A Quantitative Textual Approach of the European Consensus Method of Interpretation in the European Court of Human Rights

How can we provide new methods of European Consensus elaboration in order to answer complex and controversial moral and political questions surrounding human rights law in Europe ?

Project Summary

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has the final say in human rights protection in Europe. The Court has developed a method of interpretation, European consensus (EuC), which it can use to decide on morally, politically or socially sensitive issues. With this method, the Court assesses whether the common practice of European states, international actors, and other authorities leads to the emergence of new human rights standards. EuC allows the ECtHR to build standards in socially sensitive areas such as religious dress and social minorities protection. Despite its importance, there is little clarity on the meaning and function of EuC in legal scholarship.

  • What is the EuC?
  • How does consensus function within the ECtHR system?
  • How to build an appropriate measure in framework for EuC?

We take a pluri-disciplinary approach to define EuC and measure its use in ECtHR case law. By applying computational text analysis techniques often used in quantitative political science, we will construct and validate new measures of EuC. We combine expert human coding of legal texts done by human rights lawyers and computational approaches from social science for textual data. Our new measures will allow the team to determine both the nature and also the level of consensus in each judgment as well as identify the language that indicates consensus analysis in the first place.

Once we have constructed these new measures, we will use them to test important questions in the literature such as whether the ECtHR is more likely to find consensus when human rights standards emerge in one set of countries rather than another, whether certain countries are more likely to disagree with a new emerging consensus as determined by the Court, whose views are reflected in consensus judgments, and finally, how consensus functions within the ECtHR system.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The European Consensus method is a tool for judicial decision-making employed by the European Court of Human Rights when adjudicating on sensitive moral and social issues. Our project has employed human hand-coding combined with computational techniques to uncover the nature of European Consensus in judgments rendered by the Court. We find that European Consensus is a tool that has become increasingly common over time, is used more when the Court makes decisions in cases involving certain member states – most notably the United Kingdom, but also France – and when making decisions with respect to certain articles of the European Convention of Human Rights – most notably articles 8 (private and family life), 2 (life) 10 (freedom of expression) and 14 (non-discrimination). These findings help shape our understanding of how human rights law has evolved in Europe through the ECHR system.


Judges use methods of legal interpretation, or legal “tools”, to construct arguments when deciding cases. This is not only true of judges in national legal systems, but also of international judges. Judges on the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) — the international court that adjudicates cases regarding human rights outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) — have developed a particular method of legal interpretation, the method of European consensus (EuC). EuC is a “tool” used by ECtHR judges when making potentially controversial decisions about the emergence of new human rights, e.g., the right to have an abortion, or the right to same-sex marriage. It is a method of comparison to other countries’ laws and norms, but also to other sources of law, such as international law standards, the case law of other (international) courts, or the practice of international organizations. In short, EuC allows the Court to draw on external sources and on human rights standards developed at the national level or within various international organisations as a means of argumentation. Judges can, in effect, argue that it is the consensus stemming from and reflected in a variety of sources that a concrete human rights standard has (or has not) emerged. Such arguments, as asserted by scholars of European human rights law and the ECtHR, can confer legitimacy on ECtHR decisions and increase the likelihood that actors (e.g., judges and lawyers) in national legal systems pay them heed (Dzehtsiarou 2015).


Decision-Making in the European Court of Human Rights: Quantifying the European Consensus Method

When deciding cases about the emergence of human rights across Europe, Judges at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) use methods of interpretation to provide reasoning or justification for their decisions. The nature and quality of this legal argumentation is important because it can provide the Court’s ruling with legitimacy, especially within the national legal systems of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) contracting states. In this paper, we explore the nature of one of these legal methods of interpretation – European consensus (EuC). The Court often uses EuC when making decisions on morally, politically, or socially controversial, sensitive, or ambiguous human rights (HR) issues. But as a method of legal interpretation, EuC remains incompletely defined and understood by the legal community. Scholars can be unsure of what constitutes consensus and, in many instances -in particular when this term is not explicitly used by a ECtHR judgment – even whether the Court has employed it as a method of interpretation. We apply quantitative text-as-data methods to quantify the use of EuC within ECtHR decision-making. We reveal the language used in conjunction with the method and we demonstrate the frequency with which the Court uses the method, how this has changed over time, and the correlates of EuC, such as the nature of cases where it is used by the court.

Research Team

Jonathan B. Slapin
University of Zurich

Denise Traber
University of Basel

Nicole Baerg
Principal Member
University of Essex

Hauke Licht
Principal Member
University of Zurich

Vassilis P Tzevelekos
Principal Member
University of Liverpool

Panos Kapotas
Principal Member
University of Portsmouth

Kushtrim Istrefi
Principal Member
University of Utrecht

Maria Fanou
Principal Member
Queen Mary University

Stephanos Stavros
Associated Member
Council of Europe

Mirjana Lazarova Trajkovska
Associated Member
Supreme Court Macedonia

Christos Rozakis
Associated Member
European Court of Human Rights





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