The European Court of Human Rights is a permanent judicial body which upholds the rights safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. It is open to states and individuals regardless of nationality. The 47 member states of the Council of Europe are parties to the Convention which is distinct from the EU.
Every case brought to the European Court of Human Rights is judged based on the rights listed in the Convention, and how they relate to the specific case in question. In each case, the relevant government is accused of a violation of a right or set of rights.
Despite what many newspapers and politicians may say, the Court actually rules against the UK only a tiny proportion of the time - it's normally about 1% of all the applications made to the Court from the UK.
Between 1966 and 2010 there were, one report estimates, 14,460 applications to the court from the UK, of which 14,029 were struck out or declared inadmissible - that's the applications that the Court found were weak enough not to even merit a judgement.
Structures of the Court
The European Court of Human Rights is made up of 47 judges - one for each member state. The judges, however, are expected to be entirely impartial and independent in order to prevent conflicts of interest during cases.
When the judges are deciding a case, they sit in one of four possible "formations":
- Single Judge examines cases that are "manifestly inadmissible"
- Three Judge Committee can rule unanimously on admissibility and merits of a case with a well-established body of case law
- Seven Judge Chamber can rule by majority on a case, mostly admissibility and merits
- Seventeen Judge Grand Chamber can hear a case either after an accepted request for referral or a relinquishment of jurisdiction by a chamber
So there is never a time when all 47 judges sit at once - the largest formation is the Seventeen Judge Grand Chamber, which is reserved for the most controversial, highly contested or difficult cases.