As per recent news coming from the negotiation for a deal between the UK and the EU, Michel Barnier said:

Yet the UK informs us that they do not wish to commit formally to continuing to apply the European convention on human rights, nor do they wish the European court of justice to play its full role in interpreting European law.

—Michel Barnier, as quoted by The Guardian

Personally, I don't understand what the consequences of the the UK pulling from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are.

What are the consequences?

What could the UK do if it wasn't signed into the ECHR?


7 Answers 7


Despite the ECHR not being an EU institution, the optics of a European court having jurisdiction over the UK should not be underestimated. This YouGov poll from 2014, shows that the British public favoured withdrawal from the ECHR - the full data shows that the convention is especially unpopular with Conservative and UKIP voters - and this is before the Brexit debate entered the ring.

The approach described by Barnier is consistent with the current policy of the UK Government in their negotiating position outlined in the document The Future Relationship with the EU published in February. Within this, under "Part 2 - Other Agreements", point 31 states:

Cooperation will be underpinned by the importance attached by the UK and the EU to safeguarding human rights, the rule of law and high standards of data protection. The agreement should not specify how the UK or the EU Member States should protect and enforce human rights and the rule of law within their own autonomous legal systems.

This reinforces the UK Government's position that the EU should respect the UK's independence and autonomy in all matters, including on the subject of human rights - and vice versa. Indeed, the Government reiterated this at the beginning of February:

A Downing Street source said: "We are fully independent and our approach to a free trade deal will not be bound by our previous obligations.

"Nor will we agree to obligations which the EU has not required of other countries which it has signed comparable free trade deals with."

This is a reference to the existing Canada-EU & proposed Australia-EU free trade deals, among others. Obviously neither Canada nor Australia sign up to the ECHR, due to not being members of the Council of Europe, and therefore the UK doesn't agree that a free trade deal should be contingent on this.

Addressing business leaders and diplomats in London, Mr Johnson will reportedly call for the UK to be treated as an "equal" in the talks and demand "no alignment, no jurisdiction of the European courts, and no concessions" with Brussels.

This point is key to understanding the Government's negotiating position. The Conservatives have just won their largest election victory since 1987, partially on the back of their whole-hearted opposal to the jurisdiction of European courts over the UK. To avoid being accused of a "Brexit in name only" negotiating position, and the possible resurgence of the Brexit party, it is important to be seen to be resolute and uncompromising on this point.

As to what the decision will allow the UK to pursue, the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, had been a key proponent of a "British Bill of Rights" since she served as Home Secretary in the Cameron administration. After becoming Prime Minister in the wake of the EU referendum, it was widely reported that a side-goal to Brexit was to remove the UK from the ECHR for the proposed British Bill of Rights to be implemented and to have teeth.

As the ECHR enforces minimum standards on members, the only practical reason to repeal it is to reduce these minimum standards. In particular, the Government recently lost a case regarding the police retention of DNA.

Current Cabinet members also have misgivings about the ECHR. Priti Patel (Home Secretary) & Dominic Raab (Foreign Secretary) have both warned that "the ECHR has been repeatedly "abused" by European judges". Outlining his opposal to the ECHR, Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister's Chief Advisor wrote on his blog in 2018 that "The ECHR creates [...] legal problems all the time", going on to say:

If I get involved in politics again, then a referendum on the ECHR should be high on the agenda — and bear in mind most people probably think we’re already leaving it because of the 2016 referendum, so imagine how mad they’ll be when they realise we’re still in it.

It seems now that Cummings will get his wish without a referendum.

In conclusion, then, the motivation is a mixture of electoral and practical reasons. The Government wants to be seen to be robust in their negotiating approach, and their stance against the jurisdiction of international bodies - especially European courts - over the UK, to please voters, while also allowing the Government to implement stricter laws on certain areas that it cannot currently due to protections enforced by the convention.

