Russia legal case proceeds to next stage in Strasbourg

A landmark legal challenge launched by a coalition of MPs over the British government’s failure to investigate Russian interference has received permission to move to the next stage in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The cross-party group of MPs alleges that the British government is infringing the “right to free and fair elections”, which is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. They are pursuing the case through the court in Strasbourg after the High Court rejected their arguments. The government has until April 26 to respond. 

The legal action, which was launched with the support of the Citizens, follows the government’s refusal to act on the findings of the Russia Report, published by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in July 2020, which accused the government of turning a blind eye to attempts by Russia to interfere with the UK’s electoral processes. 

Caroline Lucas, former leader of the Green party and one of three MPs who are bringing the case, alongside Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and Alyn Smith of the SNP, said “the future of democracy is on trial”. 

It is the first time a group of sitting MPs has taken the government to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of national security. This will also be the first time the court has considered how foreign interference in democratic processes impacts on the right to free and fair elections. If the claim is successful it could have implications for European governments and their duty to protect against foreign threats of manipulation and disinformation.

The court in Strasbourg indicated that the case has merit and has written to the government inviting it to respond in detail to the allegations by 26 April. In its letter the ECtHR notes that the MPs’ claim may be designated an ‘impact’ case. Impact cases are those deemed to be of particular importance because they deal with emerging or otherwise significant human rights issues, or might lead to a change or clarification of legislation, or which touch upon significant moral or social issues. 

“With a general election on the horizon, and with Russia’s war on Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the stakes have never been higher. So I’m delighted that this landmark court case is proceeding to the next stage, and our government will be dragged to the courtroom to explain its inaction. The future of democracy is on trial.”

Caroline Lucas MP

“It’s two and a half years since the Russia Report showed credible evidence of Russian interference in UK elections, and yet our government has continually turned a blind eye to its jaw-dropping findings,” said Lucas, who is MP for Brighton Pavilion.

She added: “With a general election on the horizon, and with Russia’s war on Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the stakes have never been higher. Ministers simply can’t be allowed to keep ignoring national security issues for reasons of political inconvenience. So I’m delighted that this landmark court case is proceeding to the next stage, and our government will be dragged to the courtroom to explain its inaction. The future of democracy is on trial.”

The Russia Report was completed by the ISC in November 2019 but Boris Johnson’s government suppressed its publication until the following summer. The report declared Russian influence in British politics “the new normal” and claimed that the government did not know whether there had been interference in the EU referendum in 2016 “because they did not want to know”. The ISC called for an inquiry, similar in scope to the Mueller Report in the US – which uncovered evidence of “sweeping and systematic” attempts by the Kremlin to influence the 2016 presidential election –  and an updated legal and institutional framework to protect democratic integrity.

When the government failed to act on these recommendations, the MPs joined forces with peers Lord Strasburger and Baroness Wheatcroft, the Citizens and solicitors Leigh Day to file an application for judicial review in August 2020. Permission for judicial review was refused by the High Court and the group’s application for permission to appeal was turned down by the Court of Appeal. The case was taken to the European Court in March 2022. 

Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires regular, free, secret-ballot elections which “ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people”. The claimants argue that this right imposes positive obligations on States to ensure the integrity of their electoral processes, including to investigate hostile state interference in democratic elections.

“We argue that the government’s failure was a breach of its duty to ensure free and fair elections in the United Kingdom, and as such constitutes a very serious breach of its obligations to the British people,” said Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter.

He added: “A number of us have been warning about Putin’s real intent for more than 10 years. We know that his long-term strategy has been to destabilise and divide Western democracies and nothing that’s happened in recent British history has done more to destabilise Europe, and Britain’s relationship with it, than Brexit.” 

However, the aim of the legal action was not an attempt to reverse Brexit, said Bradshaw: “This is about something far more fundamental than that. It’s about [protecting] the integrity of our politics, our democratic system and our electoral process from Russia and other hostile state actors, whose active strategy is to try to disrupt and destroy that model.”

Alyn Smith, MP for Stirling, said: “The Russia Report was the wake-up call which showed how successive UK governments have failed to take their own security responsibilities seriously to ensure free, fair and secure elections in these islands. It is frankly staggering that we are still having to drag the UK government kicking and screaming to implement many of the report’s proposals. I’m proud to be part of cross-party efforts to force the UK government to take interference in elections seriously and I am optimistic that the next steps in our case will see us succeed in doing this.”

Lord Ricketts, one of the UK’s foremost experts on national security who, among other roles, previously served as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and was first National Security adviser to the UK government from 2010-12, has given evidence in the proceedings on behalf of the MPs. In his witness statement he described how, in his view, it was wrong for the UK government to delay publication of the Russia Report until after the 2019 general election because it contained information that the British electorate should have been alerted to before voting. 

The MPs are represented by Leigh Day partner Tessa Gregory and senior associate Tom Short who said: “This important case is about the integrity of democracies and may have implications across Europe on the need for States to protect against foreign threats of manipulation and disinformation.”

The court declined to accept Lord Strasburger and Baroness Wheatcroft as claimants (it is assumed on the basis that as peers they are not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections and therefore cannot be considered victims) so the action will now proceed solely on behalf of Ben Bradshaw, Caroline Lucas and Alyn Smith.