COUNCIL OF EUROPE
COMMITTEE OF MINISTERS
of the Committee of Ministers to member states
on the verification of the compatibility of draft laws, existing laws and administrative practice with the standards laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights
(adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 12 May 2004
at its 114th Session)
The Committee of Ministers, in accordance with Article 15.b of the Statute of the Council of Europe,
Considering that the aim of the Council of Europe is the achievement of greater unity among its members, and that one of the most important methods by which that aim is to be pursued is the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms;
Reiterating its conviction that the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereinafter referred to as “the Convention”) must remain the essential reference point for the protection of human rights in Europe, and recalling its commitment to take measures in order to guarantee the long-term effectiveness of the control system instituted by the Convention;
Recalling the subsidiary character of the supervision mechanism set up by the Convention, which implies, in accordance with its Article 1, that the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention be protected in the first place at national level and applied by national authorities;
Welcoming in this context that the Convention has now become an integral part of the domestic legal order of all states parties and noting in this respect the important role played by national courts;
Recalling that, according to Article 46, paragraph 1, of the Convention, the high contracting parties undertake to abide by the final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as “the Court”) in any case to which they are parties;
Considering however, that further efforts should be made by member states to give full effect to the Convention, in particular through a continuous adaptation of national standards in accordance with those of the Convention, in the light of the case-law of the Court;
Convinced that verifying the compatibility of draft laws, existing laws and administrative practice with the Convention is necessary to contribute towards preventing human rights violations and limiting the number of applications to the Court;
Stressing the importance of consulting different competent and independent bodies, including national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights and non-governmental organisations;
Taking into account the diversity of practices in member states as regards the verification of compatibility;
Recommends that member states, taking into account the examples of good practice appearing in the appendix:
I. ensure that there are appropriate and effective mechanisms for systematically verifying the compatibility of draft laws with the Convention in the light of the case-law of the Court;
II. ensure that there are such mechanisms for verifying, whenever necessary, the compatibility of existing laws and administrative practice, including as expressed in regulations, orders and circulars;
III. ensure the adaptation, as quickly as possible, of laws and administrative practice in order to prevent violations of the Convention;
Instructs the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to ensure that the necessary resources are made available for proper assistance to member states which request help in the implementation of this recommendation.
Appendix to Recommendation Rec(2004)5
1. Notwithstanding the reform, resulting from Protocol No. 11, of the control system established under the European Convention on Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as “the Convention”), the number of applications submitted to the European Court of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as “the Court”) is increasing steadily, giving rise to considerable delays in the processing of cases.
2. This development reflects a greater ease of access to the European Court, as well as the constantly improving human rights protection in Europe, but it should not be forgotten that it is the parties to the Convention, which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, remain the prime guarantors of the rights laid down in the Convention. According to Article 1 of the Convention, “The High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention”. It is thus at national level that the most effective and direct protection of the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Convention should be ensured. This requirement concerns all state authorities, in particular the courts, the administration and the legislature.
3. The prerequisite for the Convention to protect human rights in Europe effectively is that states give effect to the Convention in their legal order, in the light of the case-law of the Court. This implies, notably, that they should ensure that laws and administrative practice conform to it.
4. This recommendation encourages states to set up mechanisms allowing for the verification of compatibility with the Convention of both draft laws and existing legislation, as well as administrative practice. Examples of good practice are set out below. The implementation of the recommendation should thus contribute to the prevention of human rights violations in member states, and consequently help to contain the influx of cases reaching the Court.
Verification of the compatibility of draft laws
5. It is recommended that member states establish systematic verification of the compatibility with the Convention of draft laws, especially those which may affect the rights and freedoms protected by it. It is a crucial point: by adopting a law verified as being in conformity with the Convention, the state reduces the risk that a violation of the Convention has its origin in that law and that the Court will find such a violation. Moreover, the state thus imposes on its administration a framework in line with the Convention for the actions it undertakes vis-à-vis everyone within its jurisdiction.
6. Council of Europe assistance in carrying out this verification may be envisaged in certain cases. Such assistance is already available, particularly in respect of draft laws on freedom of religion, conscientious objection, freedom of information, freedom of association, etc. It is none the less for each state to decide whether or not to take into account the conclusions reached within this framework.
Verification of the compatibility of laws in force
7. Verification of compatibility should also be carried out, where appropriate, with respect to laws in force. The evolving case-law of the Court may indeed have repercussions for a law which was initially compatible with the Convention or which had not been the subject of a compatibility check prior to adoption.
8. Such verification proves particularly important in respect of laws touching upon areas where experience shows that there is a particular risk of human rights violations, such as police activities, criminal proceedings, conditions of detention, rights of aliens, etc.
Verification of the compatibility of administrative practice
9. This recommendation also covers, wherever necessary, the compatibility of administrative regulations with the Convention, and therefore aims to ensure that human rights are respected in daily practice. It is indeed essential that bodies, notably those with powers enabling them to restrict the exercise of human rights, have all the necessary resources to ensure that their activity is compatible with the Convention.
10. It has to be made clear that the recommendation also covers administrative practice which is not attached to the text of a regulation. It is of utmost importance that states ensure verification of their compatibility with the Convention.
Procedures allowing follow-up of the verification undertaken
11. In order for verification to have practical effects and not merely lead to the statement that the provision concerned is incompatible with the Convention, it is vital that member states ensure follow-up to this kind of verification.
