- The ECHR should not be mistaken for the European Court of Justice, an institution of the European Union for the resolution of disputes under EU law.
European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg
The European Court of Human Rights often referred to informally as the "Strasbourg Court", was created to systematise the hearing of human rights complaints from Council of Europe member states. The court's mission is to enforce the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ratified in 1953.
History and structure
The current incarnation of the court was instituted on November 1, 1998, replacing the then existing enforcement mechanisms, which included the European Commission of Human Rights (created in 1954) and the previous, limited Court of Human Rights, which was created in 1959.
The new court was the result of the ratification of Protocol 11, an amendment to the Convention, which was ratified in October 1997. Judges were subsequently elected by the Council of Europe, and the court was opened approximately one year later.
The court consists of a number of judges equal to the number of Council of Europe member states, which currently stand at forty-six. Despite this correspondence, however, there are no requirements that each state be represented on the court, nor are there limits to the number of judges belonging to any nationality. Judges are assumed to be impartial arbiters, rather than representatives of any nation.
The court is divided into four "Sections", each of which consists of a geographic and gender-balanced selection of justices. The entire court elects a President and four Section Presidents, two of whom also serve as Vice-Presidents of the court. All terms last for three years. Each section selects a Chamber, which consists of the Section President and a rotating selection of six other justices. The court also maintains a 17-member Grand Chamber, which consists of the President, Vice-Presidents, and Section Presidents, in addition to a rotating selection of justices from one of two balanced groups. The selection of judges alternates between the groups every nine months.
Complaints of violations by member states are filed in Strasbourg, and are assigned to a Section. Each complaint is first heard by a committee of three judges, which may unanimously vote to strike any complaint without further examination. Once past committee, the complaint is heard and decided by a full Chamber. Decisions of great importance may be appealed to the Grand Chamber. Any decisions of the court are binding on the member states.
It is the role of the Committee of Ministers to supervise the execution of court judgements, though they have no formal means of forcing member countries to comply. However, the ultimate sanction of non-compliance is expulsion from the Council of Europe and thus becoming a 'pariah' state within Europe. Furthermore, the European Union takes a keen interest in the Convention and Court (and its jurisprudence) so would not look kindly upon any EU member state that did not fulfill its Convention obligations.
Due to the increase in awareness of European citizens of their rights under the Convention, the Court was becoming a victim of its own success. Some cases were taking up to five years before being heard and there was a significant backlog. For example, according to the Human Rights Information Bulletin (issued by the Council of Europe), between 1st November 2003 and 29 February 2004 the Court dealt with 7315 cases, of which 6255 were declared inadmissable.
Working on the principle that 'justice delayed is justice denied', the Council of Europe set up a working party to consider ways of improving the efficiency of the Court. This resulted in an amendment to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Protocol 14. This new protocol, which requires universal ratification by all Council of Europe member states to come into force, makes a number of changes:
- A single judge can decide on a case's admissibility. Before, three judges decided.
- Where cases are broadly similar to ones brought previously before the Court, and are essentially due to a member state failing to change their domestic law to correct a failing highlighted by that previous judgement, admissibility can be decided by three judges rather than the seven-judge Chamber.
- A case may not be admissible if it is considered that the applicant has not suffered 'significant disadvantage'. However, this is not a 'hard and fast' rule.
- A member state can be brought before the court by the Committee of Ministers if that state refuses to enforce a judgment against it.
- The Committee of Ministers can ask the Court for an 'interpretation' of a judgement to help determine the best way for a member state to comply with it.
Amnesty International has expressed concern that these changes to the admissibility criteria will mean individuals may lose the ability to 'gain redress for human rights violations' .
For the first time since the Russia military invaded Chechnya in 1999, the Court has agreed to hear cases of human rights abuse brought forward by Chechen civilians against Russia.
The building, which houses the court chambers and registry (administration), 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 then was). Wide scale use of glass emphasises the 'openness' of the court to European citizens.