Human Rights Judgments - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights

1.  In this Report we seek to present dispassionately the factual context in which political debates about the European Court of Human Rights should take place, by analysing closely the latest available statistics. (Paragraph 2.5)

2.  We draw Parliament's attention to the significant downward trend in the number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights which have found the UK to be in breach of the ECHR. We also draw to Parliament's attention the wide discrepancy between some of the media coverage of the statistics about judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and the facts as contained in the statistics themselves. (Paragraph 2.8)

3.  We commend the Government for its generally very good record on implementing Court judgments and draw this to Parliament's attention. The Government is to be congratulated on the swift implementation of a number of recent judgments, and on its recent successful efforts to bring to a conclusion a number of older cases which had been under supervision by the Committee of Ministers for a long time. (Paragraph 2.12)

Insufficient progress towards implementation

4.  We welcome the relevant provisions in the Stormont House Agreement as a potentially significant breakthrough in relation to these long-delayed cases of non-implementation. However, the issues are complex and their resolution will depend on the detailed implementation of the very general indications contained in the Stormont House Agreement. (Paragraph 3.6)

5.  We are particularly concerned by the prospect that it may be two years before the new Historical Investigations Unit starts its work, especially as in the meantime the work of the Historical Enquiries Team is going to be carried on by the smaller Legacy Investigations Branch of the PSNI. As well as having fewer resources at its disposal than its predecessor, the Legacy Investigations Branch cannot itself satisfy the requirements of Article 2 ECHR because of its lack of independence from the police service. We recommend that the legislation establishing the Historical Investigations Unit be treated as an urgent priority by the new Government and every effort made to ensure that the new Unit is up and running well before the two years anticipated by the Chief Constable. We also recommend that the arbitrary limit of 5 years for the life of the HIU is not necessarily consistent with Art 2 ECHR as investigation of the hundreds of outstanding cases may well take longer than the 5 years allocated. (Paragraph 3.7)

6.  We also recommend that the parties to the Agreement publish a more detailed plan for implementation of the relevant provisions of the Agreement, with clear target dates for the different elements, more specifics about how the delays in legacy inquests will be overcome, and more detail about precisely how the additional £150million over five years will be allocated, including whether any additional resources will be made available to coroners in Northern Ireland, and what proportion of those monies will be allocated to the HIU. (Paragraph 3.8)

7.  We welcome the fact that arrangements for the implementation of the Marper judgment in Northern Ireland are in train and should finally be in place by November this year. However, it will by then be almost seven years from the date of the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights in Marper, which has resulted in people in Northern Ireland being deprived of the benefit of the judgment for very much longer than those living in the rest of the UK. In our view a delay of nearly seven years in the full implementation of a European Court of Human Rights judgment across the whole of the UK is unacceptable. (Paragraph 3.13)

8.  It has not been possible for us to ascertain exactly where culpability lies for such unacceptable delay, but we recommend that the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive consider what lessons are to be learned from the delay, with a view to avoiding it being repeated in the future. While the delays in implementation in the other two cases of MM and MH are much less serious, they suggest that there is a systemic problem with implementation in Northern Ireland that urgently needs addressing. (Paragraph 3.14)

9.  Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are not merely advisory. States are under a binding legal obligation to implement them, an obligation voluntarily assumed by the UK when it agreed to Article 46(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Compliance with the judgments of the Court concerning prisoner voting is therefore a matter of compliance with the rule of law. (Paragraph 3.22)

10.  The UK Government's continuing failure to amend the law in response to the Hirst judgment undermines its credibility when invoking the rule of law to pressurise Russia—and other countries in a similar position—to comply with its international human rights obligations. (Paragraph 3.23)

11.  We recommend that the next Government introduce legislation (whether primary legislation or remedial order) at the earliest opportunity in the new Parliament to give effect to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Draft Prisoner Voting Bill, in order to prevent further waves of repetitive applications, to avert the risk of the UK eventually becoming liable for damages in such cases but, above all, to demonstrate the UK's continuing commitment to the principle of the rule of law. We recommend that the legislation be included in the first Queen's Speech of the new Parliament and the Bill or remedial order itself introduced before the Committee of Ministers resumes its consideration of the UK's implementation of the outstanding judgments on prisoner voting in September 2015. (Paragraph 3.26)

