The European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights is one of the most effective instruments for the protection of human rights in the world. The European Court of Human Rights provides a unique ability to monitor compliance with the Convention.

The European Convention on Human Rights
After one year of work, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the European Convention on Human Rights) was adopted in 1950. The Convention, which initially contained only civil and political rights, has expanded over the years through the introduction of several additional protocols.

Some of the rights in the Convention and additional protocols are the right to life, a prohibition against torture, the right to freedom and personal safety, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and worship, freedom of expression and association, the right to take part in meetings and prohibitions against discrimination.

The unique monitoring system to ensure effective protection of citizens in the Member States of the Council of Europe means that the obligations of the states to live up to their commitments under the Convention can be examined by an independent court, the European Court of Human Rights.

Decisions reached by the European Court of Human Rights are legally binding on the states concerned. All the Member States of the Council of Europe have now acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, not all have acceded to all the additional protocols that have later been drawn up and that set forth additional rights.

Swedish law
The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into Swedish law in 1995 (Act concerning the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1994:1219)).

What type of complaints can the Court examine?
The European Court of Human Rights can receive complaints from individuals or organisations, or from groups of individuals who feel that their rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention or any of the additional protocols have been violated. A first prerequisite is that the state concerned is a party to the Convention and to the protocols concerned. Sweden is a party to the Convention and to most of the additional protocols.

A complaint must refer to a violation that the applicant has personally suffered and it must refer to a right set out in the Convention or one of the additional protocols. A complaint cannot be directed against an individual person or organisation, but must be directed against a state and must refer to an issue for which the state can be held accountable. It is not necessary to be a citizen of the state against which the complaint is directed.

Furthermore, the applicant must have exhausted all domestic legal remedies. This means that a person who wishes to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights must first have attempted to obtain redress in the state in question, primarily by using the options available to appeal the decisions of authorities and courts. Consequently, an applicant must have pursued the case to the highest body in the country (e.g. the Supreme Court, the Supreme Administrative Court or the Government, depending on the nature of the case).

A complaint must have been received by the Registry of the European Court of Human Rights within six months from when the final decision in the state concerned was announced. Anonymous complaints are not examined. Nor are such complaints that the Court has already examined or which are being reviewed or have been reviewed by another international body, such as one of the UN committees on human rights. The Court can also examine intergovernmental complaints presented by one Contracting State against another.

How to apply?
Individuals wishing to file a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights must use the special form for potential applicants. The form is published on the Court’s website together with instructions on how to complete the form.

The European Court of Human Rights has, on its own initiative, taken certain measures to reduce the vast number of obviously unfounded and/or incomplete complaints sent to the Court (about 95 per cent of the complaints to the European Court of Human Rights are dismissed without being examined in substance.) These measures include the drafting of the document ‘Practical Guide on Admissibility Criteria’ and the release of the video ECHR Video on Admissibility Conditions (published on YouTube). The document and the video explain what is required for the Court to examine a complaint according to the regulations of the European Convention on Human Rights. See also ECHR illustration of process routes for complaints, "The life of an application".

The Court has also prepared an interactive checklist (‘Online admissibility checklist’) for those considering filing a complaint with the Court. The document ‘Practical Guide on Admissibility Criteria’ is extensive and detailed, and addresses primarily practising lawyers who represent individuals before the European Court of Human Rights. The checklist and the video are, however, primarily intended for people without a legal background.

Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights
The judgments of the Court are legally binding on the state concerned. In its judgment, the Court establishes if the state was in breach of the Convention or not. It is important to point out that the Court is not a superior court to the domestic courts and authorities and it cannot alter or set aside a decision made by a domestic authority or court. If the Court has found that a violation of the Convention has occurred, it can award damages to the applicant.

The reform of the European Court of Human Rights
In June 2010, a protocol of amendment to the European Convention on Human Rights, Protocol 14, entered into force. According to the Protocol, committees made up of three judges can judge in more routine cases, and in simpler cases an individual judge can decide to not admit a case for examination in substance or to strike a case out of the list. The Protocol does not affect the rights accorded to individuals in the Convention.

The new rules are intended to enable the European Court of Human Rights to more effectively manage the complaints that are received. Nonetheless, there has been a marked increase in the number of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in recent years. To ensure that the European Convention on Human Rights will continue to be an effective instrument in protecting human rights and freedoms, a long-term initiative has started to reform the European Court of Human Rights.