention. However, in many cases, a hearing is not held.
The judgment of the Grand Chamber is final. Judgments by the Chamber of the Court becomes final three months after they are issued, unless a reference to the Grand Chamber for review or appeal has been made. If the panel of the Grand Chamber rejects the request for referral, the judgment of the Chamber of the Court becomes final. The Grand Chamber is made up of 17 judges: the Court's President and Vice-Presidents, the Section Presidents and the national judge, together with other judges selected by drawing of lots. Grand Chambers include a public hearing, which is transmitted as a webcast on the ECHR site  . After the public hearing, the judges deliberate.
The Court's chamber decides both issues regarding admissibility and merits of the case. Generally, both these issues are dealt with in the same judgment. In final judgments the Court makes a declaration that a contracting state has violated the Convention, and may order the contracting state to pay material and/or moral damages and the legal expenses incurred in domestic courts and the Court in bringing the case.
The Court's judgments are public and must contain reasons justifying the decision. Article 46 of the Convention provides that contracting states undertake to abide by the Court's final decision. On the other hand, advisory opinions are, by definition, non-binding. The Court has to date decided consistently that under the Convention it has no jurisdiction to annul domestic laws or administrative practices which violate the Convention.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is charged with supervising the execution of the Court's judgments. The Committee of Ministers oversees the contracting states' changes to their national law in order that it is compatible with the Convention, or individual measures taken by the contracting state to redress violations. Judgments by the Court are binding on the respondent states concerned and states usually comply with the Court's judgments.
Chambers decide cases by a majority. Any judge who has heard the case can attach to the judgment a separate opinion. This opinion can concur or dissent with the decision of the Court. In case of a tie in voting, the President has the casting vote.
Relationship with other courts
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) is not related to the European Court of Human Rights. However, since all EU states are members of the Council of Europe and have signed the Convention on Human Rights, there are concerns about consistency in case law between the two courts. The ECJ refers to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and treats the Convention on Human Rights as though it was part of the EU's legal system, since it forms part of the legal principles of the EU member states.
Even though its member states are party to the Convention, the European Union itself is not a party, as it did not have competence to do so under previous treaties. However, EU institutions are bound under article 6 of the EU Treaty of Nice to respect human rights under the Convention. Furthermore, since the Treaty of Lisbon took effect on 1 December 2009, the EU is expected to sign the Convention. This would mean that the Court of Justice is bound by the judicial precedents of the Court of Human Rights's case law and thus be subject to its human rights law, avoiding issues of conflicting case law between these two courts.
Most of the Contracting Parties to the European Convention on Human Rights have incorporated the Convention into their own national legal systems, either through constitutional provision, statute or judicial decision.
Criticism against ECtHR includes claims that it interferes too much with the sovereignty of the members states, that it engages in judicial activism, that it is biased against non-Western values, and that it interprets the Convention in controversial ways. The court's interpretation of the Convention's reach is at times subject to criticism as either too narrow or too wide. For instance, the former judge in respect of Cyprus, Loukis Loucaides, criticised the Court for a "reluctance to find violations in sensitive matters affecting the interests of the respondent States". On the other hand, the British Law Lord, Lord Hoffmann argued in 2009 that the Court has not taken the doctrine of the margin of appreciation far enough, being "unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdiction and to impose uniform rules on Member States. It considers itself the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, laying down a federal law of Europe".
Lord Hoffman considered that the ability of the court to interfere in the detail of domestic law ought to be curtailed. He was in 2010 joined in the criticism by the president of the Belgian Constitutional Court, Marc Bossuyt, who in 2014 also criticized the Court for being judicial activist as it expands the guarantees of the Treaty to issues that clearly were not included in the Treaty nor intended by the framers. Bossuyt especially criticized the Court's handling of asylum cases with respect to articles 3 and 6 of the Treaty. In the UK, the Court was criticized for allegedly being over-intrusive in areas considered to be the domain of domestic courts and parliament; Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve claimed that the Court does not give sufficient margin of appreciation to states, a controversy being the Court's requirement that the UK liberalize voting rights for prisoners, a decision called "completely unacceptable" by David Cameron. Cameron also claimed that the concept of human rights was being "distorted" and "discredited" by the ECtHR, because reasonable decisions made at a national level were not respected by the Court. Hugh Tomlinson claimed that the ECtHR is undermining the media's pursuit of truth through its freedom of expression cases, by unreasonably restricting the media's freedom of speech.