  • 4
    I don't really see how the UK govt's negotiating position vis-a-vis the EU is relevant to membership or otherwise of the ECHR given that they are entirely separate institutions. Canada and Australia are presumably not signatories to the ECHR because they are not in Europe. 47 European or partly-European countries, including e.g. Russia and Turkey, are part of the ECHR.
    – padd13ear
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 15:33
  • 2
    @padd13ear agreed - that is why I described that factor under the category of electoral reasons; it looks bad for the Government to still allow a European court to have jurisdiction in the UK, no matter whether that be an EU court or not. Perhaps I can make this more clear - thanks
    – CDJB
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 15:35
  • 7
    Sorry but this doesn't answer my question, I wasn't really looking for a justification or reasoning on the UK position/ground, I am merely interested in knowing what does the ECHR stop the UK doing that the UK potentially want to do, if any. Ideally, I would love a "list of basic actions" rather than a "Bill of British rights", I probably won't be able to know what ECHR allows/prevents that the above bill does the opposite with.
    – Mocas
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 19:06
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    @Mocas Well as I mentioned in my answer, the only possible practical motivation to leaving the convention is to lower minimum human rights standards; as to which rights in particular will be lowered, I would point to the government's defeats in the court, one of which I also mentioned. Beyond that, any guess as to which actions specifically will be taken in the future would be pure speculation.
    – CDJB
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 19:12
  • 1
    @Mocas Your question title asks "why doesn't the UK want to be part", your body asks "what are the implications of leaving". I've answered the second question, but you may want to edit your title to reflect the body of your question. The UK may want to leave purely on procedural grounds, or may not want to leave at all but not promise the EU to stay in the ECHR.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:25

The UK can't leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights without withdrawing from the convention. Whilst not an EU institution, it's a popular target for the largely right-leaning tabloid press. So the minimal change is we would adhere to the principles, and retain the Human Rights Act to allow UK courts to rule upon them.

Then there is the more radical option of abolishing the Human Rights Act altogether, and then not having any judicial oversight on laws or their implementation. Although, neither the ECHR or the UK courts can actually set aside legislation on human rights grounds in any case. Their power is limited to noting the problem, and awarding compensation.

Whilst there no immediate danger of the UK bringing back slavery (article 4), if we think of a few cases HMG have recently lost (DNA retention by police, wiretapping, votes for prisoners), you can imagine the likely consequences of doing so.

DNA retention: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S_and_Marper_v_United_Kingdom

Wiretapping: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malone_v_United_Kingdom

Votes for prisoners: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hirst_v_United_Kingdom_(No_2)

  • 3
    What’s the votes for prisoners case? And I’ll say that the 3 cases you listed don’t fill me with fear: “oh no, prisoners don’t get whatever they want!? How awful!”. I have very little interest in making criminals happy.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 10:21
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    @Tim Added in links. Votes for prisoners is probably the most contraversial of the three amongst conservatives.
    – richardb
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 13:22
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    While I don’t subscribe to this fear, I can imagine people worried their country may be forced to accept refugees no one else wants. (In USA, seems this would be half the country.) Like the ones Greece has been shooting at recently.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 16:14
  • 3
    In response to WGroleau, is there any evidence that the Greek military or border police has shot at refugees? And if so, with what? Rubber bullets or real bullets? Or is this merely Turkish propaganda?
    – Dughall
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 15:19
  • 8
    @Tim why do you equate "prisoners can vote" with "prisoners can get whatever they want"?
    – Aaron F
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:36

In a nutshell, the UK [Conservative public] wants to exit from the ECHR for the same "take back control of our laws" reason that has been a substantial motivator for Brexit. Some are probably surprised that the UK is still party to the ECHR despite Brexit, because ECHR is a CoE institution, which the UK joined two decades before joining the EU. Nonetheless the ECHR is perceived by the UK Conservatives to be "part and parcel" of the same sovereignty problem:

the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and of the European Court of Justice are perceived by the Conservative Party as an intolerable encroachment upon the sovereignty of the British state, all the more so as the ECtHR has ruled that UK law was in breach of the Convention on several occasions (such as the right to vote for prisoners and the extradition of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism). Even in the months leading up to the EU referendum of 2016, much of the Conservative party's hostility was directed towards the ECHR, rather than the EU. Thus, in April 2016, Theresa May, then Home Secretary in David Cameron's government, made the following statement: "The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals [...]".

