Does the UK lose three out of four European human rights cases?

Published: 13th Jan 2012

"Europe's war on British justice: UK loses three out of four human rights cases, damning report reveals"

Daily Mail, 12 January 2012

"ECHR: Britain loses 3 in 4 cases at human rights court"

Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2012

The front page of the Daily Mail and a story in the Daily Telegraph yesterday reported the startling claim that the UK loses 75 percent of cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The stories follow the publication of a report on human rights laws in the UK by the researcher Robert Broadhurst, with a foreword from ten Conservative MPs.

Full Fact tracked down the source of the claims.

Analysis

The report cited by both newspapers: 'Human rights: Making them work for the people of the UK', goes into a great deal of detail about the effects of European human rights legislation on UK law. The report does however make clear its much-reported claim:

"Between when it first subscribed to the Court's jurisdiction in 1966 (when acceptance of this jurisdiction was voluntary) and the end of 2010, the United Kingdom faced over 350 rulings from the judges in Strasbourg on whether or not it had violated an ECHR right."

The statistics concerned come from an ECtHR document which lists all the cases involving the ECtHR and various European countries since 1959, and breaks those cases down by the article of the convention under which the case was brought. The articles involved in the cases are illustrated below:

According to the data, the total number of judgements involving the UK was 443, of which 271 found "at least one violation" by the state concerned, 86 found "no violation", 65 were "friendly settlements" and 21 consigned to an "other judgements" category.

The 350 figure used in the Broadhurst report, as well as the main headlines of both papers, seems to be derived by considering only the violation and non-violation figures, which together total 357 cases. This measure yields a failure rate of 76 per cent.

However, left aside from this are the "other judgements". These include "preliminary objections" - when governments argue early on that the charges made against them have no merit, and "just satisfaction" - when a successful applicant is awarded damages. The ECtHR provide the relevant definitions.

Whilst we cannot put a precise figure on how many judgements involved these specific circumstances, they serve to blur the definition somewhat between which cases are won and which are lost. The effect this have on the final proportion is small, however.

More importantly is the understanding of "friendly settlements" which involve governments and their applicants coming to a mutual agreement before the case ever reaches a judgement, cases which the ECtHR aims to maximise.

Whilst both newspapers mention the settlements separately, these are still strictly 'cases' put to the ECtHR. Again, the nature of a mutual settlement serves to blur the distinction between a victory and defeat for a government. 

In the UK's case, considering only clear 'defeats' as a proportion of all cases reduces the proportion of lost human rights judgements to 61 per cent - or three in five rather than three in four.

A further point of context is that, even with the 75 per cent figure, the average proportion of judgements lost across all the European countries provided is much higher - at 94 per cent - indicating that the UK is comparatively less unsuccessful than many of its European counterparts. The differences are illustrated:

Conclusion

Both newspapers correctly quoted the terms and figures provided in the Broadhurst Report, which to an extent correlate with the ECtHR figures.

However some confusion may have been caused since some judgements were mutually settled, and thus do not clearly lend themselves to interpretation as 'victories' or 'losses' for the concerned government.

Taking only adjudicated judgements, the three in four figure is correct by the figures provided. However, strictly considering all judgements, the UK Government only lost three in five.

UPDATE (13/01/12)

Credit is also due to the UK Human Rights Blog who pointed out that, considering 'cases' in the broadest sense, 97 per cent were declared inadmissable or struck out, so even this 3 in 5 figure is diluted.


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