The Court of 700m Citizens


When the old European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered its final judgment on Friday it was, appropriately, a Polish case. The court, established in 1959, whose remit now stretches to 40 states and 700 million citizens, has truly come of age with the accession of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. Since 1990, 23 of them have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights whose provisions the ECHR upholds. A huge workload, including a backlog of some 7,000 applications to the court, has made necessary the long-overdue reforms and streamlining of the Strasbourg court's structure - though not, it is to be hoped, its jurisprudence. Today the new measures take effect.

Apart from turning the court into a full-time tribunal, the key change involves the abolition of the commission which previously vetted the admissibility of cases, a task now to be undertaken by panels of three judges. That alone should dramatically speed up access to justice currently taking, on average, about five years. The new court also allows citizens of all signatory states the direct right of individual petition, previously a provision from which individual states could derogate.

Too easily overshadowed by the EU, the Council of Europe and its court deserve a better press. Today, as crucial guardians of standards on human rights, they bring to often fragile new democracies a developed corpus of universal law and values that have helped operationalise and then copper-fasten political reform. Yet, to see the new ECHR's role predominantly in the context of eastern Europe would be complacent.

The court has wrought profound changes in "mature" democracies like our own and will certainly continue to do so. David Norris broke the prohibition on homosexual acts, Josie Airey established the right to free legal aid, and Open Line Counselling the right to information on abortion. Ireland brought a landmark, successful case against the UK over the mistreatment of internees in Long Kesh in the early 1970s, and the court found against the UK over the killing of IRA suspects in Gibraltar.

Such judgments prompted predictable bouts of British nationalist rhetoric about loss of sovereignty and even a campaign from the then Tory government to clip the court's wings. Yet the truth is that the ECHR has always allowed states considerable discretion over the way they apply the broad principles of the convention in such areas as defining what constitutes a national emergency or in the absence of a uniform European system of morals.

Now a reforming Britain has put past hostility to the court behind it and is even incorporating the convention directly into its own law, leaving Ireland alone among EU members still resistant to the idea.