European Court of Human Rights: Efficiency at what Cost?

In its Annual Report for 2012 and related statistics, the European Court of Human Rights announced that the number of pending applications is down. Judges disposed of 68 percent more cases than in 2011, and the caseload dropped by 16 percent—from 151,000 at the beginning of 2012 to 128,100 at the end of the year. This is the first time in the court’s history that the number of pending cases has decreased.

This is good news. Because the court’s caseload has—until now—steadily increased every year, observers have voiced concerns that the “flood of applications lodged in Strasbourg” will “clog the Court to the point of asphyxiation.” In response, member states have devised ways to increase the court’s efficiency, particularly during the Interlaken and Brighton conferences, and implemented protocols to the European Convention of Human Rights. The court’s 2012 Annual Report suggests that the reforms are working—that the court is becoming more efficient.

But a close read of the statistics shows that the court is dismissing cases at a significantly faster rate, but it is not rendering judgments much faster. The 2012 Annual Report states that judgments were rendered in respect of 1,678 applications, which is only an 11 percent increase since 2011. This is certainly a positive development. However, in 2012 over 86,000 cases were declared inadmissible or stuck out of the list of cases by a Single Judge, a Committee or a Chamber, a 70 percent increase since 2011.

The annual report attributes much of this to the Single Judge formation. Since June 2010, judges sitting alone have been able to review the admissibility of applications and reject those that are plainly inadmissible. The report states that Single Judges decided 81,764 cases in 2010, an increase of 74 percent from 2011.

High dismissal rates can positively impact the court. Faster dismissal of inadmissible cases gives applicants a quick answer on whether they have a case. It also clears the way for judges to focus on meritorious cases. Other improvements to the court’s working methods show a similar emphasis. For example, in 2009 the court implemented a priority policy according to which it ranks cases based on importance and identifies “priority applications.” The 2012 Annual Report says that the “number of priority applications giving rise to a judgment increased by 33 percent in 2012 and represented 33 percent of the total number of applications dealt with by judgments in 2011 (compared to 27 percent in 2011).”

Yet, the statistics may also indicate that the court is placing too much emphasis on case dismissal, and not enough on how to decide meritorious cases more efficiently. For example, while the overall backlog of applications pending before a judicial formation decreased by 16 percent, judicial formations responsible for dismissing cases saw a much greater decrease than those rendering judgments. The Single-Judge formation—responsible for quick case dismissal—saw a 35 percent decrease in the number of applications pending before it. The seven-Judge Chamber formation saw a decrease of only 6 percent. Most significantly, the three-Judge Committee formation saw an 84 percent increase in its caseload. The three-Judge Committees were designed to speed up decisions on admissibility, merits and just satisfaction in cases that involve issues covered by “well-established case law” (WECL) of the Court. They may now be overwhelmed.

Additional reform measures developed at the 2012 Brighton conference suggest that member states put too much significance on case dismissal. For example, in the Brighton Declaration, member states included a provision reducing the time for filing applications before the court from six months to four, which is incorporated in Protocol 15. While member states have supported this amendment on the theory that technological developments make it feasible, civil society protested that it will simply reduce the number of admissible cases by establishing a new, harsher threshold, as a result of which otherwise well-founded cases may be excluded.

Now that the court has established more efficient ways to eliminate inadmissible cases, it can focus on refining those mechanisms, and on deciding meritorious cases more quickly. These will be key challenges for the court in 2013.

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