Scottish law watchdog gives warning on ‘pay-more-get-more’ justice

The chair of Scotland’s Human Rights Commission has warned that universal access to justice is being undermined by a payment scheme aimed at clearing a backlog of cases in the European Court of Human Rights.

Following the High Level Conference on the Future of the European Court of Human Rights in Brighton in April, the Council of Europe opened a “special bank account” so that member states could make voluntary contributions of additional financial support in exchange for getting their logjammed cases higher up the court’s waiting list. The funds will be used to recruit lawyers to deal with the current backlog of 150,000 cases.

At present, there are 270 lawyers and 370 other support staff working at the court.

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But Professor Alan Miller has said that the decision to deal with cases based on the contribution of funds could prove problematic in terms of equality of access to justice.

Professor Miller said: “Donor states stipulating that sums they may contribute should be used for a specific purpose of dealing with applications against them runs the risk of creating a two-tier approach to access to justice across Europe. The key to reducing the backlog of cases is for states to ensure effective implementation and remedies at a domestic level.

“National human rights institutions play a key role in that work, and in Scotland the SHRC will be working with government, parliament, public authorities and civil society to develop a national action plan for human rights.”

Since it opened for business in 1959 under the presidency of Lord McNair, who claimed Paisley antecedents, there have been 14,854 judgments given by the ECHR.

Despite the political profile ascribed to European Court interventions, the UK’s 462 judgments account for only 3.1 per cent of the total. Four member states – Turkey, Italy, Russia and Poland – make up nearly half the total judgments in that time.

The UK has not indicated any immediate interest in taking up the offer of paying extra funds.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We support the setting-up of this fund, but have not made any decision on whether we will contribute to it. At present the UK is one of the five major contributors to the Council of Europe, contributing 12 per cent of its annual budget, which includes the court.”