On 25 September, the Strasbourg court is expected to deliver a damning verdict on the way Britain's planning laws have violated gypsies' rights to enjoy their traditional way of life. It will mark the culmination of a four-year legal battle and could result in an important reappraisal of the way local authorities deal with gypsies and travellers.
Euro-sceptics are certain to use the case as ammunition in their war against EU institutions. They say the judgement will give travellers carte blanche to site caravans wherever they wish.
The first gypsy case - there are 15 more from Britain in the pipeline - concerns the struggle of Mrs June Buckley, a single mother of three, to secure the right to live in a caravan on land she owns on the outskirts of Willingham, Cambridgeshire.
Her attempt to gain planning permission for her family to live in three caravans on the site she has owned since 1988 was turned down by South Cambridgeshire District Council in 1991. In February 1992 she took her case to the European Commission on Human Rights. Last September the Commission, which acts as a lower court, found in her favour, ruling that South Cambridgeshire violated her right to choose where she lived. "If, as we confidently expect, the verdict is confirmed in favour of June Buckley, it will be of the most enormous importance," saidLuke Clements, her solicitor.
"About 90 per cent of the planning applications lodged by gypsies fail and approximately a third of their number currently have nowhere in law to live," said Mr Clements. "The Commission have questioned the logic of our present planning laws that have the effect of criminalising a third of an ethnic minority."
For Walter Smith the court's decision cannot come soon enough. Mr Smith's family live in their caravans on the plot next door to June Buckley's family.
"We've been here for about four years and everyone is very happy. I bought the plot and put in all the services; we don't trouble anyone and no one troubles us. We get on well with people in the village. It is just the council that give us a problem. They want us to go in a council house, but we prefer to live the way we've always lived," he said.
"When this decision comes, it will be a great breakthrough for the gypsy people," said Charlie Smith of the National Gypsy Council. "For the first time the law will recognise that we have a proper legal right to live as we want. For far too long we have suffered on the losing side in a conflict of cultures and lifestyles."Reuse content