Page last updated at 20:36 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Mammoth backlog prompts European rights court reforms

Archive photo of the European Court of Human Rights
Judgements at the court take an average of six years or more

The Council of Europe has announced plans to streamline procedures at the European Court of Human Rights to help deal with a backlog of 120,000 cases.

Ministers from the Council's 47 member states agreed the measures at a meeting in the Swiss city of Interlaken.

They provide for one judge to decide on a case's admissibility, and for cases similar to those previously brought to be heard by a panel of three judges.

Russia, the origin of 27,000 pending cases, initially resisted the reforms.

All members of the Council of Europe have had to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into their national laws, accepting that the court's rulings are final and must be obeyed.

'Urgently required'

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says that the European Court of Human Rights has in a way been a victim of its own success.

It was created originally as a court of last resort for Europeans who felt their fundamental rights had been infringed at home.

The Strasbourg-based court has ruled on a variety of cases, from the right of homosexuals to serve in the British army, to crucifixes in Italian classrooms.

Archive photo of relatives of victims of a massacre in Chechnya over which the European Court of Human Rights found Russia repsonsible
There are many cases at the court relating to Chechnya

But it now has a backlog of some 120,000 cases - if it continues to work at its present pace, it would take 46 years to clear them, our correspondent says.

At the end of the two-day conference in Interlaken, ministers agreed that "additional measures are indispensible and urgently required".

Under Protocol 14, one judge rather than three will decide on a case's admissibility, and cases which are similar to ones previously brought will be decided by a three-judge panel, rather than the original seven-member chamber.

Judges will be able to strike off the record cases with similarities to those already decided, as well as cases where an applicant has suffered no "significant disadvantage".

The Protocol will also allow the Committee of Ministers, which is charged with supervising the enforcement of judgments, to work more effectively with national governments to ensure compliance.

Our correspondent says one sticking point was Russia, most of whose cases relate to alleged abuses by the country's security forces in Chechnya - including extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances - or to conditions in prisons.

Moscow was at first unwilling to agree to measures that would bring these cases before the court more quickly.

It only agreed at the last minute when a provision was included to allow a Russian judge to participate in any decisions concerning the country, she adds.

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