Interpretive Convergence at the European Court of Human Rights: Strength in numbers or a cause for concern
On 25 January, the Global Justice Academy hosted its first event of the new year, ‘Interpretive Convergence at the European Court of Human Rights: Strength in numbers or a cause for concern?’. In this seminar, Dr Conall Mallory, Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle School of Law, presented his current research on the voting patterns of the judges within the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In particular, his research scrutinizes judgments of the ECtHR that seem to often be unanimous with infrequent dissents. Drawing on extensive quantitative data analysis he furthermore explores potential wide-ranging implications on the authority of the court, the cohesion of Convention rights and the credibility of the judges.
It is widely acknowledged that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are peppered with grey language that requires the judges to interpret the Convention’s specifications. The fact that the 17 grand chamber judges, deriving from various cultural, legal, educational, professional and linguistic backgrounds unanimously agree on the interpretation of highly contentious human rights provisions, motivated Dr Mallory to further investigate the judges’ convergence. In the two ECtHR judgments Banković v Belgium and Al-Skeini v United Kingdom which were both concerned with the extraterritorial application of human rights law, the Court in both cases voted unanimously. However, the second case substantially deviated from the principles set out in its previous judgment.
Analysing approximately 400 Grand Chamber judgments between 1998 and 2021, Dr Mallory considered each judge’s individual vote on individual issues. He found that almost every time there was coherence across the judges’ votes. The judges took differing stances in only 10% of the votes on individual questions on whether a Member State had violated an article of the Convention.
Scholars before Dr Mallory have examined the motivation and incentives behind judges’ decision-making process in the courtroom. These previous studies revealed that judges tend to vote strategically, whether for individual benefits, to embed personal ideologies in judgments, or to pursue broader goals serving stakeholders. However, Dr Mallory’s research is focused more on the general legal culture of the Court and the implications for the Court as a whole. He suggests that by predominantly voting unanimously the judges aim to seek sociological legitimacy to remain a credible force in the European human rights adjudication. Contrary to normative and legal legitimacy, sociological legitimacy is concerned with the external perception of the court. In order to secure its authoritative and influential status the court attempts to project legitimacy in a manner that is compatible with the objectives of stakeholders.
In international law, sociological legitimacy is characterized by judicial constraint, consistency, coherence, and fair and unbiased decision making. The convergence of the judges voting pattern in Dr Mallory’s data implies that the court’s strategy is to adhere to those standards through voting in agreement. Notably, Dr Mallory was also able to identify voting patterns regarding the affected context of the violation. Namely, the Court disagrees more when voting on potential violations of the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
Dr Mallory concluded his talk by addressing the question whether this interpretative convergence is a cause for concern. In his opinion, the findings are not as alarming as one might think at the first glance. However, the voting patterns may suggest a sense of group thinking in the courtroom which may lead judges to develop a personal aversion for dissenting. This should be considered seriously, as the Court’s apparent strategy in striving for sociological legitimacy through convergent voting may create cascade conformity – meaning that judges who would normally disagree abandon their conviction and follow suit with the other judges. Returning to the initial consideration of the divergent rulings in Banković v Belgium and Al-Skeini v United Kingdom, Dr Mallory observed that the main problem is the fact that the court, depending on the composition of judges, may deviate so fundamentally in its judgments that it will fail to offer reliability and consistency.
This post was written by Juliane Müller. Juliane is currently reading the LLM in International Law at the University of Edinburgh. She is from Germany, where she completed her LLM in Law at the University of Mannheim. Juliane is also an Ambassador for the Global Justice Academy.