European Court of Human Rights

European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was established in 1959 and came about as a result of principles defined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since its launch, the Court has dealt with in excess of 10,000 judgements in relation to human rights violations.

The court is located in Strasbourg and it will consider any case by an individual, business or state against any country who are in the convention.

The majority of European Nations are a member of the convention.

European Court of Human Rights

The Convention is overseen by the Council of Europe. This council is a body which oversees human rights.

In recent years the court has had to deal with an influx of cases and to cope with increasing demand the European Court of Human Rights combined with the European Commission of Human Rights that was created in 1954 was merged in 1998.

This merger allowed the combined court to process individual cases without obtaining consent from the government of the country where the claimant is from. From 1998 a reform was initiated and the European Commission of Human Rights was disbanded.

This had previously dealt with a range of issues such as friendly settlements, whether complaints were admissible and decided whether cases should be referred to the Court.

What does the European Convention on Human Rights deal with?

The European Convention on Human Rights is a treaty. This treaty must be followed by its member states to protect both political and civil rights.

The convention covers rights in relation to;

  • Life in general
  • Receiving a hearing that is fair
  • Family and private life that is fully respected
  • Freedom to express yourself
  • The ability to think freely and demonstrate freedom in terms of religion or conscience
  • Security in terms of property
  • The Treaty specifically prohibits
  • Any form of torture or treatment that is degrading or inhumane
  • Forced labour or slavery
  • The death penalty
  • Unlawful detention
  • Discrimination in terms of the rights and freedoms which have been defined in the Convention.

European Court of Human Rights Structure

Each country who has signed the European Human Rights Convention will have a judge assigned to it.

The court has a total of 47 judges. The judges serve a period of approximately six years and are elected through a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Although the judges are from different countries, they are not permitted to represent their own country because they must remain impartial.

The European Court of Human Rights judges will usually work within one of four judicial formations and when an application to the Court is received, it will be assigned to one of these groups;

A single judge will be responsible for ruling on whether an application is admissible or not based on the material that the applicant has provided

A committee consists of three judges and it is their role to determine whether a case is admissible and decide on the merits of the case using relevant case law. Once a decision is reached it must be unanimous.

A chamber includes a total of 7 judges and will decide whether a case is admissible, if it has merit in terms of raising an issue that has not already had a ruling.

The Grand Chamber is the highest level and includes a total of 17 judges. This only hears a very small selection of cases which have been either referred as a result of a Chamber decision or when the case involves a unique question. An application would never automatically go to the Grand Chamber.

The cases dealt with by the Court are varied and can range from ill-treatment of prisoners and discrimination through to incorrect conduct in a trial or abuse of human rights. Member states will usually include parts of the Convention in their own legislation. Therefore, the European Court only takes on a case if all domestic avenues have been exhausted.

Anyone can take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, but to do so they must be able to provide proof that there has been a violation of their human rights.

The individual must also demonstrate that they cannot proceed through the courts of their own country to resolve the issue.

An individual who believes that there has been a breach of their human rights and who cannot pursue their claim through the legal system of their native country can petition to the Court to hear a case and reach a verdict. The Court can also hear cases which have been brought by states and they are able to award financial compensation.

The decision made by the ECtHR can have significant and lasting implications requiring a country to instigate changes in their national laws.

The Court operates in seven judge chambers and the court is further divided into four sections and it should be used as a last resort. If you decide to bring action against a government because they have breached your human rights, the ECtHR can act as an independent judge.

Although it is the highest court that exists within the European Union, The European Court of Justice cannot deal with any human rights related issues. Its function is to administer EU law and it has the ability to overrule any judgment that is made in a national court.

Although the Court cannot actively enforce a ruling they can show the country in a negative light which could have a detrimental impact on inter-state relation.

European Court of Human Rights Proceedings

Once the court has received an application, they must reach a decision to conclude whether the case is admissible. Admissibility decisions are usually reached by a single judge, three judge committee or a seven judge chamber. If a case is admissible it must;

  • Demonstrate that all domestic avenues have been exhausted to conclude the matter
  • The application falls in the six month application deadline
  • The complaint is against a State party to the European Convention on Human Rights
  • The applicant has suffered significant disadvantage as a result

If an application does not meet any of these requirements, it will be declared as being inadmissible and the applicant cannot proceed any further.

The European Court of Human Rights is a complex area and it is advised that you seek legal advice before embarking on any form of legal action.


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This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.