Europe’s most senior judge has warned that the UK risks endangering human rights by barring prisoners from voting, and has hit back at criticism over the role that Strasbourg has played in slowing high profile deportation cases.
Nicholas Bratza, a former High Court judge and outgoing president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), told The Guardian that the UK’s refusal to extend voting rights to prisoners, in defiance of repeated European rulings, risked weakening the strength of the convention on human rights that theoretically binds EU member states.
‘For a country as important as the UK to be seen not to be implementing the judgment has had an impact.
‘It’s not led to any greater determination of other states to be defiant, but it’s seen as damaging that a country as important as the UK has not complied with a court judgment.’
The European judge also responded to criticism by the Home Secretary and Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, over where responsibility should lie for the lengthy nature of many UK extradition cases.
Last month, Lord Judge claimed that legal holdups were ‘a source of real fury’ and implied that blame for the delays in radical cleric Abu Hamza’s case should lie with the Strasbourg court.
But Bratza has hit back strongly, arguing that these were complex cases involving ‘great co-operation’ between courts in London and Strasbourg. Instead of voicing displeasure at the length of proceedings, the UK in fact asked the ECHR for a ‘considerable extension of time to submit information’, the judge said.
The ECHR has a considerable backlog of cases to deal with. At one stage, the number had reached 161,000, although Bratza now says the figure has been reduced to 138,000.
The court had requested financial assistance from its member states in order to accelerate the processing of pending cases, a request which has not resulted in assistance from the UK government.
UK bill of rights risks ‘incoherence’
Bratza questioned why the coalition had launched a bill of rights commission to review the UK’s obligations under the European convention on human rights.
‘New definitions and new provisions have slightly changed the rights that are already covered by the convention,’ said Bratza.
‘There’s a risk of incoherence creeping in – particularly if it’s going to stand side by side with the convention, which will still bind the UK nationally.’
He also warned that Britain’s difficult economic climate could contribute to diminished support for the protection of human rights.
‘There’s a risk always with an economic crisis that a society closes in on itself and becomes less open to the idea of human rights. Human rights are not a luxury, they should be fundamental.’
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