Bertrand Mathieu, a French specialist in constitutional law, argues that the ECtHR rulings are descending into illegitimacy because they unreasonably interfere in the field of politics, which is contrary to the principle that in a democracy it is up to the national legislators to define the general public interest, not to supranational judges. Critics argue that the ECtHR purports itself to be a liberal institution, when instead it is the opposite - an elitist and authoritarian institution, which ignores the views, needs and desires of the general population, instead creating a judicial oligarchy.
Another criticism is that the ECtHR, by refusing to exercise judicial restraint, is endangering the cultural rights of individual countries and their populations, though an interpretation of the notion of human rights which is in accordance to the Court's judges' personal views, but which refuses to acknowledge the local conceptions of human rights, specific to the context of each country and its culture. Criticism from Russia, a country held to be in violation of the Convention by the Court in many decisions, is frequent. The Court's judge in respect of Russia, Anatoly Kovler, explaining his frequent dissenting opinions, noted that "I dislike when the Court evaluates non-European values as reactionary (Refah v. Turkey)".
The chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin, pointing to the Markin v. Russia case, stated that Russia has the right to create a mechanism of protection from Court decisions "touching the national sovereignty, the basic constitutional principles". In 2014, Russia was ordered by the ECHR to pay €1.9 billion in damages to former shareholders of Yukos, which the court ruled was intentionally bankrupted by the government. In 2015, Russia adopted a law allowing it to overrule judgements from the ECtHR, codifying an earlier Russian Constitutional Court decision which ruled that Russia could refuse to recognize an ECtHR decision if it conflicted with the Russian Constitution. Other countries have also moved to restrict the binding nature of the ECtHR judgments, subject to the countries' own constitutional principles. In 2004, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that judgments handed down by the ECtHR are not always binding on German courts. In many cases, the authorities in various countries have simply refused to put in practice the ECtHR judgments. Nearly 10,000 judgments of the ECtHR have not been put into effect by national governments. In some cases, politicians have been openly defiant. In 2017, Georgia's Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani stated that the ECtHR "can’t touch a [Georgian court] decision with one swipe".
Critics argue that the principle of "emerging consensus" of the member states on which the ECtHR operates is fundamentally flawed, because such a consensus often relies on trends, and historically in many instances social and political consensus was retrospectively acknowledged to have been wrong. Such an approach is accused of risking to stigmatize and coerce the few dissenting countries, encouraging a pack mentality. Furthermore, critics argue that the ECtHR has claimed that such consensus exists even when objectively it didn't, due to the judicial activism of its judges.
There has also been criticism of the Court's structure. Loucaides wrote that by introducing in its Rules a Bureau, the Court created "a separate collective organ that had nothing to do with the structure of the Court organs according to the Convention". It has been said that in failing to distinctly define how a consensus is reached reduces its legitimacy. Furthermore, as the ECtHR grows, the consensus between the members diminishes. Since the 2000s, there has been increased backlash against what is seen as undue interference by the Court in internal issues of member states; a situation which may be the result of the fact that many European countries are now well established democracies with good reputation of human rights: while international human rights institutions may help new emerging democracies make credible commitments to human rights while they are still weak and seek approval, once consolidated democracies already have credibly established domestic protections they have fewer reasons to put up with interventionist supranational institutions.
The building, which houses the court chambers and Registry (administration and référendaires), was designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership and completed in 1995. The design is meant to reflect, amongst other things, the two distinct components of the Commission and Court (as it was then).
Honours and awards
- African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights – regional court established in 2006
- European Court of Human Rights cases
- Human rights in Europe
- List of LGBT-related cases before international courts and quasi-judicial bodies
- Inter-American Court of Human Rights – regional court established in 1979
- Margin of appreciation – Legal doctrine of the European Court of Human Rights
- Relationship between the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights