European court could succumb to deluge of cases
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has a backlog of nearly 120,000 cases. Stricter selection of lawsuits should bring relief.
There is no doubt about the seriousness of the situation in Strasbourg. Jean-Paul Costa, president of the European Court of Human Rights, has referred to it as extremely disturbing. The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, which is responsible for the institution, has said the court threatens to suffocate.
A count late last year showed 'Strasbourg' has a backlog of over 119,300
cases, all complaints from European citizens who feel their human rights
have been in some way violated. They did not get their way in their home
countries and decided to plead their case at a higher level. Strasbourg is
their last resort.
The court is keen to boast the unique right it offers individuals to file complaints against the state, but this system is under huge pressure. Particularly plaintiffs from Eastern European countries, which became signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after the fall of the Berlin wall, have found their way to Strasbourg. For decades now, the court gets more complaints each year than it can process. The result: an extreme workload and excessively long procedures.
Last week, representatives of the 47 countries that signed the ECHR came together in Interlaken, Switzerland. They adopted an 'action plan' to reform the overburdened court. In the short run, the plan should lead to a more efficient handling of the many complaints that will surely be deemed inadmissible in the long run. This should allow the court to focus on what it was really intended for.
A new 'filter' system has to be developed to prevent the court from being overwhelmed by cases that are irrelevant to the further development of law in Europe. Those might soon be dealt with by a lower court under the supervision of the ECHR.
In recent years, over 90 percent of all complaints has been declared inadmissible. Most often, this is because the prescribed procedures were not followed. And the court has some querulous complainers who have filed numerous of cases without merit.
Fewer than ten percent of the cases are substantially reviewed by the court. And half of those cases are so-called 'clone cases', issues pretty much identical to others the court has already ruled on.
Only four percent of the remaining complaints deal with new violations. This category can be divided into incidental and structural matters. Annually, only 40 to 50 cases fall in the last category - the one the court was really set up for. The Interlaken agreement should make sure the court can focus on these fundamental questions of law.
But while the court needs to focus, its member countries need to improve the way they impose ECHR rulings. The ongoing flow of complaints about inhumane treatment in Polish prisons, long trials in Italy, unfair judicial procedures in Russia and oppression in Turkey shows that not all countries take the treaty seriously enough.
The court relies mainly on 'soft power'. It can impose fines, but only of amounts up to a few thousand euros. A solid plan for imposing extra large penalties on notorious violators was not accepted last week in Switzerland. Certain countries were against it.