So there you have a simple Brexit-type slogan why the ECHR is bad for the UK, in the Conservative perspective. After the "EU exit" the "ECHR exit" would be a "natural corollary" in this [Conservative] perspective. Or to use an expression sometimes employed by Donald Trump: "we should have done this a long time ago." As an obscure factoid here, in some old speeches Theresa May actually advocated for leaving the ECHR but staying in the EU. So it's fair to say that for some Conservatives the ECHR membership looks like an even worse deal (for the UK) than the EU membership [was].

The recent data case defeat at ECHR has given a more concrete reason for the Johnson government to prioritize this "ECHR exit" as well.

It suffices to read the pages of the Express to get how the ECHR is perceived in the part of the UK public that matters today to the present UK government:

One voter said: “They must be joking? Would they be happy if a British court overruled their decisions?”

An irate voter commented: “Who with even half a brain would say they would want the EU having anything more to do with our lives?”

Another added: “I thought that was one of the primary things we voted for?”

Many voters called for Mr Johnson to “cut all ties” with the EU.

Yes they are talking about the ECHR here. Note how not one comment highlighed made any distinction between CoE and the EU. It's all the same to them.

  • 2
    To be fair, I doubt any EU citizen outside of a tiny minority of those that study European politics could tell you a) what is the Council of Europe b) what is the European Council (bonus q for funsies) c) the ECHR is separate from the EU
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 18:48
  • @Matt: yes, that is a fair point. I do wonder if people in countries outside of the EU but in the CoE, e.g. Russia, Turkey are more aware... Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 19:50

There are two kinds of cases which the government has lost repeatedly over the past 20 years and wishes to reverse or win in future: immigration and torture.

The Article 8 right to family life is interpreted as meaning that people have a right to live in the same country as their family, especially spouses and children. The government disagrees - there is no automatic right for a British person to marry a foreigner and live with them. It has also changed the rules so children born in Britain are no longer automatically British unless at least one parent has full British nationality.

There have been various minor rulings that the immigration process must be fair and accurate, which the government regards as unduly burdensome.

Similarly the Iraq and Afghanistan wars produced a number of people claiming that they or their relatives had been murdered or tortured by British troops, and that this was a human rights violation. The government disagrees.

  • 2
    You might want to clarify your last point: does the government disagree that these people were murdered or tortured by British troops? Or do they disagree that it was a human right violation? Those would be completely different matters... Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 22:46
  • 11
    @Tim, how is that any more unfair than, say, people in the US being able to move freely around the US while people from the outside are restricted? Or people in Wales being allowed to move to Scotland while people from Australia can't? Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 23:31
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    @pjc50 great. We still have that without the EHCR. What’s the issue?
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:06
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    @tim We don't, which is why the government keeps losing ECHR cases. We don't even have a written constitution that guarantees anything. And things like the Windrush fiasco show why it's desperately needed.
    – pjc50
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:48
  • 4
    @pjc50 yes we do. There’s the Geneva convention most obviously. Then there the vast array of other laws which already provide for HRs - e.g. equal marriage laws, laws preventing trespassing, etc. And finally, HRs are already binding outside of the government - we have a fully functioning court system which is perfectly capable of ruling on such cases. It may surprise you: the U.K. was not a land of lawless savages before the EHCR, and it will not become one after we leave. We have led the way in HR laws for centuries, and will continue to do so. As I’ve said elsewhere: stop scaremongering!
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 10:34

This is perhaps more of a legal than a political question. I am not a lawyer. The answer below is based on my lay understanding/interpretation of articles and rulings.

What could the UK do if it wasn't signed into the ECHR?

Departing the European Convention on Human Rights and thus the Council of Europe, which I haven't heard being proposed before, would mean the UK could no longer be stopped by any external court to any of the following things. Many of those appear far-fetched but some have been tested in court:

Among other things.

