Seat: Strasbourg, France Instrument: European Convention on Human Rights Operating Since: 1959
Part of the: European Human Rights System
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is a regional human rights judicial body based in Strasbourg, France, created under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The Court began operating in 1959 and has delivered more than 10,000 judgments regarding alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 1998, the European human rights system was reformed to eliminate the European Commission of Human Rights, which previously decided the admissibility of complaints, oversaw friendly settlements, and referred some cases to the Court – in a manner similar to the current Inter-American System. Now, individual victims may submit their complaints directly to the European Court of Human Rights.
The European Court, or “Strasbourg Court” as it is often called, serves a complementary role to that of the European Committee of Social Rights, which oversees European States’ respect for social and economic rights.
The Court has jurisdiction to decide complaints (“applications”) submitted by individuals and States concerning violations of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly referred to as the “European Convention on Human Rights“), which principally concerns civil and political rights. It cannot take up a case on its own initiative. Notably, the person, group or non-governmental organization submitting the complaint (“the applicant”) does not have to be a citizen of a State party.
However, complaints submitted to the Court must concern violations of the Convention allegedly committed by a State party to the Convention and that directly and significantly affected the applicant. As of November 2018, there are 47 State parties to the Convention; these include the Member States of the Council of Europe and of the European Union. Some of these States have also ratified one or more of the Additional Protocols to the Convention, which protect additional rights.
As of August 1, 2018, the Court also has advisory jurisdiction. Under Protocol 16 to the European Convention, which entered into force on August 1, the highest domestic courts in the States that are a party to the Protocol may request European Court advisory opinions on questions of interpretation of the European Convention and its protocols. The questions must arise out of cases pending before the domestic court. [IJRC]
In order to resolve many cases simultaneously, the ECtHR is organized into five sections, or administrative entities, which each have a judicial chamber. Each section has a President, Vice President, and a number of judges. The Court’s 47 judges are selected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from a list of applicants proposed by the Member States. To read more about the judges and their election process, see our ECtHR Composition & Election guide.
Within the Court, the judges work in four different kinds of groups, or “judicial formations.” Applications received by the Court will be allocated to one of these formations:
1. Single Judge: only rules on the admissibility of applications that are clearly inadmissible based on the material submitted by the applicant.
2. Committee: composed of 3 judges, committees rule on the admissibility of cases as well as the merits when the case concerns an issue covered by well-developed case law (the decision must be unanimous).
3. Chamber: composed of 7 judges, chambers primarily rule on admissibility and merits for cases that raise issues that have not been ruled on repeatedly (a decision may be made by a majority). Each chamber includes the Section President and the “national judge” (the judge with the nationality of the State against which the application is lodged).
4. Grand Chamber: composed of 17 judges, the Grand Chamber hears a small, select number of cases that have been either referred to it (on appeal from a Chamber decision) or relinquished by a Chamber, usually when the case involves an important or novel question. Applications never go directly to the Grand Chamber. The Grand Chamber always includes the President and Vice-President of the Court, the five Section presidents, and the national judge.
Submitting an Application
Applications to the European Court of Human Rights must comply with the requirements described in Article 47 of the Rules of Court. Applicants should be aware that the Court periodically modifies its rules and procedures; in 2014, it began applying stricter requirements for individual applications.
To submit an application, applicants should use the application form, which is available online and must be filled out in its entirety. Copies of all relevant documents must be included along with the application, which must be submitted by postal mail.
A substantial majority of the applications submitted to the Court are struck from the list or declared inadmissible because they fail to meet one or more of the admissibility criteria. Please read the notes for filling in the application form and Your Application to the ECHR before beginning an application. The Court may choose not to examine an application that does not fulfill all of the requirements.
Additionally, the ECHR has published a short video tutorial on “The correct way to lodge an application with the Court.”
Proceedings before the Court
Proceedings before the Court are conducted primarily in writing; public hearings are rare.
There is no cost associated with submitting an application and the applicant may apply for legal aid to cover expenses that arise later in the proceeding.
While a lawyer is not necessary to lodge a complaint, applicants should have representation after the case is declared admissible, and must be represented by a lawyer in any hearing before the Court.
Applications to the ECtHR go through two phases: admissibility and merits. The specific nature of the case will dictate the speed and course of the proceedings. However, it may be months or years before an applicant receives a decision or judgment.
When the Court receives an application, the Court must determine if it meets all of the admissibility requirements. An admissibility decision may be made by a single judge, a three-judge committee, or a seven-judge chamber. To be declared admissible, an application must meet the following criteria:
- Exhaustion of domestic remedies
- Four-month application deadline (from the final domestic judicial decision)
- Complaint against a State party to the European Convention on Human Rights
- Applicant suffered a significant disadvantage
If an application fails to meet any of these requirements, it will be declared inadmissible and cannot proceed any further. There is no appeal from a decision of inadmissibility.
If an application is not struck from the list or declared inadmissible at an earlier stage, it will be assigned to one of the ECtHR’s five sections and the State will be notified of the complaint. At this time, both parties will have the opportunity to submit observations to the Court. These observations may contain specific information requested by the Chamber or President of the Section, or any other material that the parties decide is relevant. The Chamber has the option to consider admissibility and merits separately or concurrently, but it must notify the parties if it plans to consider admissibility and merits together.
When a Chamber issues a judgment on the merits, there is a three-month period before the decision becomes final. During this period, either or both of the parties may request that the application be referred to the Grand Chamber. However, the Grand Chamber only hears a limited number of exceptional cases.
If the Court ultimately decides a case in favor of the applicant, it may award just satisfaction (monetary compensation for the damages suffered) and require the State to cover the cost of bringing the case. If the Court finds that there has been no violation, then the applicant is not liable for the State’s legal expenses.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is responsible for enforcing the Court’s judgments. States are bound by the decisions of the Court and must execute them accordingly. Often this means amending legislation to ensure that the violation does not continue to occur. However, the Court does not have the authority to overrule a national decision or annul national laws.
Prior to a decision on the merits, the Court will try to facilitate the arrangement of a friendly settlement. If a friendly settlement cannot be reached, the Court will then deliver a judgment on the merits. In instances where the Chamber hearing the case decides to issue an admissibility decision in conjunction with a judgment on the merits, the parties may include information about friendly settlements in the observation they submit to the Court.
In exceptional cases, the Court may grant applicants “interim measures,” which are designed to protect the applicant from further harm while the case proceeds before the Court. Requests for interim measures are only granted when there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm such as death or torture. They are most often granted in extradition and deportation cases.