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UK Politics

European court must meddle less, says David Cameron


Prime Minister David Cameron launched a drive to reform the European Court of Human Rights today, insisting it should meddle less in British affairs.

Mr Cameron warned that the court's work defending human freedom and dignity was being put "under threat" due to public unease over some of its decisions.

Speaking to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the Prime Minister called for reforms to ensure that the court does not become bogged down by trivial cases or interfere in decisions which are rightly a matter for national governments.

Mr Cameron's initiative comes amid anger in the UK over rulings which blocked the deportation of extremist cleric Abu Qatada and required the extension of voting rights to prison inmates.

While stressing the UK's commitment to upholding human rights, he warned that the court risked undermining its own reputation by "going over national decisions where it does not need to".

Mr Cameron acknowledged that some British criticism of the court's application of the European Convention on Human Rights was based on "misinterpretation".

But he insisted that there was "credible democratic anxiety" that insufficient account is being taken of the decisions of national parliaments on issues such as prisoners' votes.

"I believe where an issue like this has been subjected to proper, reasoned democratic debate and has also met with detailed scrutiny by national courts in line with the convention, the decision made at a national level should be treated with respect," he told an audience of representatives of the 47-nation Council of Europe.

When the UK was unable to deport terror suspects despite painstaking efforts that they will not face torture on return to their homelands, it was "not surprising that some people start asking questions about whether the current arrangements are really sensible".

Controversial rulings have "a corrosive effect on people's support for human rights" and provoke anxiety that the concept itself is being "distorted", warned Mr Cameron.

"For too many people, the very concept of rights is in danger of slipping from something noble to something discredited - and that should be of deep concern to us all," he said.

"Upholding and promoting human rights is not something governments and courts can do alone. It is something we need all our societies to be engaged with.

"And when controversial rulings overshadow the good and patient long-term work that has been done, that not only fails to do justice to the work of the court, it has a corrosive effect on people's support for human rights."

Mr Cameron raised concerns over the growing backlog of more than 160,000 cases awaiting consideration at the Strasbourg court.

Just 45,000 cases were presented to the court in its first 40 years, but in 2010 alone it was asked to consider 61,300 applications.

This was leading to delays stretching into years, with tens of thousands of people having their lives put "on hold", said Mr Cameron.

He warned of the danger that the court simply giving litigants "an extra bite of the cherry" after they have lost their cases in domestic courts.

And he cautioned that judges at Strasbourg must be careful not to see themselves as an "immigration tribunal" over-riding the decisions of national authorities.

With Britain taking the six-month presidency of the Council of Europe, Mr Cameron said there was a "once-in-a-generation chance" to reform the court so it remains "true to its original purpose" of upholding human rights, freedom and dignity.

New rules would allow the court to "focus more efficiently and transparently on the most important cases", he said.

He called for improvements to the national selection procedures for nominating judges to ensure "consistently strong shortlists".

And he said he was hoping to achieve consensus on proposals, to be published shortly, to strengthen the principle of "subsidiarity" which states that, where possible, final decisions should be taken at a national level.

"It is, of course, correct that the court should hold governments to account when they fail to protect human rights," said Mr Cameron.

"In these instances it is right for the court to intervene.

"But what we are all striving for is that national governments should take primary responsibility for safeguarding their citizens' rights - and do it well."

He added: "For that reason, we will shortly set out our proposals for pushing responsibility to the national system.

"That way we can free up the court to concentrate on the worst, most flagrant human rights violations - and to challenge national courts when they clearly haven't followed the convention."