Wednesday 10 July 2013

Three Important Judgments of this Week

As the Court (and this blog) are moving towards summer recess, let me highlight three important judgments the European Court of Human Rights delivered this week (every time with the press release summary of the Court itself - the first two are Grand Chamber judgments):

Vinter and Others v. The United Kingdom (Whole life orders should include the possibility of review but this should not be understood as giving the prospect of imminent release)

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held, by 16 votes to one, that there had been a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned three applicants’ complaint that their imprisonment for life amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment as they had no hope of release.

The Court found in particular that, for a life sentence to remain compatible with Article 3, there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review. It noted that there was clear support in European and international law and practice for those principles, with the large majority of Convention Contracting States not actually imposing life sentences at all or, if they did, providing for a review of life sentences after a set period (usually 25 years’ imprisonment). The domestic law concerning the Justice Secretary’s power to release a person subject to a whole life order was unclear. In addition, prior to 2003 a review of the need for a whole life order had automatically been carried out by a Minister 25 years into the sentence. This had been eliminated in 2003 and no alternative review mechanism put in place. In these circumstances, the Court was not persuaded that the applicants’ whole life sentences were compatible with the European Convention.

In finding a violation in this case, however, the Court did not intend to give the applicants any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue in this case and were not the subject of argument before the Court. The only claim for just satisfaction that had been made was by Mr Vinter and the Court declined to award any damages.
See the early comments on the UK Human Rights Blog here.

Sindicatul “Păstorul cel Bun” v. Romania (Refusal to register a trade union for priests on account of the autonomy of religious communities is not unreasonable)

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held, by a majority, that there had been no violation of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the refusal by the Romanian State of an application for registration of a trade union formed by priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Whereas the Court had held in its Chamber judgment that the Dolj County Court had not taken sufficient account of all the relevant arguments and had justified its refusal to register the union on purely religious grounds based on the provisions of the Church’s Statute, the Grand Chamber took the view that the County Court’s decision had simply applied the principle of the autonomy of religious communities. The court’s refusal to register the union for failure to comply with the requirement of obtaining the archbishop’s permission was a direct consequence of the right of the religious community concerned to make its own organisational arrangements and to operate in accordance with the provisions of its own Statute.

The Court held that in refusing to register the applicant union, the State had simply declined to become involved in the organisation and operation of the Romanian Orthodox Church, thereby observing its duty of denominational neutrality under Article 9 of the Convention.
And finally, Vona v Hungary (Hungarian authorities’ dissolution of association involved in anti-Roma rallies and paramilitary parading was not disproportionate)

The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been: no violation of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the dissolution of an association on account of the anti-Roma rallies and demonstrations organised by its movement.

The Court recalled that, as with political parties, the State was entitled to take preventive measures to protect democracy against associations if a sufficiently imminent prejudice to the rights of others undermined the fundamental values upon which a democratic society rested and functioned. In this case, a movement created by Mr Vona’s association had led to demonstrations conveying a message of racial division, which, reminiscent of the Hungarian Nazi Movement (Arrow Cross), had had an intimidating effect on the Roma minority. Indeed, such paramilitary marches had gone beyond the mere expression of a disturbing or offensive idea, which is protected under the Convention, given the physical presence of a threatening group of organised activists. Therefore, the only way to effectively eliminate the threat posed by the movement had been to remove the organisational backup provided by the association.