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All About the European Convention on Human Rights

This explainer answers some of our most frequently asked questions about the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Got questions that haven’t been answered? Let us know below and we’ll do our best to include more information in future resources (but please be aware we can’t comment on individual cases or queries).

Your question:

What is the European Convention on Human Rights?

The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) is an international agreement agreed to by 46 countries (including the UK), known as Member States. By signing the Convention, Member States promise to protect the specific human rights listed within it.

Member States also agree that individuals, groups or other Member States can bring a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) if a Member State breaches rights. Member States agree to follow the judgments made by the Court. The ECtHR is made up of 46 judges – one from each Member State (but the judges do not represent their states, they are independent). The current President of the Court is Síofra O’Leary from Ireland.

This system is designed to ensure governments are held accountable and countries work together to protect universal human rights.

Where did the ECHR come from?

Following the atrocities of World War II, countries were united in their mission to ensure governments-of-the-day would never again be able to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t. In 1949, 10 countries (including the UK), agreed the Treaty of London which created the Council of Europe – an international organisation “convinced that the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilisation”.

The Council of Europe then created the ECHR, which the UK helped write. Since then, 46 countries have signed up to it. The ECHR is inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), which was written by the United Nations and is influential but not legally binding.

What makes it different to other international laws, like treaties?

What’s so important about the ECHR?

There are lots of different types of international laws, often called treaties or conventions. Some are about human rights (like the UNDHR or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESRC)) and some are about other issues like trade or defence. Some treaties or conventions are made as part of the United Nations system (like the UNDHR or ICESRC) or as part of other international organisations (like the ECHR). The ECHR is different to a lot of other international treaties because it sets out a list of fundamental human rights for all the people in Member State countries and set up the European Court of Human Rights so people can access justice if their rights are risked. This means people can take the UK Government to the Court if it doesn’t respect, protect and fulfil their rights.

In Real Life

12-year-old David, who had spastic quadriplegia and severe learning disabilities, went into hospital because he was struggling to breathe. Doctors gave him diamorphine to make him more comfortable but his mother, Carol, didn't want this as she worried it would make breathing harder and stop him recovering. She wanted assurance David would be resuscitated if needed but the hospital put a "Do Not Resuscitate" order on his file without telling her. One day, when David's family went to visit him, they found his condition had deteriorated drastically. They tried to resuscitate him by "blowing raspberries in his ears, banging his chest and rubbing his arms and legs very vigorously". Doctors tried to stop them and a fight broke out. While this was happening, Carol was able to resuscitate David. His condition continued to improve and he was able to go home the same day.  

Carol took the hospital to court in the UK, saying the decision to administer diamorphine against her will and to put the "Do Not Resuscitate" order on David's file without telling her breached both her and David's Article 8 rights to private and family life. She asked UK courts to review the decisions made by the hospital against her wishes and without getting a court order but the court said it couldn't do this as the situation had passed and wouldn't be likely to happen again. She was refused permission to appeal in the UK so took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). 

The ECtHR said the hospital should have applied to the court for an order about how to proceed with David's treatment before things escalated to the point they did. By failing to do so, they disproportionately interfered with Carol and David's rights when they didn't have to. Judge Casadevall also recognised the severity of the Do Not Resuscitate order, particularly as David was alive six years after it was issued: "in the particular circumstances of the present case, maternal instinct has had more weight than medical opinion". 

Because of the ECtHR's finding, the Department for Health issued updated guidance for medical practitioners explaining that parental refusal should only be overridden in an emergency and where there is ongoing disagreement between parents and doctors, courts should be consulted as early as possible. 

What’s in the ECHR?

The 16 rights in the UK Human Rights Act come directly from the Articles in the ECHR. These include the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to a fair trial. The Articles are an essential part of the Convention which all Member States have agreed to protect. There are also additional “Protocols” to the Convention that have been developed over time. Member States can pick and choose which of these they want to sign up to. Some of the protocols in the Convention haven’t been ratified (i.e. approved) by the UK, which means people in the UK aren’t protected by them – even though they’ve been ratified in other countries. One example is Protocol 12, which sets out a free-standing right to be from discrimination (unlike the Article 14 right to be free from discrimination, which can only be used in conjunction with another right). The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said the UK should ratify Protocol 12 as it’s one of just eight states that hasn’t.

Our explainer goes into more detail about the specific sections, Articles and Protocols included in the Convention.

What does the European Court of Human Rights deal with other than immigration issues?

