Call for withdrawal from EU human rights court

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The Government should consider withdrawing Britain from the European Court of Human Rights unless it can significantly reform within two years, an influential think tank said today.

The centre-right Policy Exchange called for the UK to open negotiations over the efficiency of the Strasbourg court and the "judicial competence" of its judges.

Failure to achieve substantial progress within two years should lead Britain to pull out and allow the Supreme Court to adjudicate on human rights cases, it said.

The call, in a report published today, comes as the Government is wrestling with a ruling from the Strasbourg court that prisoners must be granted the vote.

The highly controversial issue will come to a head in the House of Commons on Thursday when MPs will debate and vote on the issue.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that giving prisoners the vote makes him feel "physically ill" but the Government must act or it will face compensation claims from inmates adding up to more than £100 million.

The Policy Exchange's recommendations are endorsed by former law lord Lord Hoffmann, who wrote in the foreword to the report that seeking to repatriate human rights law was "worth a try".

"International institutions which are set up by everyone become in practice answerable to no one, and courts have an age-old tendency to try to enlarge their jurisdictions," he said.

"And so the Strasbourg court had taken upon itself an extraordinary power to micromanage the legal systems of the member states of the Council of Europe (or at any rate those which pay attention to its decisions) culminating, for the moment, in its decision that the UK is not entitled to have a law that convicted prisoners lose, among other freedoms, the right to vote."

The Policy Exchange report, written by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, recommended that the UK should open negotiations with the Council of Europe to make "substantial reforms to the way that the court is run and its caseload managed".

"Such reforms would include new procedures to assure the judicial competence of new judges and the greater efficiency of the court," he said.

"The negotiations would seek to find agreed ways to ensure that the judges at Strasbourg give greater discretion to the domestic judges of each member state."

Dr Pinto-Duschinsky said the negotiations should be limited to no more than two years.

"If such negotiations are unsuccessful, the UK should consider withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and establishing the Supreme Court in London as the final appellate court for human rights law.

"In that case, the UK would continue to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic law.

Contrary to what has been stated by some opponents of such a reform, it is our conclusion that there is strong evidence to suggest that the UK's membership of the European Union and of the Council of Europe does not require continued adherence to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights should the UK opt for such a withdrawal."

Former Labour Europe minister Denis MacShane said: "The current row over prisoners' voting rights has been in the pipeline for some years and can be settled easily by adopting the French method of adding a loss of civic rights to sentences for serious crimes.

"But Britain's treaty obligations mean full membership of the Council of Europe and full participation in the ECHR. It is quite wrong to claim that the UK can pick and choose which bits of the treaty it wants to abide by.

"Policy Exchange are peddling a false line that the UK can simply not abide by ECHR rulings but stay part of the treaty arrangements.

"This has nothing to do with the European Union. If the UK quit the Council of Europe, it would shame Britain around the world. It will still leave Britain open to the EU Charter of Human Rights and rulings by the European Court of Justice."