The Most Powerful Judge in Europe. He May Be British but He's Never Had a Top Job on the Bench Here and, Naturally, He's a Human Rights Devotee

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Byline: Steve Doughty Social Affairs Correspondent

A BRITISH lawyer who has never held a senior judge's job in this country was yesterday put in charge of the European Court of Human Rights.

Sir Nicolas Bratza takes over leadership of the Strasbourg court while it is in the midst of a dispute with David Cameron and his Coalition over its demand that prisoners should have the right to vote.

Even leading liberal judges in England have criticised the human rights court for interfering in British democracy.

Sir Nicolas, 66, was chosen for the post in a vote among the 47 judges appointed to Strasbourg by their countries.

His promotion to president gives him a leading role among the human rights judges who are increasingly seen as the real supreme court, making the final decisions over what law must be obeyed in Britain.

He has served as a Strasbourg judge since 1998, and taken part in several cases which have done most to anger British politicians and stoke resentment of human rights law among the public.

In particular, he was a member of the human rights court's appeal body, the Grand Chamber, when it decided in 2005 that axe killer John Hirst had been wrongfully deprived of the vote when he was in prison.

The court is now demanding that the Government acts against the will of MPs and overturns hundreds of years of British practice which denies the franchise to convicted prisoners. Sir Nicolas is a lawyer and human rights enthusiast who reached the rank of QC as a courtroom lawyer but did not win any senior appointment to the judiciary in England.

He went to Strasbourg as a court official in 1993, a year in which he was made a recorder, the most junior level of Crown Court judge, in this country.

Yesterday human rights advocates said British voters should be proud of Sir Nicolas's appointment. James Welch of Liberty said: 'It should be a matter of great pride that the British judge on the Court of Human Rights has been elected to such an important and influential position by his European peers.

'It is very significant that a judge so steeped in the principles of the common law should be leading the Strasbourg court as important decisions are made about its future.

'Doubtless, Sir Nicolas's appointment will also encourage a greater understanding of Britain's ongoing contribution to international human rights law. …