What is the Court?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is an international court set up in 1959 which oversees the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) 1950. Find out more about the ECHR here.

Who does it protect?

The ECtHR is based in Strasbourg, France, where it monitors respect for the human rights of the 820 million people in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe that have agreed to abide by the ECHR.

How does it work?

The ECtHR rules on applications by individuals alleging that officials within their country have violated their rights in the ECHR. It is important to remember that applying to the ECtHR does not mean the issue will become a legal case; many are not admissible (this could be because the right process is not followed or because the case does not actually raise human rights issues).

The judgments of the ECtHR are legally binding. This means countries must implement the rulings; to not do so means not following the international rule of law.

How does it remain relevant?

Cases in the ECtHR’ help ensure the ECHR is a ‘living instrument’ able to remain relevant to today’s society and not stuck in the 1950s when the protections were written down. For example, the idea of family in 1950 was very different to modern understanding and the right to respect for family and private life (Article 8) now recognises unmarried couples, same-sex couples, single-parents and their children.

Impact in the UK

Five examples of how the ECtHR has improve protection of our rights in the UK:

An antique dealer’s phone was tapped when he was wrongly suspected of handling stolen goods. The Court found that the lack of any legal regulation of state interceptions of communications breached the right to respect for private life (Article 8). This led to the UK’s first regulation of intercepting communications - the Interception of Communications Act 1985. (Malone v UK, 1984)

 Four children had been abused but social services took five years to take action, all efforts to hold authorities to account under English law failed. The Court ruled there was a positive obligation to protect the children from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3) and this had been breached. ( Z v UK, 2001)

The lack of legal recognition given to transsexual people was challenged and the Court found a breach of the right to family life (Article 8) and to marry (Article 12). This case (along with a domestic case under the Human Rights Act) led to legal recognition of gender reassignment for transsexual people. (Goodwin v UK 2002)

When an autistic man who lacked capacity to consent or object to medical treatment was kept in a psychiatric hospital without procedural safeguards to protect his rights, the Court found a breach of the right to liberty (Article 5). This led to the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, designed to provide legal protections. (HL v UK, 2004)

An employer’s policy banning the wearing of a cross necklace for corporate image reasons was held to infringe rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9). (Eweida v UK, 2013) 

Impact in other countries

It is important to remember we are part of a wider system and the ECtHR provides important protections in other places. This includes:

  • Ireland decriminalised homosexual acts
  • The UK banned corporal punishment in schools
  • Belgium adopted measures to prohibit discrimination against children born outside marriage
  • Bulgaria created an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors
  • The Netherlands changed laws about detaining people with mental health problems
  • Russia improved the social welfare measures for the victims of Chernobyl
  • Slovenia made changes to help prevent ill-treatment by the police
  • Latvia abolished discriminatory language tests for candidates standing for election
  • Moldova recognised freedom of religion