HC Deb 30 October 1995 vol 265 cc12-4
25. Sir Teddy Taylor

To ask the Attorney-General what the estimated legal costs involved in each of the cases coming before the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights were over the past two years; and what estimate he has made of the costs to (a) public and (b) private funds resulting from each court decision. [37855]

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

In the two years ending 16 October 1995, the United Kingdom has participated in 95 cases decided in the European Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance and 11 in the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The costs of counsel to date are respectively £412,447 and £299,654, in each case inclusive of VAT. The wider costs, if any, arising from a particular decision are a matter for the relevant departmental Minister.

Sir Teddy Taylor

In view of the horrendous costs to the United Kingdom—not just legal costs but, more important, the cost of implementing the courts' decisions, for example on pregnant Army officers and free prescriptions for the over-60s—is it not time that the Government published some kind of paper explaining the cost to the taxpayer of some of those decisions, which some people in Parliament regard as lunatic? Can my right hon. and learned Friend at least give me an assurance that at next year's intergovernmental conference the Government will strongly endeavour to curb the substantial powers of those courts to interfere in almost every aspect of our way of life in Britain?

The Attorney-General

I well recognise the strong feelings about certain of those judgments of not only my hon. Friend, who has held particular feelings for decades, but of a great many of my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend will understand that the question of what representations to make to the IGC is a collective decision for Ministers, but some of the points that he has raised are being focused upon as we marshall our case for the IGC.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that one of the problems is that should the House of Lords, as the final Court of Appeal, make a decision that might involve more public expenditure, the House, as a democratic body, can overrule that decision, whereas should the European Court of Justice make a decision involving increased public expenditure, the House, as a democratic assembly, cannot overrule it? Will he make proposals at the IGC next year that national democratic assemblies should have the ability to overrule the European Court of Justice when its decisions involve public expenditure?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. Gentleman will have it in mind that all member states are involved in this process. He should cast his mind back to the Barber judgment, which looked likely to cost £50 billion of public and private moneys in this country and many billions in other member states. He will recall that, at the previous IGC at Maastricht, the member states, exercising their democratic will, put forward a protocol to remedy the decision of the court—in fact the court subsequently remedied the problem itself. The way to overcome such problems is for member states to act collectively through the IGC. There will be an opportunity to do that.

Mr. Beith

Will the Attorney-General take pains to explain to his Euro-sceptic colleagues, including Ministers, that the European Court of Human Rights has absolutely nothing to do with the European Union or the IGC? It resulted from treaty obligations that we entered into long before we joined the European Union.

The Attorney-General

The right hon. Gentleman is correct. We originally ratified the European convention on human rights as long ago as 1951, and we have applied it as a treaty obligation ever since then. Many people muddle Strasbourg and Luxembourg; I am glad to note that the right hon. Gentleman does not.

Sir Peter Emery

Would the Attorney-General like to point out to those people who speak about high costs the fact that, in the 106 cases that he mentioned, the legal fees were no more than about £7,000 per case, which is not the exorbitant price that many people would suppose?

The Attorney-General

My right hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The legal fees are not excessive for slightly more than 100 cases. The other fact that my right hon. Friend will have in mind is that we win a substantial proportion of the cases either in which we intervene, or to which we are parties. In recent years, there have been some significant moves by the court in directions that we would favour, as well as some that receive criticism.

Mr. John Morris

With hon. Members on both sides of the House, we condemn terrorism, but will the Attorney-General note our surprise at the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister on the recent judgment of the European Court in the Gibraltar case, including his threats to withdraw or review our adherence to the convention? Specifically, does the Attorney-General agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, who has declared that the Government will ignore the ruling? Is that not sheer hypocrisy from a party that poses as a party of law and order? Would it not be better, give quicker justice and be less expensive if the convention were incorporated into our law?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has muddled a good many questions.

The McCann judgment—the Gibraltar case—has no practical effect in our law save in relation to costs. The question of costs will be brought before Ministers in the usual way.

However, that judgment caused a great deal of proper public unease. I would have expected the right hon. and learned Gentleman to have commended the views of the minority in the court. He will remember that the decision was made by only 10 to nine, and that the president of the court took a fundamentally different view from the majority and set it out in concise reasoning with which, in my opinion, every sensible person should agree.

Mr. Stephen

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that recent decisions under the European convention on human rights are regarded by many of our constituents as an unwarranted interference in the sovereign right of this country to manage its own affairs? Is he further aware that many of our constituents take the view, not that we should ignore the decisions reached by the court or by the Commission of Human Rights, but that the United Kingdom should serve notice to withdraw from the convention?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend has his own views, and any question on that is, of course, a collective one for Government, not a matter for me. However, it should not be supposed that we always lose before the European Court of Human Rights or that our record cannot stand honourably with that of other countries. We have given the right of individual petition for far longer than many other countries. Considering our size and the openness of our justice, our record is far more creditable than people realise.