Justice Secretary warning over ECHR judgments

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has been "rather too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national courts", the Justice Secretary said today.

Kenneth Clarke said the ECHR was failing to give enough weight to the domestic legal system and was not allowing for "genuine differences of national approach".

The Strasbourg-based court has been widely criticised in the UK for assuming a legislative function beyond its powers.

Speaking ahead of a Council of Europe conference on the ECHR's future, Mr Clarke said: "The UK has always been a strong supporter of the European Court of Human Rights.

"But, at times, the court has been rather too ready to substitute its own judgment for that of national courts, without giving enough weight to the strength of the domestic legal system or allowing for genuine differences of national approach."

Last month the Government announced that the case for a British Bill of Rights will be considered by experts advising ministers on ways to reform the ECHR.

It came after the Government lost a legal challenge to the ECHR ruling that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners voting was unlawful.

In a Commons vote in February, MPs voted by 234 to 22, a majority of 212, in favour of the motion tabled by senior Conservative David Davis and Labour former justice secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Clarke said: "In the UK we believe that the principles of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are fundamental to democracy.

"A country in which the government never loses a court case is not one in which most of us would wish to live.

"However, we also believe that courts exist to serve the democracies over which they have jurisdiction."

The Justice Secretary added that there was an "urgent need" to improve the court's efficiency and for European states to send the "best possible judges" to serve on the ECHR.

Last week, Lord Carlile, the former reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, said a narrow interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights by the ECHR has had a "chilling effect" on public safety.

In the same report, Tory MP Dominic Raab said unelected and inexperienced European judges risk triggering a constitutional crisis by attacking the will of the UK's politicians.

Mr Raab said the ECHR judges were assuming a legislative function that was beyond their agreed powers.

"This judicial coup represents a naked usurpation by a judicial body of the legislative power that properly belongs to democratically-elected law makers," the MP for Esher and Walton said.

The poor quality of the judges was also "undermining the credibility and value of the court", he added.