The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is an international human rights treaty that protects the rights of everyone within or affected by the actions of the 46 states, including the UK, that belong to the Council of Europe. The ECHR is not an EU treaty, and the Council of Europe is not an EU body.
This explainer examines the UK’s relationship with the ECHR system – how often the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) finds that the UK has violated human rights and on what issues, and how far the UK complies with those rulings. It compares the UK’s record with other European states.
For more on the European Convention on Human Rights see our ECHR explainer.
How are cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights?
Any person, group of individuals, company or non-government organisation that believes their rights have been violated by a state or states covered by the ECHR can bring a case against them to the ECtHR in Strasbourg. States can also bring cases against other states, but rarely do.
The vast majority of applications to the Court by individuals and organisations – around 90% – are found inadmissible. This means that they are rejected without the merits of the case being formally considered because they fail to meet one or more of the admissibility criteria in the ECHR, as interpreted by the ECtHR; for example, because the applicant has failed to take their case as far as they can through the domestic courts of the state concerned, or because they have not suffered a ‘serious disadvantage’.
Most applications that are found admissible will eventually lead to a judgment of the Court. In its judgments, the Court may find that one or more ECHR rights have been violated by the state, or it may find in favour of the state if it considers that no violation has occurred. The applicant(s) and the state may also reach a friendly settlement, as encouraged by the ECtHR, at any point in the proceedings.
What happens if a state is found to be in violation of the ECHR?
Where the ECtHR finds a violation of at least one ECHR right, the state has an obligation under the ECHR to remedy the problem(s). This may involve taking ‘individual measures’, such as releasing someone who has been unlawfully detained or paying damages. A judgment may also require the state to take ‘general measures’ to remedy a problem in the law or in a widespread state practice that is ongoing or may reoccur, such as inhuman or degrading prison conditions affecting thousands of people.
The Committee of Ministers tracks what states do (or fail to do) after the finding of a violation, to ensure that the necessary measures are taken and that the violation cannot be repeated. The Committee of Ministers is the intergovernmental arm of the Council of Europe, formally made up of the foreign ministers of the 46 states. James Cleverly MP, as Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, represents the UK.
“In 2022, the Court issued two judgments finding the UK in violation of an ECHR right – the 13th joint lowest of the 47 states”
States often have wide discretion as to what action to take to remedy a violation of the ECHR. They must submit action plans to the Committee of Ministers and keep it updated as to progress. The Committee of Ministers will close the case when it is satisfied that sufficient steps have been taken. It also ensures that states implement the terms of friendly settlements.
How often has the European Court of Human Rights found the UK to have violated the ECHR?
The first judgment finding a violation of an ECHR right against the UK was in 1975. From this time until the end of 2022, the ECtHR issued 329 judgments finding at least one violation of an ECHR right against the UK and 146 judgments finding no violation.
As noted above, the number of judgments issued by the ECtHR is far smaller than the number of applications it receives, since the majority of applications against all states are found inadmissible. As a snapshot, in 2022, the ECtHR allocated 240 UK applications to judges of the ECtHR but issued only four judgments – two of which found a violation of at least one ECHR right and two of which found no violation.
There has been a downward trend in the annual number of ECtHR judgments finding violations against the UK since the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 came into force in October 2000.
There were 245 judgments finding at least one violation against the UK since 2001. The average number in the first half of the period (2001-2011) was almost 18, while the average for the second half (2012-2022) was fewer than five. In 2022, just two ECtHR judgments found a violation against the UK. In addition, the number of applications against the UK in 2022 was the lowest per capita of all European states.
Experts identify this downward trend as the ‘Human Rights Act effect’. This effect had a time lag of several years as cases relating to older violations (or alleged violations) worked their way through the domestic and Strasbourg courts.
The HRA incorporates ECHR rights into UK law. It was introduced as a way to ‘bring rights home’, and enable people to protect their rights in domestic courts, rather than face the time and financial costs of bringing a case to Strasbourg.
“No current member of the Council of Europe has given powers to ignore or disregard judgments or orders of the ECtHR.”
The reduction in the number of ECtHR judgments against the UK in the past decade could reflect the impact of the HRA in three ways. First, the HRA creates a legal obligation for all public bodies – including the police, hospitals, care homes and local councils – to protect rights in all their decisions and actions, meaning that people’s rights are less likely to be breached in the first place.
Secondly, as a result of the HRA, UK courts are the first port of call for any human rights claimant, and UK judges consider human rights more explicitly and intensively than they could before. This means that fewer cases are likely to find their way to Strasbourg, because claimants will have been able to obtain justice through UK courts, like those who used the HRA to uncover the truth about the Hillsborough disaster.
Thirdly, when a case does reach Strasbourg, the ECtHR is more likely to follow the reasoning and conclusions of UK courts and the decisions of public authorities where they are informed by human rights considerations, as the HRA requires.
How does the number of violations found against the UK compare with other countries?
Compared to other states, the number of ECtHR judgments finding violations of ECHR rights against the UK is relatively low. As noted above, the ECtHR has in total issued 329 judgments finding at least one violation of an ECHR right against the UK. This represents 1.5% of the Court’s 21,784 judgments which have found at least one violation against any state since its inception in 1959.
