The Government has warned that it may defy the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners in UK jails should be allowed to vote in general elections.
The Foreign Office has tabled sweeping proposals to reform the Court in order to "address growing public and political concern". If changes are not agreed with the other 46 signatories to the Euro-pean Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Britain could ignore the ruling that prisoners should be enfranchised.
However, such a move could cause tensions inside the Coalition, already high over David Cameron's decision to veto a European Union treaty aimed at rescuing the euro. The Liberal Democrats have resisted Tory calls for a UK Bill of Rights and Nick Clegg said in September that the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the convention in UK law, "is here to stay".
Although the European Court is not an EU institution, defying its rulings could antagonise some of Britain's EU partners, who remain angry with Mr Cameron for wielding the veto at this month's Brussels summit.
Ministers hope to win big changes to the way the Court operates during Britain's six-month spell in the rotating chairmanship of the 47-strong Council of Europe, which lasts until May. A leaked document, setting out reform plans agreed jointly by the UK and Swiss governments, says: "Urgent action is needed in order to avoid further damage to the reputation and effectiveness of the convention system."
It accuses the Court of interfering with issues "that do not need to be dealt with at the European level" and says it must "address growing public and political concern" about the way it functions.
Pointing to a backlog of 160,000 cases, the report says many of them are "hopeless" and that the court is used as a last resort by those whose cases have been rejected – rightly – in their own country.