Wednesday 11 June 2008

On Wheels Behind Bars

Yesterday, the Court held, in the case of Scoppola v. Italy, that Italy had violated Article 3 ECHR. The applicant, a man in a wheelchair who had no physical personal autonomy, was sentenced to life imprisonment after killing his wife and wounding one of his children. He complained about the detention circumstances in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome. Although a national court had already held in June 2006 that continued detention in that prison would amount to inhuman treatment, the applicant was only tranferred to a better-equipped detention facility in September 2007. The European Court held that the national authorities should either have transferred the applicant without delay in June 2006 to exclude any risk of future inhuman treatment or to suspend the execution of the prison sentence which had been found by a national court to be in violation of Article 3 ECHR.

This is a clear case in which Strasbourg points state authorities to the importance of avoiding inhuman or degrading treatment within their jurisdiction. In that sense, the case mirrors extradition and expulsion cases (most famously Soering v. the United Kingdom, 1989) in which the Court first found that it is a state's duty to avoid any future real risk of treatment contrary to Article 3. In Scoppola, the Court speaks of "tout risque" (any/all risk, para. 50), but that may be explained by the fact that a national court had already found that prolonged detention in the Regina Coeli prison amounted to inhuman treatment. Interestingly, the Court held that it could not assess whether the new prison, although undoubtedly better than the old one, was of sufficient quality, since the Court lacked sufficient information on that point. Thus, maybe to be continued...

Scoppola is the latest case in a very long line of Strasbourg case law on detention conditions of detainees, one of the major fields of application of Article 3. Maybe surprisingly, even the issue of wheelchairs in prisons has already been addressed several times. In Price v. the United Kingdom (2001), the applicant was de facto forced to sleep in her wheelchair, because she was physically unable to use the bed in her cell. The case of Vincent v. France (2006) concerned, among others, the lack of availability of an adequate wheelchair for the applicant. And, in a strange twist, in Mathew v. the Netherlands (2005), the authorities refused to provide the applicant with further use of a wheelchair after he had broken off a metal part of his previous one and had attacked the prison wardens with it!

The judgment itself is only available in French, but an English-language press release can be found here.