While lots of attention has been paid to the ECHR and immigration cases (like the Rwanda case), they’re actually pretty rare. In the last 10 years, there have been 8 UK cases related to expulsion or extradition (where people are forced to leave the country) and neither of the two judgments against the UK in 2022 concerned immigration. In fact, the Court has said that immigration is not itself a human right – but people migrating between countries have the same human rights as everyone else. This means they should not be subjected to things like torture, trafficking or unnecessary interference with their family life.

These rights, like all the rights in the Convention are universal, which means the Court has protected them in a wide variety of situations for a wide variety of people. For example, some of the Court’s most famous cases concerning the UK have been about LGBT people’s right to serve in the military; ensuring people can express their religion; supporting the rights of protestors; and upholding disabled people’s right to liberty.

In Real Life: The ECtHR and the UK in 2022

In Coventry v the United KingdomMr Coventry and his associates owned a motor sports stadium and were sued by nearby residents for noise nuisance. The residents sued them under a “conditional fee agreement” – which meant that if they were successful, Mr Coventry would have to pay their legal costs, a “success fee” for their lawyers, and their insurance premium. This meant that despite the damages only being around £10,000, Mr Coventry and his associates were also liable for costs of over £600,000. The European Court on Human Rights said that the scheme in place that required him to pay such a high amount breached the Article 6 right to a fair trial because it put people without insurance at a significant disadvantage and may pressure them into settling unfairly.

In Pal v the United Kingdom, Dr Pal wrote an article about AB – a barrister and contributor to NHS whistleblowing campaign group, Patients First. Dr Pal asked readers to send in any information they had about AB or Patients First. AB contacted Dr Pal, and Dr Pal reported this to the police and also tweeted about it. The police later arrested Dr Pal on suspicion of harassment and she was detained for around seven hours before being granted bail. The criminal proceedings against her were dropped more than eight months after her arrest. The European Court on Human Rights said this was a disproportionate interference with her Article 10 right to freedom of expression.

Was the ECHR affected by Brexit?

No – although their names sound similar, the Council of Europe is completely separate from the European Union (EU). While the EU is a political and economic union that largely deals with issues like trade agreements, migration and working conditions, the ECHR is about fundamental rights like the right to freedom of thought and expression and the right to free elections.

The court that deals with matters related to the EU is called the Court of Justice of the European Union. The court that deals with matters related to the ECHR is called the European Court of Human Rights. Again, these courts are not related even though their names sound similar.

Brexit was about leaving the EU. It did not impact the Council of Europe, so the UK still has to follow the ECHR and judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.

Fun fact

Did you know that BIHR’s Chair of Trustees, Sir Nicolas Bratza, was the President of the European Court of Human Rights from November 2011 to October 2012?

How can a European court enforce laws in the UK?

The European Court of Human Rights is so named because it is collectively run by countries from across the continent of Europe – including the UK. The UK, like all Member States, has representatives in the Council of Europe and there is an independent judge from each Member State sitting in the Court. The current judge from the UK is Tim Eicke and there are 18 representatives (and 18 substitutes) from the UK in each the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

According to Council of Europe statistics

In 2022…


judgments out of 1163 concerned the UK with two finding breaches


requests for UK interim measures were accepted while 12 were rejected


of applications pending at the end of the year concerned the UK

How is the Human Rights Act related to the ECHR?

Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act lists 16 Articles from the ECHR and says they are now protected in UK law. This means that when people’s rights are put at risk, they can take cases to UK courts as a first step rather than having to go straight to the European Court of Human Rights. This is a much less expensive and quicker option.

The Human Rights Act itself was made to satisfy the obligations in Article 1 (that states will secure everyone’s rights) and Article 13 of the ECHR (the right to an effective remedy). These rights are not listed separately because they’re said to be met by the existence of the Human Rights Act.

If we have the Human Rights Act, why do we need the ECHR?

The European Court of Human Rights will only hear a case after “all domestic remedies have been exhausted” (Article 35). This means someone must have tried every possible way to get justice in the UK such as by appealing to the public body that made the decision (like a health board or the Department for Work and Pensions), taking a case to a UK court and appealing to a higher court. Without the ECHR, people wouldn’t be able to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights. This would remove people’s last chance at getting justice where their claims are not successful in the UK.

The ECHR is also important for providing oversight and accountability for individual governments. The Council of Europe visits countries signed up to the ECHR and makes recommendations for ways human rights could be better protected.

