Report by Alex Hughes, recipient of the 2022 Nicolas Bratza scholarship to the Office of the President of the European Court of Human Rights.
In early October 2022, I packed my bags and set off for Strasbourg having been selected to represent Lincoln’s Inn as a Nicolas Bratza scholar at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR, or the Court). Sir Nicolas Bratza was a former President of the ECtHR, and this scholarship provides recipients with the opportunity to spend three months as a Trainee at the Court which is tasked with ensuring compliance by the member States of the Council of Europe with their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, or the Convention). The opportunity to work at the ECtHR provided me with an invaluable experience as I seek to pursue a new legal career in international human rights law.
Work and Activities at the Court
I was placed within the Office of the President as a Trainee under the supervision of Rachael Kondak who is the legal advisor to both the President and the Registrar of the Court. I was fortunate that at the end of my first month there was a change in Presidency which allowed me to work for both Judge Robert Spano, as the outgoing Icelandic President, and Judge Síofra O’Leary as the current Irish President. My main role consisted of drafting speeches for the President, whether that be for visits to universities and external conferences which would have a more academic or theoretical focus, or for visits to other Council of Europe bodies where the speeches would be more practical and focus on the current activities of, and the challenges faced by, the Court. Examples of the former included speeches concerning: (i) language and rights, with a focus on the use of dignity by both the Court and member States and how that impacted their respective interpretations of certain rights under the Convention; and (ii) a discussion of why the ECHR still matters in 2023, particularly for advanced democracies that already have a relatively strong respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Examples of the latter included speeches concerning: (i) the President’s Solemn Hearing speech for the Opening of the Judicial Year in January 2023; (ii) an introductory speech for a conference organised by the Supreme Court of Ukraine on the role of courts in implementing the rule of law; and (iii) an introductory speech for a meeting between all the Council of Europe monitoring and advisory bodies. Drafting these speeches provided me with an excellent opportunity to not only research interesting and topical human rights issues but also to gain a deep understanding of the role of the Court and the most pressing challenges that it is currently facing.
During my three months, I also had the opportunity to work on a number of other interesting tasks. I drafted the ECtHR section for the annual joint law report between the ECtHR, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court of Human and People’s Rights, in which I summarised the key cases of the ECtHR of 2021 as well as drafting the Registrar’s Foreword to that section of the report. Similarly, I drafted the President’s Foreword to the ECtHR’s Annual Report of 2022. I also prepared background research documents for visits to the ECtHR by national judges, including: (i) a visit by a delegation of senior UK family law judges, with topics including medical treatment in end of life cases, gender recognition and women’s rights, and the governing principles under national and international law in adoption cases; and (ii) a seminar held between ECtHR judges and senior judges from all member States in connection with the Opening of the Judicial Year focusing on the theme of judges preserving democracy through human rights.
Other key tasks included: (i) drafting and regularly updating a briefing note for ECtHR judges on the political background and current status of the proposal by the UK Government to introduce a UK Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act 1998; (ii) identifying and summarising all of the Court’s 2022 “impact cases” that relate to democracy; and (iii) preparing briefing notes for the President’s various meetings with senior personnel of both Council of Europe and European Union bodies. The diverse nature of the work I was involved in during my three months allowed me to deepen my understanding of human rights law at the European level and to better appreciate the day-to-day operations of the Court and the key challenges that it faces.
Life in Strasbourg
At any one time, there are a number of trainees and study-visitors at both the Court and the Council of Europe, and during my three-month placement I was fortunate enough to make a number of close friendships which really contributed to my incredible experience in Strasbourg. The city is conveniently located near the German border so we organised a number of trips not only within the Alsace region but also to nearby German cities and towns. Strasbourg itself is a very beautiful city with a diverse population from around Europe and beyond, with the city offering a number of tourist attractions and excellent food. I was fortunate enough to be undertaking my placement during December and was therefore able to experience Strasbourg’s Christmas market, the oldest in France, with Strasbourg very aptly known as the “Capital of Christmas.”
Overall, my time in Strasbourg was very enjoyable and immensely rewarding, where I was able to learn a great deal and to explore a wonderful region of the world. I have managed to build a professional network at the Court as well as making lasting friendships which I hope to maintain once I return to the UK. I am very grateful for the supportive environment created by my supervisor and the President’s Office as a whole, as well as by colleagues in the UK Division and judges at the Court with whom I also had the opportunity to work with along the way. Most of all, I am grateful to Lincoln’s Inn for offering me this scholarship and I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in human rights law to apply.