Brighton: we never sought seismic change, says Grieve

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The UK government’s Brighton declaration on the future of Europe’s human rights court never set out to achieve ‘seismic’ change, but was more than mere political window-dressing, attorney general Dominic Grieve told the Gazette this morning.

He said that ‘seismic’ change was not required because the court was already showing ‘greater responsiveness’ to the concerns of the UK’s national courts, parliament and public opinion - for example, in its Abu Hamza extradition judgment.

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‘The declaration did not try to re-write how the court works, but to nudge it towards speeding up procedures and away from the excessive micromanaging of cases,’ Grieve said.

He was speaking as the Ministry of Justice announced that ‘historic reforms’ to the European Court of Human Rights had been achieved.

Grieve said that the terms of the declaration had already been agreed before the 47 Council of Europe justice ministers came to Brighton this week and that they had been expected to adopt them without argument. ‘But there was a tense pause when we asked if everyone was happy to sign. It was a bit like a wedding,’ Grieve said.

During the negotiations member states were most divided over ‘subsidiarity’ and the ‘margin of appreciation’, doctrines which respectively allow national courts to apply the convention without reference to Strasbourg and to take into account (within the constraints of the convention) domestic traditions and practices, Grieve said.

He said: ‘Countries were in favour of reinforcing both doctrines, as was the UK, but were divided how to do this and not excessively fetter the court in the process. If we had left it hanging in the air, the declaration would have had no effect. National courts must apply both doctrines properly because, if we are to prevent the backlog of cases continuing to grow, the European Court of Human Rights must be shown not to be a court of fourth instance.’

Grieve said that the conference had been a success. ‘There were 47 European states represented here, along with national human rights institutions and others. There was lots of valuable debate and lots done, although I can’t give [the Gazette] details.’

When questioned about likely calls by Conservative members of parliament for the UK’s withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, Grieve said: ‘It is not government policy to pull out of the convention.’

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