The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) codifies democratic and constitutional minimum standards for the current 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the interpretation and control of which is the responsibility of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (Art. 32 para. 1 ECHR). The ECtHR was established on 21 February 1959 and is based in Strasbourg. Today, around 800 million people have access to the ECtHR.


Any person, association or non-governmental organisation that claims to have been the victim of a violation of the ECHR has the right to lodge an individual complaint (Art. 34 ECHR).

The ECtHR merely recognises violations of the ECHR. Nevertheless, the convicted state is bound by the decision of the ECtHR (Art. 46 para. 1 ECHR). If the Court also finds that national law only provides inadequate compensation for the violation of the Convention, it can award the injured party “just satisfaction”.

The length of proceedings before the Court of Justice is very long due to the large number of complaints received. In addition, before appealing to the ECtHR, the national appeals process must first be fully exhausted, which also takes several years. There can therefore be no question of “rapid clarification”.


Only sovereign state action is a suitable object of the individual complaint.

The complainant must assert that a right guaranteed by the ECHR or one of the additional protocols is currently and directly violated (see also the comparable requirements for constitutional complaints).

Numerous convention rights can be of significance for criminal law, such as, among others:

  • Right to life ( 2 ECHR)
  • Prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment ( 3 ECHR)
  • Right to liberty and security and prisoners’ rights ( 5 ECHR)
  • Right to a fair trial ( 6 para. 1 sentence 1 ECHR)
  • Presumption of innocence ( 6 para. 2 ECHR)
  • Specific rights of the accused, in particular the right to defence counsel and to confront prosecution witnesses ( 6 para. 3 ECHR)
  • Right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence ( 8 ECHR)

The “direct route to Strasbourg” is excluded. The complainant may only turn to the Court of Justice after all national legal remedies have been exhausted without success (so-called exhaustion of legal remedies), which usually takes several years. The ECtHR is also very strict with regard to the subsidiarity threshold. This means that all extraordinary legal remedies must be exhausted before appealing to the ECtHR. In Germany, this also includes the constitutional complaint. Consequently, there are high hurdles to an admissible appeal to the ECtHR.

The individual appeal must be lodged within four months of the final domestic decision. The official languages of the Court of Justice are English and French (Art. 34 para. 1 RP). However, an individual application may also be lodged in one of the official languages of a contracting party, i.e. also in German (Art. 34 para. 2 of the Constitution).

To lodge a complaint, you must use the PDF form provided by the ECtHR. High formal requirements are placed on the presentation of the facts of the case, the course of proceedings and the annexes to the complaint. A large number of complaints received in Strasbourg fail because of these formal hurdles.

In many cases, complaints are already rejected by a single judge in accordance with Art. 27 ECHR. The court normally rules on the complaint in writing; in exceptional cases, a decision is made in an oral hearing at the court’s seat in Strasbourg.

There is no obligation to be represented by a lawyer when lodging a complaint; however, if the complaint is accepted, the complainant must be represented. Proceedings before the ECtHR are free of charge. The lawyer’s fees are generally borne by the complainant. Legal aid may be granted (cf. Art. 100 para. 1, Art. 101 of the Constitution).


The path to Strasbourg is certainly even rockier and further than that to Karlsruhe by way of a constitutional complaint. Nevertheless, in rare, selected cases, a human rights complaint to the ECtHR should be part of the toolkit of an experienced criminal defence lawyer.