There is no shortage of sensible ideas for reform. As the eminent human rights lawyer Anthony Lester argued in a lecture last month, the priorities are obvious. Every year the number of cases grows; in 2008 an astonishing 50,000 applications were made. So the process of screening them must be streamlined (only about one in 20 is found to be admissible). This should ease the unacceptable backlog and speed up the process of hearings which from some countries can involve extreme human rights abuses. Judges need a guarantee of longer tenure and a proper pension scheme to lend them courage against their national governments (the UK judge Sir Nicolas Bratza is exceptional in his length of service) and a rigorous induction process to raise standards.
As it is, the ossified reform process encourages the court’s critics. Politicians and Whitehall officials who bridle at their own judges scrutinising their actions have even less patience with judges from other jurisdictions. More damagingly, earlier this month the law lord Lord Hoffmann asserted that giving practical effect to the abstract principles enshrined in the European convention on human rights is for national courts, not supra-national ones – all the more wounding from the man who famously declared detention without charge at Belmarsh the “real threat” to the life of the nation. But this is a reprise of the case made against the court from the moment it was first proposed. Even judges dislike being judged.
In fact, the court has played an essential role in protecting and developing human rights in Britain. Even now, when the convention has been incorporated into British law, it continues to have a vital role as the court of last resort. And if it remains important here, it is indispensable for campaigners and minorities in the countries that trigger most cases, such as Russia and Turkey. The court was set up to be “a beacon to the peoples” – and it still has a role to fulfil.