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UK Politics

Clarke clashes with court chief over rights reforms


Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke clashed with the president of the European Court of Human Rights today as he declared that it would undergo “substantial reforms”.

The changes - outlined in the Brighton declaration due to be formally adopted today - will lead to the Strasbourg-based court handling fewer cases in an attempt to clear a massive backlog, Mr Clarke said.

In an embarrassing move, however, the court’s president Sir Nicolas Bratza pre-empted his announcement by saying that governments should leave the court to decide how it carries out its own work, insisting the reforms would make no change to the type of cases considered.

Today’s declaration came at a time when the Government is at loggerheads with the ECHR over the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada.

Human rights’ experts insisted that Prime Minister David Cameron needed European “blood on his hands” in order to appease his own backbenches.

However, today’s watered-down version of the Conservatives’ initial reform proposals failed to impress some of the party’s MPs, who angrily called for a complete withdrawal from the European Convention and the creation of a British Bill of Rights during a Commons debate on the 51-year-old Jordanian.

Mr Clarke said a deal to reform the human rights court had been agreed after a debate amongst the 47 member nations of the Council of Europe in Brighton.

Among the key proposals is a recommendation that the ECHR should reject an application if a national court has already considered a similar one, unless there is a “serious” question about the correct interpretation of the law.

But Sir Nicolas insisted that was already the case.

Acknowledging the court clashed with member states at times over judgments, he added: “It is in the nature of the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law that sometimes minority interests have to be secured against the view of the majority.”

Mr Clarke retorted: “I won't accuse him of complacency but I am a little less relaxed than Sir Nicolas about the progress being made.”

Sir Nicolas told the council it was essential the court remained independent: ”We are, I have to say, uncomfortable with the idea that governments can in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.“

The British Government insists that thereforms are necessary to clear a backlog of 150,000 cases – with 3,000 pending from the UK alone – and to strengthen the convention, by placing more onus on nation states to implement it.

An earlier leaked draft of the declaration drew angry criticisms from human rights organisations who feared it would “neuter” the court. today, despite Government denials that Mr Cameron’s initial proposals had been watered down, experts said some of the most contentious issues had been softened to allow the ECHR more discretion.