Human rights court takes holiday with huge backlog

Robert Verkaik
Sunday 27 June 1999 23:02

THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights (EHCR) is about to embark on a seven-week holiday, leaving a backlog of some 60,000 cases awaiting consideration.

British lawyers claim the court is at risk of breaching its own convention with the average wait for cases to go before judges now topping five years. Under Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights, undue and lengthy delays in legal proceedings are a breach of human rights.

"It is unacceptable to make people wait for five years for a judgement." said a spokesman for Stonewall, a Gay rights organisation which has a number of cases before the court.

The organisation Advice and Individual Rights in Europe (Aire) has 45 cases pending before the court. "Justice delayed is justice denied," Aire director Nula Mole said. "Unless governments (of countries which have ratified the convention) can find more money for the court it will get worse." Many thousands of applications are being made by people in former Soviet block countries which became signatories to the convention in the late 90s. she said.

Britain has the fifth highest number of provisional applications before the court. There are 4,457 British cases alleging breaches of human rights awaiting consideration. Another 706 registered applications have already been accepted and are awaiting a hearing date.

Italy heads the table, though, with 8,273 pending cases followed by France with 7,767 and Poland with 5,816.

The backlog of five years applies to all countries. However the court has just seven lawyers to deal with the UK cases. It is understood they are not just overstretched but in danger of being swamped by the outstanding case load.

Sadiq Khan, a London lawyer with law firm Christian Fisher said he has several cases which have taken five years to reach a determination by the court. "I have one case when the petition was lodged last year and we still haven't heard anything."

All these cases involve people, sometimes in desperate circumstances, who have already spent many years exhausting their domestic remedies in the UK courts.

While the EHCR can give priority to cases in which life is at risk, those cases involving the loss of a home or job must remain in the queue.

Last year the court introduced a new system to accommodate the backlog. A permanent court was established, replacing the original two-tier system. But last week the court president Luzius Wildhader admitted the problem was still daunting.

In the first five and a half months of this year the restructured court in has opened 10,217 provisional case files - already two-thirds of last year's total of 16,353. Mr Wildhader appealed for a "firm political commitment" by governments of member states to ensure the convention was "respected at national level" to ease the pressure on the court.

Wait For Judgment

ROBBIE POWELL died in a Swansea hospital nine years ago, aged 10, suffering from Addison's disease, which is rare but treatable. His parents, Diane and Will (right), took legal action, believing doctors had covered up their failure to identify his condition in time.

In 1997, the Appeal Court ruled doctors had no legal duty to tell the truth to the family of a child who dies under their care. Mr Powell has been diagnosed with post-traumatic shock, which he says is caused by refusal to tell the truth, leaving him unable to work. In October he wrote to the ECHR claiming a breach of his human rights. Even if the case is accepted, the Powells may have to wait five more years for judgment. Mr Powell says: "Half a million pounds has been spent on the legal battle and we still don't know the truth. I suppose I will just have to be patient."

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