IRATE at being at the receiving end of adverse judgments, Britain is considering whether its citizens should be allowed to turn for justice to the European Court of Human Rights.
Prime Minister John Major has until January to decide - and analysts say there is a real chance that a right Britons have exercised for the past 40 years will be withdrawn.
Furious debate about the court, based in Strasbourg, France, was triggered by a Sept. 27 decision. The court found that the killing by British undercover security forces of three Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists in Gibraltar in 1988 was ''in breach of international conventions'' safeguarding ''the right to human life.''
The court consists of up to 20 judges drawn from the 34 states of the Council of Europe - a grouping separate from the 15-nation European Union.
Mr. Major called the decision ''a ludicrous verdict that will give succor to terrorism.'' Officials indicated that ministers would review the system under which British citizens can appeal to Strasbourg against verdicts in their own country's courts.
Lord Lester, a leading British counsel and an expert on the Strasbourg court, says that Britain, having tried to convince former Soviet-bloc countries to join the European Convention, would be hypocritical to then pull out itself.
The judgment is the latest in a long line that have gone against Britain. Since 1966, 36 out of 55 appeals to Strasbourg have been successful. Several more are waiting. Only Turkey has a worse record.
The treaty that set up the court protects such basic rights as the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Its judgments are based on the 1959 European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain helped draft.
''If Britain made the European Convention part of British law, embarrassments of this kind would not arise,'' Lord Lester says.
LORD Taylor, Britain's chief justice, along with other judges, has urged the government to incorporate the convention into Britain's legal system, saying ''taking cases to Strasbourg is like washing our dirty linen in public.'' But the government has declined.
The Gibraltar shootings happened at the peak of IRA terrorist activity. They provoked huge controversy, but then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to allow an official inquiry. There was never any doubt that the terrorists intended to plant a bomb, but families of the three argued that they should have been arrested, not shot.
The terrorists were later found to be unarmed, and a vehicle believed to be a car bomb contained no explosives. Police later found a cache of explosives the terrorists had planned to use.