Graham Mulley is emeritus professor of elderly care, University of Leeds.
The current issue of Age and Ageing features an original paper on Older Europeans and the European Court of Justice by Israel Doron. Why should busy geriatricians be interested in legal activities in Europe?
The short answer is that these courts have the potential for championing old people’s human and legal rights. These courts often judge in favour of elders, yet the number of cases referred is small and is not increasing – despite the greater numbers of elderly citizens.
In an accompanying commentary I trace the development of the courts, describe the key differences between them and outline the ways in which referrals can be made.
There are two major European courts – the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The article by Israel Doron et al focuses on the former. The ECJ is the most important judicial institution in the EU; it is based in Luxembourg, the ECHR being in Strasbourg. The ECJ deals with the interpretation of EU law and ensures that this law is applied uniformly across the 27 EU member states. It considers cases referred from private individuals, companies and other organizations.
The ECHR has jurisdiction over the 46 member states of the Council of Europe and its brief is to ensure that civil and political rights of citizens (including human rights abuses, discrimination and maltreatment of prisoners) are observed. Just to make matters more complicated, the ECJ has also judged on human rights matters.
The ECHR is a final court of appeal, considering only those cases which have reached the most senior national court (for example, the House of Lords in the UK).
In terms of the welfare of old people, Israel Doron et al. has discovered that the ECJ has mainly considered cases involving social policy (such as pension arrangements, age discrimination and mandatory retirement) as well as free movement and social security. There has been a dearth of cases dealing with patient’s rights, long term care or housing. The courts provide (albeit as a final resort) geriatricians and others with an opportunity to support the rights of old people.
The fundamental message here is for us to consider these courts if we are concerned that old citizens’ rights are not being protected. Before considering this line of action, it is advisable to read the ECJ’s guidance for referrals and the Liberty guide to the HCHRs (Your Rights. The Liberty guide to human rights) and to discuss the case with a solicitor who is familiar with the working of these European Courts.