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Britain may be able to repay the compliment by using its once-in-a-generation opportunity to push changes through the court's sponsoring body, the Council of Europe. Each of its 47 states takes it in turn to chair the council's committee of (foreign) ministers for six months. The UK, which comes between Ukraine and Albania in the alphabetical list, takes over the decison-making body in November. That fits in very nicely with the court's decision to elect Sir Nicolas Bratza, the British judge, as president from early that month.

And what reforms might Britain initiate? A good starting point must be the interim advice of the Commission on a Bill of Rights. This is a rather curious body, consisting of seven QCs and the Standpoint writer Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, chaired by Sir Leigh Lewis. At least three of the QCs strongly support human rights legislation; three others, along with Pinto-Duschinsky, are seen as deeply sceptical. That fault line is deftly handled by Lewis in the interim recommendations he drafted. You don't get to be a permanent secretary without making sure that the advice you give ministers is the advice that ministers want to receive. 

The commission's leading recommendation is that the human rights court should be reformed to ensure that only the most important cases come before it. Member states should assume primary responsibility for dealing with violations, and failure to do so should itself be a breach of the convention. Strasbourg should be a court of last resort rather than a first port of call. It should be deciding hundreds of cases a year rather than tens of thousands.

To achieve this, according to the commission, judges must be given the power to dismiss cases that raise no serious violation of the convention or issues of European public importance. Similar advice was given to the committee of ministers a decade ago, when there were 18,000 cases awaiting a decision. The backlog has now reached 160,000 cases.

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