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Council of Europe chairmanship to focus on human rights court reforms, UK says

The UK will attempt to make reforms to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) during its chairmanship of the Council of Europe (CoE), the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has said.09 Nov 2011

The UK will also try to get CoE members to focus on "strengthening implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights" in the hope that a 155,000 backlog in cases at the ECHR can be reduced. The UK took over chairmanship of the CoE for six months on Monday.

"As a founder member of the Council and the first country to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK chairmanship will focus on promoting and protecting human rights," the MOJ said in a statement.

The CoE is made up of 47 member countries and is Europe's human rights watchdog. The CoE is separate from the European Union (EU) and creates and recommends collaborative legal measures on human rights issues. It is the body behind the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) and the ECHR.

The Convention sets out individuals' fundamental rights and states the rules by which the ECHR must function. The ECHR applies the Convention and is tasked with ensuring CoE states respect the rights and guarantees set out in it. Under the Convention and the Statute of the Council of Europe all CoE member countries must adhere to ECHR rulings.

The UK said it will "seek consensus" on reducing the number of backlog cases the ECHR faces.

"The Court is an essential part of the system for protecting human rights across Europe. But it is struggling with its huge, growing backlog of applications – now 155,000. This is undermining the Court’s efficiency and authority," the chairmanship priorities statement said.

"Reform is more urgent than ever before: we cannot wait any longer before taking concrete and effective action. The UK will give this issue the highest political importance," it said.

Attempts will be made to strengthen the implementation of the Convention rules by CoE members, and give courts in countries which are "fulfilling their obligations under the Convention" more rights to determine the outcome of more cases, according to an outline of the UK's chairmanship priorities published on the CoE website.

The UK will also try to obtain consensus on "a set of efficiency measures" it hopes "will enable the Court to focus quickly, efficiently and transparently on the most important cases that require its attention" and on agreeing better "procedures for nominating suitably qualified judges to the Court, and ensuring that the Court's case law is clear and consistent".

The UK said it wants to ensure "effective and enduring solutions" are found to the backlog problem.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is the UK's chief legal adviser, and the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights have both previously backed reforms of the ECHR system. The Commission was set up earlier this year to independently advise the Government on the creation of a UK Bill of Rights "that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties," according to the Commission's website.

In a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in September Sir Leigh Lewis, chairman of the Commission, said that the ECHR should only be a "court of last resort" and added it was "essential" that the ECHR only deal with cases involving "serious questions affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention, and serious issues of general importance, where the Court’s intervention is justified".

Sir Leigh called on the Government to "vigorously pursue" fundamental reforms that would limit the number of cases the ECHR has to deal with and provide penalties for countries that do not implement measures that enable this to happen.

During its CoE chairmanship the UK will prioritise "internet governance, including freedom of expression on the internet," the MOJ said. Freedom of expression is a right guaranteed to individuals under the Convention.

New laws around defamation are currently under consideration in the UK and could affect free speech on the internet. In March the MOJ published a draft Defamation Bill, proposing that statements must cause, or be likely to cause, substantial harm in order for them to be deemed defamatory.

The Bill includes "a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest; a statutory defence of truth (replacing the current common law defence of justification); [and] a statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment)," the MOJ said in a statement at the time.

Last month a joint Parliamentary committee proposed changes to the draft Bill and said web hosts and internet service providers should be allowed to keep allegedly defamatory comments online as long as the author of the comment is identified and a notice of complaint is published alongside the comment.

Under the proposal it would be up to a judge to decide if the comments should be taken down. Anonymous comments would be taken down immediately unless the author identifies himself or herself, in which case the complaint notice would be published and a judge would decide on the fate of the comment.

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