12. The recommendation emphasises the need for member states to act to achieve the objectives it sets down. Thus, after verification, member states should, when necessary, promptly take the steps required to modify their laws and administrative practice in order to make them compatible with the Convention. In order to do so, and where this proves necessary, they should improve or set up appropriate revision mechanisms which should systematically and promptly be used when a national provision is found to be incompatible. However, it should be pointed out that often it is enough to proceed to changes in case-law and practice in order to ensure this compatibility. In certain member states compatibility may be ensured through the non-application of the offending legislative measures.
13. This capacity for adaptation should be facilitated and encouraged, particularly through the rapid and efficient dissemination of the judgments of the Court to all the authorities concerned with the violation in question, and appropriate training of the decision makers. The Committee of Ministers has devoted two specific recommendations to these important aspects: one on the publication and the dissemination in member states of text of the Convention and the case-law of the Court (Rec(2002)13) and the other on the Convention in university education and professional training (Rec(2004)4).
14. When a court finds that it does not have the power to ensure the necessary adaptation because of the wording of the law at stake, certain states provide for an accelerated legislative procedure.
15. Within the framework of the above, the following possibilities could be considered.
Examples of good practice
16. Each member state is invited to give information as to its practice and its evolution, notably by informing the General Secretariat of the Council of Europe. The latter will, in turn, periodically inform all member states of existing good practice.
I. Publication, translation and dissemination of, and training in, the human rights protection system
17. As a preliminary remark, one should recall that effective verification first demands appropriate publication and dissemination at national level of the Convention and the relevant case-law of the Court, in particular through electronic means and in the language(s) of the country concerned, and the development of university education and professional training programmes in human rights.
II. Verification of draft laws
18. Systematic supervision of draft laws is generally carried out both at the executive and at the parliamentary level, and independent bodies are also consulted.
By the executive
19. In general, verification of conformity with the Convention and its protocols starts within the ministry which initiated the draft law. In addition, in some member states, special responsibility is entrusted to certain ministries or departments, for example, the Chancellery, the Ministry of Justice and/or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to verify such conformity. Some member states entrust the agent of the government to the Court in Strasbourg, among other functions, with seeking to ensure that national laws are compatible with the provisions of the Convention. The agent is therefore empowered, on this basis, to submit proposals for the amendment of existing laws or of any new legislation which is envisaged.
20. The national law of numerous member states provides that when a draft text is forwarded to parliament, it should be accompanied by an extensive explanatory memorandum, which must also indicate and set out possible questions under the constitution and/or the Convention. In some member states, it should be accompanied by a formal statement of compatibility with the Convention. In one member state, the minister responsible for the draft text has to certify that, in his or her view, the provisions of the bill are compatible with the Convention, or to state that he or she is not in a position to make such a statement, but that he or she nevertheless wishes parliament to proceed with the bill.
By the parliament
21. In addition to verification by the executive, examination is also undertaken by the legal services of the parliament and/or its different parliamentary committees.
22. Other consultations to ensure compatibility with human rights standards can be envisaged at various stages of the legislative process. In some cases, consultation is optional. In others, notably if the draft law is likely to affect fundamental rights, consultation of a specific institution, for example the Conseil d'Etat in some member states, is compulsory as established by law. If the government has not consulted as required, the text will be tainted by procedural irregularity. If, after having consulted, it decides not to follow the opinion received, it accepts responsibility for the political and legal consequences that may result from such a decision.
23. Optional or compulsory consultation of non-judicial bodies competent in the field of human rights is also often foreseen. In particular these may be independent national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights, the ombudspersons, or local or international non-governmental organisations, institutes or centres for human rights, or the Bar, etc.
24. Council of Europe experts or bodies, notably the European Commission for Democracy through Law (“the Venice Commission”), may be asked to give an opinion on the compatibility with the Convention of draft laws relating to human rights. This request for an opinion does not replace an internal examination of compatibility with the Convention.
III. Verification of existing laws and administrative practice
25. While member states cannot be asked to verify systematically all their existing laws, regulations and administrative practice, it may be necessary to engage in such an exercise, for example as a result of national experience in applying a law or regulation or following a new judgment by the Court against another member state. In the case of a judgment that concerns it directly, by virtue of Article 46, the state is under obligation to take the measures necessary to abide by it.
By the executive
26. In some member states, the ministry that initiates legislation is also responsible for verifying existing regulations and practices, which implies knowledge of the latest developments in the case-law of the Court. In other member states, governmental agencies draw the attention of independent bodies, and particularly courts, to certain developments in the case-law. This aspect highlights the importance of initial education and continuous training with regard to the Convention system. The competent organs of the state have to ensure that those responsible in local and central authorities take into account the Convention and the case-law of the Court in order to avoid violations.
By the parliament
27. Requests for verification of compatibility may be made within the framework of parliamentary debates.
By judicial institutions
28. Verification may also take place within the framework of court proceedings brought by individuals with legal standing to act or even by state organs, persons or bodies not directly affected (for example before the Constitutional Court).
By independent non-judicial institutions
29. In addition to their other roles when seized by the government or the parliament, independent non-judicial institutions, and particularly national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as ombudspersons, play an important role in the verification of how laws are applied and, notably, the Convention which is part of national law. In some countries, these institutions may also, under certain conditions, consider individual complaints and initiate enquiries on their own initiative. They strive to ensure that deficiencies in existing legislation are corrected, and may for this purpose send formal communications to the parliament or the government.