3 Oct 2014

Six key rulings the ECHR forced on the UK

It was founded in the aftermath of the second world war, and now Conservatives want to curb the reach of the European Court of Human Rights. Here are six rulings it has forced on the UK.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rules on cases brought by citizens from any one of Europe’s 47 member states, who accuse their own country of violating one of the fundamental rights laid down in the European convention on human rights.

These include the right to a fair trial, right to a family life or right to liberty – and states including Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet blocs are all obliged to comply.

For the member states of the Council of Europe (separate to the European Union) that have signed up to the European convention, this means that ECHR rulings override those made by domestic courts. And this has not always gone down well in Britain, particularly among Conservatives.

Watch: Tory human rights plan 'doesn't make sense', says Sir Nicolas Bratza

The party has long pledged to break the European convention, which also means scrapping the UK’s human rights act, as they have been bound together since 1998. And after some hints during the Conservative party conference Justice Secretary Chris Grayling on Friday detailed how the party would ignore the ECHR and may leave the convention if it is elected in 2015.

Aside from the UK’s own human rights act, tied to the European convention, what rulings has the ECHR forced on the UK? Here are just some of the main examples:

Abu Qatada

In January 2012, the ECHR blocked the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan, because of fears that evidence obtained under torture would be used against him in his home country. The extremist preacher had been found not guilty of terrorism offences after an eight year legal battle.

The ruling, based on the right to a fair trial, was slammed as “completely unacceptable” by David Cameron and forced Home Secretary Theresa May to agree a new treaty with Jordan, guaranteeing him a free trial. This eventually convinced the court to allow his deportation in July 2013.

Prisoners’ vote

In 2005, the ECHR ruled that banning prisoners from voting – in the UK and in other countries – was a breach of their human rights and unlawful. Mr Cameron responded by saying that the idea of prisoners voting made him feel “physically ill”, and parliament has so far resisted implementing the ruling.

Which raises one puzzling point: although members states are supposed to be obliged to stick to ECHR rulings, they can apparently resist and appeal. This is currently happening in Ireland, where parliament is resisting calls from the ECHR to revise its abortion law which it said treated women as “a vessel, nothing more”.

Read more: Could the UK leave the human rights treaty over Qatada?

Gay rights

Back in October 1981, the ECHR decriminalised male gay sex in Northern Ireland as a result of a case brought by Jeff Dudgeon, who was interrogated about his sexual behaviour by the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force.

More recently, in January 2013, the ECHR ruled against two British Christians who claimed that they were fired because they would not work with gay couples. Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar for London’s Islington Borough Council, and Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, who refused to give sex advice to gay couples, lost their anti-discrimination case.

Religious discrimination

During the same ruling, the ECHR ruled in favour of Nadia Eweida, 60, who took her employer British Airways to court for forcing her to stop wearing a cross around her neck.

Lawyers for the government, which contested the claim, argued that her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion had not been violated. But ECHR judges disagreed by five votes to two.

Whole-life sentences

Another controversial ruling from July last year regards dishing out whole life sentences to prisoners and stems from a case brought by three multiple murderers, including Jeremy Bamber. Judges ruled that that a whole-life tariff breached article 3 of the convention, which prohibits torture.

QC Peter Weatherby, who represented the three prisoners, said that even if prisoners are never released, “they should not have all prospect of future release taken away at the outset of their sentence”.

In practice, this means that prisoners should be entitled to a review at some point in their sentence, and the possibility of parole if they have reformed.

Government spying

Three campaign groups have filed papers against GCHQ, accusing the British spy agency of breaching the privacy of millions of people in the UK and throughout Europe. The legal challenge came in the wake of revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance by the UK and US governments. The case is still going through the courts, but it is just another example of the kind of cases brought to the ECHR by the UK.