(Mar. 30, 2010) Reform of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was the forefront issue of a conference held in Interlaken, Switzerland, on February 10, 2010, by ministers from 27 members of the Council of Europe (COE), under the chairmanship of the Swiss government. For the last ten years, the ECHR has encountered an increasingly large number of cases that have had an adverse impact on its functions as the final arbiter of human rights issues for the 47-member COE. In January 2010, that number was estimated to be about 120,000 cases. Two reasons have been identified as contributing to this effect: more than 90% of all new cases before the ECHR are inadmissible and thousands of well-founded but repetitive applications are filed mainly on the grounds that domestic court proceedings are too lengthy.
At the end of the conference, the participants adopted a Declaration and an Action Plan in which they undertook a number of commitments to ensure that the ECHR will be able to operate more effectively in the long term. (High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights, Interlaken Declaration, Feb. 19, 2010, available at http://www.eda.admin.ch/etc/medialib/downloads/edazen/topics/europa/
euroc.Par.0133.File.tmp/final_en.pdf.) The Interlaken Declaration posits severalconclusions and recognizes the need to take further action to:
- address the issue of reducing the number of clearly inadmissible cases, by filtering such applications and dealing with repetitive applications;
- maintain the independence of the judiciary and the impartiality of the court;
- ensure the full, effective, and prompt implementation of the court's final judgments by the domestic authorities;
- improve the system of supervising implementation of the judgments; and
- simplify the procedure for amending provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights. (Id.)
The Action Plan reaffirmed the significance of the right to individual petition, which, it stated, must be safeguarded and guaranteed. At the same time, it invited the Committee of Ministers to examine measures to enable the ECHR to deal with well-founded cases promptly and efficiently. In regard to the lack of adequate implementation of the ECHR's judgments by domestic authorities, the Action Plan urged the COE members to ensure implementation of those judgments and also to examine the possibility of introducing new legal remedies, either specific or general, based on the view that any person who has a strong case ought to have an effective remedy at the national level. As for repetitive applications, the Action Plan called on the Member States to facilitate the adoption of friendly settlements and unilateral declarations. (Id.)
Reform of the ECHR had actually begun in 2001, through the adoption of Protocol No. 14 to the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The objective of the Protocol, which will enter into force on June 1, 2010, was to introduce some changes in the COE human rights system in order to assist the ECHR to deal with the large backlog of cases. Protocol No. 14 provides for the formation of single-judge courts, committees of three judges, chambers of seven judges, and a Grand Chamber of 17 judges. A single judge can decide on the admissibility of a case or strike it from the list of new cases. The judge's decision is final. If the case is declared admissible, then the judge must forward the file to a three-member committee of judges.
Protocol No. 14 also introduced an additional criterion which states that the court shall declare inadmissible any individual application, if it considers that:
the applicant has not suffered a significant disadvantage, unless respect for human rights as defined in the Convention and the Protocols thereto requires an examination of the application on the merits and provided that no case may be rejected on this ground which has not been duly considered by a domestic tribunal. (Id.)
The entry into force of Protocol No. 14 required ratification by all COE members. The Russian Federation, the last member to ratify the Protocol, did so on January 15, 2010. The delay by Russia compelled the other COE members to agree, on May 12, 2009, to provisionally apply some of the amendments — those related to the single judge and the powers of the three-judge committees. (Council of Europe, Media Fact Sheet: Protocol No. 14 and the ECHR, Jan. 10, 2010, available at http://www.eda.admin.ch/etc/medialib/downloads/edazen/topics/europa/euro