12.  We recommend that the Government bring forward at the earliest opportunity the amendments to those two documents which are necessary in order to make clear to a person who is the subject of a whole life order that they can apply to the Secretary of State for discretionary release under s. 30 of the 2003 Act. The revisions should make clear that an application can be made on the ground that "exceptional circumstances" had arisen subsequent to the imposition of the sentence, and that, when considering such an application, the Secretary of State must consider all the relevant circumstances and decide whether release is justified on compassionate grounds. (Paragraph 3.30)

13.  We welcome the Government's acceptance of Lord Justice Leveson's recommendation that the changes to conditional fee agreements not be brought into force for privacy and defamation cases until other protections are in place to ensure effective access to justice for people of modest means. In the meantime, however, the Strasbourg judgment remains unimplemented, which may be prolonging the chilling effect on freedom of expression. We recommend that the new Government treat this particular aspect of the Leveson recommendations as an early legislative priority. (Paragraph 3.33)

Declarations of Incompatibility by UK courts

14.  We draw to Parliament's attention the strikingly small number of declarations of incompatibility made by UK courts under the Human Rights Act during the lifetime of this Parliament, which confirms the significant downward trend in the number of such declarations since the Human Rights Act came into force in 2000. (Paragraph 4.2)

15.  We are therefore concerned by the fact that the secondary legislation designed to respond to this declaration of incompatibility was not drawn to our attention by the Government. We recommend that in future the Government always draws such instruments to the attention of this Committee, to ensure that Parliament receives the advice of its expert human rights committee about whether the instrument remedies the incompatibility identified by the courts. (Paragraph 4.7)

16.  We draw this correspondence to Parliament's attention, and to the attention of our successor Committee in the event that the declaration of incompatibility becomes final. (Paragraph 4.11)

Reform of the European Court of Human Rights

17.  We are aware of concerns expressed by some about whether some of these procedural changes to reduce the backlog are preventing meritorious cases from reaching the Court, but we have not had the capacity during this Parliament to carry out our own assessment of whether these concerns are well-founded. It is therefore a matter which we draw to the attention of our successor Committee. (Paragraph 5.2)

18.  We welcome and draw to Parliament's attention the fact that in the ongoing process of reform of the European Court of Human Rights, increasing prominence is gradually being given to the importance of the role of national parliaments in the ECHR system, including in scrutinising the implementation of Court judgments and in scrutinising the Convention compatibility of laws and policies. As our predecessor Committee observed, the relatively strong institutional mechanisms and practices that have been developed in this country place the UK Government in a good position to provide strong leadership on this question in intergovernmental processes in the Council of Europe. We recommend that in the ongoing process about the longer term future of the Court and the Convention, the Government becomes a champion of increasing parliamentary involvement in the ECHR system, beginning with the forthcoming Brussels Declaration on "Our Shared Responsibility" for the Convention rights which will be adopted at the end of March. (Paragraph 5.5)

Systemic issues

19.  We are pleased to be able to report that the Government's systems for responding promptly and fully to Court judgments concerning human rights are generally working well. (Paragraph 6.1)

20.  We commend the Government in particular for the annual report that the Ministry of Justice has been publishing throughout the Parliament. (Paragraph 6.5)

21.  There is scope, however, for the Government's annual report to be even more helpful in future, and we recommend some ways in which to develop the Government's report in the next Parliament. We recommend that future reports include not merely declarations of incompatibility under s. 4 of the Human Rights Act, but judicial exercises of the power in s. 3 of the Human Rights Act, to interpret legislation compatibly with Convention Rights. We also recommend that the report include significant judgments against other States which may have implications for UK law (this is already done, for example, in the Netherlands and Germany). (Paragraph 6.7)

22.  Finally, we recommend that the Government's annual report to our Committee on Responding to human rights judgments should be turned into an "Annual Human Rights Report" to Parliament. The growing introductory section on "Wider developments in human rights", which takes in the UK's reporting to UN human rights monitoring bodies as well as responses to court judgments, could usefully be expanded in future to make the report a more general report, akin to the Foreign Office's annual report to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Human Rights, but focusing on human rights in the UK. Such a report could then usefully form the basis of the annual appearance of the Human Rights Minister before this Committee. (Paragraph 6.8)

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Prepared 11 March 2015