Since leaving the ECHR implies leaving the Council of Europe, it also means:

Of course the UK could leave the ECHR just as a matter of principle and still not do any of those things. Some voters might want that UK soldiers can torture suspects without consequences, or that the government expands mass surveillance to Chinese levels; currently the UK does not have the sovereignty to introduce such policies, since it has signed up to human rights enforced by the ECHR.

It's possible that the UK doesn't actually want to leave the ECHR, but just as a matter of principle doesn't want to promise the EU that it will remain in the ECHR as part of a trade deal.

  • Why did this answer get downvoted?
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 15:00
  • 1
    Can't upvote, as you might have to relate your theoretical statements to actual practice: CCTV, 5-eyes, Assange, Thatcher on the miner's strike… the bullets are a very entertaining read of theory. It would be instructive to explain why they apparently didn't matter so far? Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 17:15
  • @LаngLаngС Started editing, work in progress.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 18:00
  • 1
    @LаngLаngС I have added a number of examples of cases where the ECHR ruled on cases related to those articles. I'm not sure why you would say they didn't matter.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 19:38
  • @LаngLаngС I could not find something about Thatcher and the miner's strike related to the ECHR, though.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 19:44

I'll quote from Public Law: Text, Cases, and Materials (2019 4 edn). p 202.

Some sense of how revolutionary the enterprise was considered to be may be gleaned from the UK government’s reaction to it. The United Kingdom was one of the greatest supporters of improving human rights protection and, indeed, was the first state to sign the ECHR. While it approved of human rights in the abstract, however, the government, like most others, was extremely uneasy about accepting enforcement mechanisms that enabled individuals to take their cases to an independent international court. In fact, only three of the original ten signatory states initially signed up to the right of individual petition. The UK government insisted that it would sign up to the Convention only if it could opt out of the procedure (that is, only if the procedure were optional). This was agreed and it was not until 1966 that the government agreed to allow the right of individual petition— and even then it did so only on a temporary basis. Things have now moved on, and the right of individual petition is now a compulsory and very heavily used element of the ECHR.
       The government’s early concerns are explained by Andrew Moravcsik.

p 203.

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The UK Government (as opposed to certain individuals within it) do not necessarily want to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights however they do not wish their room to manoeuvre in this area to be constrained and they also have ideological objections to letting a group of foreign governments (the EU) mandate UK policy.

Brexit is above all about ensuring that the people who decide British policy are accountable to the British electorate, giving the EU an open ended commitment to staying in the EHCR goes against that principle.

As for why this is even an issue others have articulated well the way basic human rights, as understood at the time of the signing of the convention, have stretched beyond recognition into something that is now seen my many in the Conservative Party as ludicrous e.g. prisoner votes.

  • The prisoner votes judgment essentially said that there was (a) a Convention right to vote, (b) infringements on Convention rights must serve a legitimate aim, be necessary and proportionate to be lawful, and (c) the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners had not (at the time) been justified in such terms. The judgement didn't say we have to give all prisoners the vote, it didn't say we're not allowed to take away the vote under any circumstances, it said we have to justify taking away the vote.
    – Lag
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 13:06
  • @Lag I don't disagree with any of what you said but it doesn't change anything I said!
    – deep64blue
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 13:16
  • 3
    This answer is wrong in several ways. British judges are no more accountable to the British public as European judges; that's how an independent judiciary functions. And the ECHR judges are neither part of the EU nor are they in some way accountable to them. So the EU can't set a policy for the ECHR either. Of course, if the UK leaves the ECHR, then the independence of British judges is no longer guaranteed.
    – MSalters
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 13:28
  • Under the Westminster system judges apply and interpret law not make it in the way that happens under the EHCR.
    – deep64blue
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 14:46
  • @AlanDev The ECHR doesn't "make law" either, except in a woolly metaphorical sense; indeed, it has so far failed to persuade the UK to make any changes in respect to prisoner votes. Its role can be seen as akin to a Constitutional court: it applies and interprets laws which apply over and above other laws, and thus can, to some extent, over-turn individual decisions of Parliament.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 18:20

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