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European Court Of Human Rights - Description [2003] PICTRes 10 (31 October 2003)

European Court Of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established by the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, concluded under the aegis of the Council of Europe, with the task of supervising, along with the European Commission of Human Rights, set up in 1953, the observance of the rights and freedoms listed therein.

The impetus from the adoption of the 1950 European Convention came from the atrocities committed in Europe before and during the Second World War and the desire to bring the non-Communist countries of Europe together within a common ideological framework, stressing individual civil and political freedoms and rights, as opposed to communist ideas.

After a slow start (it started functioning only in 1959 and a modest number of submissions were received until the end of the 1960s), the ECHR has eventually grown into one of the largest, most accomplished and exemplary international judicial bodies. Unlike in the cases of many other fora, compliance with the ECHR's judgments is common, exerting a deep influence on the laws and social realities of member States. The record of the ECHR is impressive not only in comparison with those of the two other regional human rights courts (the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights), for which it is a paradigm, but also to that of all other international judicial bodies. As a matter of fact, after the ECJ, the ECHR has decided the largest number of cases (as of January 1, 2000, 837 judgments), developing the most extensive jurisprudence in the field of the protection of human rights.

During the 1990s, two factors have further boosted its growth. Firstly, with the demise of communism and the enlargement of the Council of Europe to Eastern European States, the ECHR has become, of the regional courts, the one with jurisdiction over the largest number of States (40), encompassing the whole of Europe, including Russia. Secondly, on May 11, 1994, the Council of Europe's member states concluded an additional protocol to the 1950 European Convention, known as Protocol 11, which fundamentally changed the machinery for the judicial enforcement of the Convention's provisions. Protocol 11 set up a single permanent Court in place of the existing two-tier system of a Court and a Commission. In the previous system, individuals had access to the Commission, which produced non-binding reports. As from October 1, 1994, Protocol No. 9 enabled individual applicants to also bring their cases before the Court, subject to the ratification by the respondent State and a screening panel of the Court accepting the case for consideration. Hence, unlike the other two regional human rights courts (the IACHPR and the ACHPR), with the new system, private individuals have access to the ECHR without an external filter. Moreover, now individuals can, in limited circumstances, seek a re-hearing in a case decided by a Court's Chamber (7 judges) before the Court's Grand Chamber (17 judges). This does not happen in the other two regional human rights courts.

Of all international judicial bodies, the ECHR perhaps is the only one which has successfully undergone a major overhaul, bearing witness to the vitality of the institution and its significance for member States. While the World Court, with the transition from the PCIJ to the ICJ, has also undergone a similar rejuvenation, the magnitude and import of the metamorphosis experienced by the ECHR is unmatched. This warrants distinguishing between the Old Court  and the New Court , officially born on November 1, 1998.

The combination of the entry into force of Protocol 11 and the Court's expanded geographic jurisdiction have made the number of potential claimants soar to more than 800 million. Currently 41 judges cope with one of the busiest international dockets ever. The ECHR is the largest international bench (also incorporating the largest number of women, both in absolute and proportional terms), and the only one in which size is not fixed but is a function of the number of States members (one judge per contracting State).

PICT Data obtained from the Project on International Courts and Tribunals (PICT)

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