human rights Cases

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Case Summary of Matthews v United Kingdom (1999) 28 EHRR 361 (ECHR)


Matthews v United Kingdom1 concerned a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) by a resident of Gibraltar, that she could not vote in the European Parliament elections. The court held that a state could be held liable for a violation of human rights even though they had transferred power in that particular area to an international organisation. However, subsequent case law is contradictory about when this will apply.


Article 3 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) 1950 says that states have a duty to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, ensuring free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature2. Any restrictions on this right must be reasonable and proportionate3. They must not defeat the essence of the Article4. For instance, Cyprus violated Article 3 when Turkish Cypriots were unable to vote in Cyprus5.

The issue in Matthews v United Kingdom was whether the UK was liable for violating Article 3 by failing to hold elections for the European Parliament in Gibraltar. A second issue was whether the European Parliament was a 'legislature'.

The right to free elections is of central importance to the ECHR as it promotes democracy6. Effective democracies provide the main method of protecting human rights7. Therefore, if free elections were not protected, this could potentially weaken human rights in Europe.


Gibraltar is a dependent territory of the UK8. Although it is not part of the UK, Gibraltar is part of the European Union (EU) under Article 299(4) Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union 1957 (EC Treaty) 9. The 1976 Act on Direct Elections, which was annexed to a decision by the EU10, excluded Gibraltar from any elections of the European Parliament.

Denise Matthews, a Gibraltar resident, complained to ECtHR that this denied her the right to vote in the European Parliament election of 1994, even though she was a UK citizen. She claimed that this violated her rights under Article 3 Protocol 1 ECHR.

Decision and outcome

On 18th February 1999 the ECtHR gave its decision. The court held that a 'legislature' included more than just a national parliament. It was any institution with a decisive role in enacting primary legislation. As the EU had legislated in many areas affecting Gibraltar, including free movement of people, the environment and consumer law, it had become an integral part of the law in Gibraltar. Therefore, it was a 'legislature'.

The court held by a strong majority of 15 votes to two that despite transferring some powers to the European Union, contracting states were still responsible for guaranteeing human rights. The court held that the lack of elections did violate Article 3 as the very 'essence' of Matthews's right to vote to choose the legislature had been denied11.

The court went on to say that the UK could not claim that there was a lack of control over the situation, as they had voluntarily agreed to the EC Treaty and the 1976 Act which gained force from it. This was after the UK had signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. Also, the UK had chosen under s.227(4) EC Treaty to have substantial areas of EC law apply to Gibraltar12. Therefore, the UK was responsible for the violation.

As a result of the decision, the UK allowed elections to the European Parliament in Gibraltar by incorporating those voters into a South West of England constituency in 200313.


The ECtHR decision has been called a 'landmark ruling' as it held that fulfilling obligations to international organisations such as the EU does not allow states to avoid liability for human rights violations14. The case was followed in Cantoni v France15 where the ECtHR held that a national measure designed to comply with an EU Directive did not absolve the state from liability for failing to comply with the ECHR.

However, in Bosphorus v Ireland16 the court reached the opposite decision. Here, Irish authorities seized private planes in Dublin, pursuant to EU instructions during the Bosnian conflict. The company argued this was a breach of its right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions17. The court held that the state was not to be liable if the international organisation was 'equivalent' to the ECHR18. If so, it would be presumed that the state had not violated the ECHR19. This presumption could be rebutted on the facts of the case. The ECtHR distinguished Matthews as the UK had voluntarily entered into the voting arrangement20. As the EU's protection of human rights was 'equivalent' to the ECHR, Ireland had not violated the ECHR. This case suggests that the deciding factor was whether the state had discretion as to whether to follow EU law or not.

However, in Behrami v France21 and Saramati v France22, two cases involving human rights violations by French Troops and another multi-national UN force in Kosovo, the ECtHR held otherwise. The court said that in both cases the UN had ultimate authority for the relevant forces and only operational command was delegated to the individual states. The court distinguished Bosphorus as Ireland only acted in its own territory. Critics argue that this reasoning is 'hardly persuasive'23. The French Troops were under French control while they were implementing a UN Resolution24. This is no different to the Bosphorus situation.

The House of Lords went one step further in the Al-Jedda case involving human rights breaches by the UK in Iraq25. The Lords simply held that UN law prevailed over any other international agreement according to Article 103 UN Charter. Critics say these cases raise 'troubling questions'26 about the accountability of Member States.


Matthews v United Kingdom showed that States could be liable for human rights breaches even where they transferred their powers to an international organisation, such as the EU. However, subsequent decisions have held otherwise. In Bosphorus, the EU was held to be equivalent to the ECHR. Subsequent cases involving the UN have also allowed states to avoid liability by saying they were simply following the instructions of an international body. This serves to limit the impact of Matthews greatly, especially with respect to acts taken under the authority of the UN.


1 (1999) 28 EHRR 361 (ECtHR).

2 1950.

3 Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt v Belgium (1988) 10 EHRR1 (ECtHR).

4 H Davies, Human Rights Law Directions (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013) 476.

5 Aziz v Cyprus (2005) 42 EHRR 11 (ECtHR).

6 Davies (n4) 475.

7 Ibid.

8 J Shaw, 'The political representation of Europe's citizens: developments: Court of Justice of the European Communities: decisions of 12 September 2006, Case C-145/04, Spain v United Kingdom, and Case C-300/04, Eman and Sevinger v College van Burgemeester en Wethouders van Den Haag' (2008) 4(1) ECL Review 170.

9 Ibid.

10 Council Decision 76/787/ECSC, EEC, Euratom relating to the Act concerning the election of the representatives of the Assembly by direct universal suffrage 1976 OJ L 278/1.

11 Case 24833/94 Matthews v United Kingdom (1999) 28 EHRR 361 (ECtHR) para 392.

12 Ibid, para 363.

13 Shaw (n8) 171.

14 E Berry, M Homewood and B Bogusz, EU Law: Text, Cases and Materials (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013) 364.

15 App No 17862/91 (11 Nov 1996 unreported) (ECtHR).

16 (2006) 42 EHRR 1 (ECtHR).

17 Article 1 ECHR (ECtHR).

18 Bosphorus v Ireland (2006) 42 EHRR 1 (ECtHR) para 155.

19 Ibid, para 156.

20 Ibid para 57.

21 (Admissibility) (2007) 45 EHRR SE10 (ECtHR).

22 App No 78166/01 (Unreported, May 2, 2007) (ECtHR).

23 G Verdirame 'Breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights resulting from the conduct of international organisations' (2008) 2 EHRL Review 212.

24 Ibid.

25 R (on the application of Al-Jedda) v Secretary of State for Defence2007 UKHL 58 (HL).

26 Verdirame (n23) 213.