In 2022, the Court issued two judgments finding the UK in violation of an ECHR right – the 13th joint lowest of the 47 states (before Russia’s expulsion), alongside Austria, Estonia and San Marino.
Eighteen EU states had higher totals in 2022 than the UK: Romania (72), Hungary (35), Poland (30), Croatia (26), Bulgaria (25), Italy (25), Greece (21), France (19), Belgium (13), Slovakia (12), Malta (11), Lithuania (9), Spain (9), Portugal (7), Czechia (6), Latvia (5), Slovenia (4) and Cyprus (3).
How does the number of interim measures issued in UK cases compare with other countries?
Interim measures are urgent orders issued by the ECtHR on an exceptional basis, where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm.
Interim measures are typically requested by applicants where they face a risk to their life or a risk that they may suffer torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. They are generally indicated in the context of detention, immigration or expulsion, but may also arise in other contexts such as severe threats to judicial independence and challenges by families to decisions to withdraw life support from loved ones. An interim measure secured the evacuation of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Germany in 2020 after he had been poisoned with a nerve agent.
“There has been a downward trend in the annual number of ECtHR judgments finding violations against the UK since the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998”
An interim measure issued in June 2022 prevented the removal of an applicant to Rwanda as part of the UK-Rwanda asylum agreement until the legality of the scheme has been finally established. The interim measure later ceased to have effect because the High Court quashed the decision by the Home Secretary to remove the applicant to Rwanda due to inadequate reasoning and failure to consider the individual evidence put forward. Shortly after the Rwanda interim measure was issued, the ECtHR issued another in cases lodged by two British prisoners of war who had fought with the Ukrainian armed forces and were seeking to escape a Russian death sentence in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.
As there is a high bar for applicants to prove the necessity of the urgent injunction, requests are often refused by the Court and they do not prejudge the outcome of the case in question.
Combining figures for 2017-19 and 2020-22, the Court received 597 requests for interim measures in UK cases, of which it granted 14, i.e. it issued urgent orders in response to around 5% of requests, an average of just over two per year. This was the 14th highest total in the Council of Europe for this period.
Several states had much higher totals than the UK: 753 interim measures were issued against Belgium, 246 against Greece, 241 against Russia, 142 against Poland and 86 against France. The majority of these were due to systemic problems with the treatment of asylum seekers facing life-threatening and / or inhuman conditions living rough or in inadequate reception facilities or being pushed back across the Poland-Belarus border.
What kinds of issues have arisen in ECtHR judgments against the UK?
The first judgment to find a violation against the UK was in 1975 and concerned a prisoner’s right to access a lawyer as part of the right to a fair trial
ECHR judgments have since led to numerous changes in law and policy in the UK. These include the abolition of corporal punishment in state schools; establishing children’s right to claim damages from local authorities when they have been abused as a result of the authorities’ negligence; the exemption of victims of severe domestic violence from cuts to housing benefits; strengthening protection for religious freedom in the workplace; and the lifting of the ban on gay people in the military; and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
UK cases which are currently being monitored by the Committee of Ministers concern the failure to protect two children from criminal prosecution despite a credible suspicion they were trafficking victims; breaches of privacy arising from the indefinite retention of biometric data of people convicted of minor offences; and shortcomings in the UK’s secret mass surveillance regime.
In addition, the Committee of Ministers continues to monitor a group of UK cases concerning ineffective investigations into suspicious deaths of individuals during the conflict in Northern Ireland, either during security force operations or with the suspected collusion of security force personnel.
How does the UK compare with other countries in or implementing ECHR rulings?
The UK has a relatively strong record of implementing judgments of the ECtHR – currently the 8th best in the Council of Europe. At the end of 2022, there were 14 cases pending before the Committee of Ministers (i.e. 14 cases that had not yet been fully implemented), representing around 0.2% of all pending cases.
Some 97% of the 470 judgments and decisions (including friendly settlements) issued by the Court against the UK since the first in 1975 have been fully implemented, meaning that the cases have been closed by the Committee of Ministers. The most significant ongoing exception to this record is the group of cases referred to above concerning the failure to investigate suspicious deaths during the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The UK also has the 8th best record in the Council of Europe in resolving ‘leading‘ cases (95%). This is an important measure because leading cases are often those that reveal structural or systemic problems which require the adoption of general measures, such as legislative reform, to prevent similar violations in the future.
Have any states given governments the power to disregard ECHR rulings or interim measures?
No. No current member of the Council of Europe has given powers to ignore or disregard judgments or orders of the ECtHR. The closest exception was Russia, when in 2016 the Russian Parliament gave direction that under certain circumstances the Russian Constitutional Court could set aside rulings of the ECtHR or other international courts. Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe in 2022 following its invasion of Ukraine.
Under international law, states cannot invoke domestic law to avoid their international obligations. Even if a power was given to disregard judgments or interim measures in national law, this would not prevent the international legal obligation from still standing.
By Dr Joelle Grogan, Senior Researcher, UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Alice Donald, Associate Professor of Human Rights Law, Middlesex University.