Similarly, the European Court of Human Rights has been described as “an important source of guidance on issues of principle as well as of legal protection for vulnerable people, including many to whom my mandate extends. The authority and the prestige of the Court have been reinforced both by its accessibility and by its ability to interpret and apply the European Convention on Human Rights as a “living instrument … in the light of present-day”. This also helps ensure there is some consistency between Member States and human rights have a minimum standard of protection everywhere – providing a “floor, not a ceiling” which individual Member States can build on.

Participating in the ECHR is also important for the UK’s international reputation and sets a precedent for other countries who are also committed to human rights protections. Lord Dubs of the Joint Committee on Human Rights said, “it was said to us in Strasbourg that Britain has a reputation for adhering to decisions made by the European Court and has stuck by the European Convention. If we did not, the notorious abusers of human rights would simply say, “If the United Kingdom doesn’t do it, why should we?””

What happens if someone breaks the ECHR?

The ECHR puts responsibilities on governments to uphold human rights and make sure laws, policies and systems are in place so public bodies (like local authorities, national healthcare workers, teachers and courts) do the same. You can’t bring a case against an individual or a private organisation for breaching the rights in the ECHR. However, if the government or public body breaches your human rights, you can take them to court in the UK, because the Human Rights Act brings these rights into UK law. If this isn’t successful, you might be able to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The Council of Europe explains how to make an application on its website. If the European Court of Human Rights finds the government or public body has breached human rights, it can order them to take certain steps or to pay damages.

The European Court of Human Rights (like all UK courts) can’t change or overrule UK laws. There might be cases where a public body worker has breached someone’s human rights by following another law and there’s no way they could have protected human rights while still following the law. In those situations, the European Court of Human Rights might still order the government to take certain steps or to pay damages. It will also tell the UK that the law in question is incompatible with human rights. It is then up to UK Parliament to change the law. Article 46 of the ECHR puts an obligation on Member States to action judgments from the European Court of Human Rights but it is up to the State to decide how best to do this.

In the UK it is not automatically assumed that our laws will change after a ECtHR judgement because we have the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. This is the idea that Parliament is the ultimate power and can make or get rid of any law it likes. Other countries do things differently. For example, in Azerbaijan, the ECHR takes priority over national laws.

In Real Life

In 1980, John Hirst was sent to prison. This meant that he was banned from voting in elections because the Representation of the People Act 1983 said that people who had been found guilty of a crime and detained in a prison or mental health hospital couldn’t vote. He brought a human-rights claim in a UK court, saying this unfairly discriminated against him (Article 14) when he was trying to exercise his right to vote (Article 3, Protocol 1). However, the UK courts said that the right to vote is not an absolute right and the UK’s reason for restricting it was legitimate and proportionate. It dismissed John’s claim and did not grant permission to appeal.

In 2005, John brought a case against the UK to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECtHR said that while Member States have a margin of appreciation in deciding how to apply the right to vote, they still have to comply with human rights. The ECtHR said that imposing a blanket ban that stopped all prisoners from voting irrespective of the length of their sentence or the nature of their offence and individual circumstances was disproportionate and so constituted a breach of human rights.

After this judgment, the UK Government ran consultations on whether prisoners should be able to vote but did not make any changes to the law. This meant that there were lots of subsequent findings against the UK in both UK courts and the ECtHR in cases brought by prisoners who were still banned from voting. In 2015, the Council of Europe published a decision that called on the UK to finally make changes to bring it in line with human rights. However, it wasn’t until 2018 that the Government confirmed it had made two practical (but not legal) changes: to make sure prisoners are notified that they will lose their right to vote when they’re convicted; and to update guidance to clarify that prisoners released on temporary licence or home detention curfew can vote. Although this only impacted a very small number of prisoners, the Council of Europe accepted this update and the case was closed in September 2018.

What if UK courts disagree with the European Court of Human Rights?

The system of precedence in the UK’s legal system means that all courts in the UK have to follow what the UK Supreme Court has said on a previous issue. This includes human rights law. Even if the ECtHR has decided an issue differently to the UK Supreme Court, UK courts will follow the UK Supreme Court's decision unless and until it makes a different decision. Currently, when the UK Supreme Court looks at a human rights case, it starts first with UK laws and common law before thinking about judgments from the ECtHR. Section 2 of the Human Right Act says UK courts have to consider decisions made by the ECtHR but that doesn’t mean they have to follow them. The Supreme Court has shown that they are open to choosing a different approach to the ECtHR in some cases if there is a good reason for this.

