The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) this week delivered a landmark judgment for the rights of persons with psycho-social disabilities and intellectual disabilities in the case of Stanev v Bulgaria. The Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee represented Mr. Stanev in his efforts to bring domestic proceedings and at the ECtHR. The London-based NGO Interights intervened as a third party in the case.
The Court found a violation of Article 5 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), finding that the applicant was “detained” in a social care institution, the first time that the Court has made such a finding. As Mr. Stanev was legally unable to challenge or seek compensation for his detention, Articles 5(4) and 5(5) of the ECHR had been violated. The Court also held unanimously that Mr. Stanev had been subjected to degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 of the ECHR by being forced to live for more than seven years in unsanitary and unlivable conditions and that domestic law did not provide him any remedy for such violations. This is the first case in which the Court has found a violation of Article 3 in a social care setting.
The other major issue raised in the case was how the law prohibited Mr. Stanev from challenging restrictions on his legal capacity. Having been placed under partial guardianship, under Bulgarian law he needed his guardian’s consent to initiate such a proceeding, and because of this the Court unanimously found that Mr. Stanev’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the ECHR had been violated. In this regard, the Court referred to the growing emphasis that international law places on the legal autonomy of persons with disabilities, stating that it “is also obliged to note the growing importance which international instruments for the protection of people with mental disorders are now attaching to granting them as much legal autonomy as possible”, and goes on to reference the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Judgment, para. 244).
Lycette Nelson, MDAC Litigation Director stated:
“Following this judgment, States throughout Europe must end policies and practices that unnecessarily restrict the liberty of thousands of persons with psycho-social disabilities and intellectual disabilities in the provision of social care. The Grand Chamber judgment is unanimous that consent to such placement is necessary to avoid violating the ECHR. States must develop alternatives to ensure the right to live in the community for all.”
Oliver Lewis MDAC Executive Director responded to the judgment by stating:
“Bulgaria must revise its laws restricting legal capacity to bring them into line with international law and the Court’s judgment, so that people can be supported to make their own decisions, rather than having their right to make decisions stripped from them”.