In Real Life

Christie Elan-Cane identifies as non-gendered but was informed by the Passport Office that it is not possible to obtain a UK passport without making a declaration of being either male or female. They brought a claim for a breach of their Article 8 right to private life and Article 14 right to be free from discrimination. Christie relied on a number of ECtHR cases, but the Supreme Court ultimately said, “the matter is one in relation to which the member states should be permitted a wide margin of appreciation, having regard to the absence of any consensus within the member states, the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, and the need for a balance to be struck between competing private and public interests.” It said there is no obligation for the Secretary of State to provide Christie with a non-gendered passport.

Did the UK Government’s manifesto say they would leave the ECHR?

No – there’s no mention of the ECHR in the current Government’s most recent manifesto (the promises the party made before winning the last General Election). In fact, the manifesto says the UK will continue to “champion…the rule of law, human rights…and a rules-based international system.”

What happens if the UK leaves the ECHR?

If the UK was not a member of the ECHR, people in the UK wouldn’t be able to bring cases against the governments to the European Court of Human Rights. This would limit accountability for governments and make it harder for people to ensure their human rights are respected.

It would also mean that if the UK Government decided to get rid of the Human Rights Act (as it is trying to do through its Rights Removal Bill) there would be no safety net based on people's universal human rights.

Some have also said leaving the ECHR would breach our other international obligations and damage the UK’s international reputation. Baroness Prashar has pointed out that while the European Union and the UK currently work together to prevent and prosecute crimes and protect public securities, the European Union are allowed to terminate this agreement if the UK fails to respect the human rights treaties both parties are currently signed up to (like the ECHR).

Have any other countries left the ECHR?

Just two countries have left the ECHR. Most recently, Russia was expelled for its aggression against Ukraine. Greece left the ECHR in 1967 while under a military regime accused of mental and physical torture. Greece re-joined in 1974 once democracy was restored.

What does it mean when the Government talks about disapplying laws?

The UK Government has recently tried to disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to several suggested laws i.e. say they wouldn’t have to be interpreted compatibly with human rights even if it was possible to do so. Even if these laws were passed, the UK would be obliged to respect human rights as a member of the ECHR. However, disapplying the Human Rights Act in this way would make it hard for people to have their human rights upheld in the UK. In everyday life, it would mean public bodies applying these laws (e.g. prison officials or Home Office staff) would not have to do so in a way that supports people’s human rights. It would also mean that people could not bring a case in the UK to challenge these uses of other laws in ways that don’t support human rights. So, it would likely mean people would have to go to the European Court of Human Rights to have their human rights upheld. If these laws were passed and the UK was also to leave the ECHR, it would remove the protection for people’s human rights in certain situations.

Do other countries ignore European Court of Human Rights judgments?

The European Implementation Network (EIN) keeps track of Member States’ records of implementing judgments from the ECtHR. The UK has yet to implement 11 leading judgments, which is comparable to countries like Germany (13), Portugal (17) and Lithuania (17). Some countries have considerably less pending, like Norway (2) and Denmark (3), while others have considerably more, like Turkey (139) and Romania (106). The fact that judgments haven’t yet been implemented doesn’t necessarily mean they have been ignored – the EIN recognises that significant judgments are hard to implement because they often require legal changes and in many cases reform is ongoing. However, it also urges Member States to recognise the human impact of delays in implementing changes.

In Real Life

Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin are British citizens and were members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They surrendered to Russian forces and were sentenced to death. The ECtHR issued interim measures saying the death penalty should not be carried out and that the Russian Government provide information to show what steps had been taken to protect Shaun and Aiden’s human rights. The ECtHR said there was an ongoing legal case between Russia and Ukraine and both had to refrain from taking actions such as military action while it was ongoing.

Shaun and Aiden have since been released and have returned home to their family and friends in the UK.

Are interim measures part of the ECHR?

While interim measures are not written into the ECHR, they’re written in the European Court of Human Rights’ Rules of Court. When the UK signed up to the ECHR, it agreed to follow these rules to make sure the Court is able to function as intended. 

Are ECHR judgments made public?

Yes – the Court has a database where it publishes its decisions (whether or not a case will be heard by the Court), judgments, communicated cases (when governments are notified of a case against them), legal summaries, advisory opinions, reports and resolutions (when cases end). It’s free to access and has publications in different languages.

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