AN v Lithuania



Judge: European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section)

Citation: [2016] ECHR 462

Summary

In the most recent in a long string of cases considering “incapacitation” proceedings in Eastern European countries, the ECtHR has drawn together a number of important threads as regards the application of both articles 6 and 8 to these proceedings.   The observations of the court are – again – ones that resonate in different ways for practice in the Court of Protection.

Article 6

The Court reiterated a number of important general principles relating to proceedings for removal of legal capacity, thus:

  1. In the context of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the Court accepts that in cases involving a mentally-ill person the domestic courts should also enjoy a certain margin of appreciation. Thus, for example, they can make appropriate procedural arrangements in order to secure the good administration of justice, protection of the health of the person concerned, and so forth (see Shtukaturov v. Russia, no. 44009/05, § 68, ECHR 2008).
  1. The Court accepts that there may be situations where a person deprived of legal capacity is entirely unable to express a coherent view. It considers, however, that in many cases the fact that an individual has to be placed under guardianship because he lacks the ability to administer his affairs does not mean that he is incapable of expressing a view on his situation. In such cases, it is essential that the person concerned should have access to court and the opportunity to be heard either in person or, where necessary, through some form of representation. Mental illness may entail restricting or modifying the manner of exercise of such a right, but it cannot justify impairing the very essence of the right, except in very exceptional circumstances, such as those mentioned above. Indeed, special procedural safeguards may prove called for in order to protect the interests of persons who, on account of their mental health issues, are not fully capable of acting for themselves (see D.D. v. Lithuania, cited above, § 118).
  1. The Court also reiterates that there is the importance of ensuring the appearance of the fair administration of justice and a party to civil proceedings must be able to participate effectively, inter alia, by being able to put forward the matters in support of his or her claims. Here, as with other aspects of Article 6, the seriousness of what is at stake for the applicant will be of relevance to assessing the adequacy and fairness of the procedures (see P., C. and S. v. the United Kingdom, no. 56547/00, § 91, ECHR 2002-VI).”

In circumstances where the applicant had not been present at, or aware of, the proceedings for incapacitation (brought at the behest of his mother on the basis of the schizophrenia from which he was suffering), the court highlighted that:

  1. The applicant was indeed an individual with a history of psychiatric troubles. From the case material, however, it appears that despite his mental illness, he had been a relatively independent person. Indeed, and despite his suicide attempts in 2004 and 2006, for most of the time he lived alone, and could apparently take care of himself. Furthermore, the Court notes that the applicant played a double role in the proceedings: he was an interested party, and, at the same time, the main object of the court’s examination. His participation was therefore necessary, not only to enable him to present his own case, but also to allow the judge to have at least brief visual contact with him, and preferably question him to form a personal opinion about his mental capacity (see Shtukaturov, cited above, § 72). Given that the potential finding of the applicant being of unsound mind was, by its very nature, largely based on his personality, his statements would have been an important part of his presentation of his case (see D.D. v. Lithuania., cited above, § 120; see also Principle 13 of the Recommendation No. R (99) 4 by the Council of Europe).

The court could not, further, be satisfied that the hearing was fair despite the fact both the applicant’s mother and the prosecutor attended the hearing, because “there was no one at the court hearing who could, on the applicant’s behalf, rebut the arguments or conclusions by his mother or the prosecutor” (paragraph 98). The court placed particular weight upon the fact that there was a lack of any meaningful involvement by the relevant social services department in determining the merits of the applicant’s case.  Furthermore, it transpired “that the court ruled exclusively on the basis of the psychiatric report without summoning the medical expert who wrote it for questioning (see D.D. v. Lithuania, cited above, § 120). Furthermore, that medical expert report to the effect that the applicant could not take care of himself appears to be based on an account by the applicant’s mother, without there being any proof that those circumstances had been verified by the State or municipal authorities themselves. Similarly, the Court observes that the Akmenė District Court did not call anyone else as a witness so that more light could be shed on the applicant’s state of health.”

The court was also distinctly unimpressed by the fact that, in subsequent proceedings for his forced hospitalization, “the lawyer appointed by the Legal Aid Service ‘represented’ him without even having seen or talked to him” (paragraph 103).

The court held that the applicant had deprived of a clear, practical and effective opportunity to have access to court in connection with his incapacitation proceedings, and particularly in respect of his request to restore his legal capacity which was (essentially) fobbed off on formal grounds, such that there had been a violation of article 6(1) ECHR.

Article 8

The court noted that it has consistently held that:

… deprivation of legal capacity undeniably constitutes a serious interference with the right to respect for a person’s private life protected under Article 8 (see, for example, Matter v. Slovakia, no. 31534/96, § 68, 5 July 1999). It reiterates that Article 8 secures to the individual a sphere within which he or she can freely pursue the development and fulfilment of his personality (see Smirnova v. Russia, nos. 46133/99 and 48183/99, § 95, ECHR 2003-IX (extracts)). It has not been disputed by the Government that the Akmenė District Court’s decision of 31 January 2007 deprived the applicant of his capacity to act independently in almost all areas of his life: at the relevant time he was no longer able to sell or buy any property on his own, work, choose a place of residence, marry, or bring a court action in Lithuania. The Court cannot but hold that the deprivation of legal capacity thus amounted to an interference with his right to respect for his private life (see Shtukaturov, cited above, § 83). (paragraph 111).

Further, whilst national authorities should enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in a “complex matter as determining somebody’s mental capacity”, “the margin of appreciation to be accorded to the competent national authorities will vary in accordance with the nature of the issues and the importance of the interests at stake. A stricter scrutiny is called for in respect of very serious limitations in the sphere of private life” (paragraphs 116-117) The court reiterated that “whilst Article 8 of the Convention contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision-making process involved in measures of interference must be fair and such as to ensure due respect of the interests safeguarded by Article 8 (see Görgülü v. Germany, no. 74969/01, § 52, 26 February 2004). The extent of the State’s margin of appreciation thus depends on the quality of the decision-making process. If the procedure was seriously deficient in some respect, the conclusions of the domestic authorities are more open to criticism (see Shtukaturov, cited above, § 89)” (paragraph 118).

In finding that the applicant’s Article 8 rights had been infringed, the court had particular regard to the fact that the proceedings before the Akmenė District Court did not give the judge an opportunity to examine the applicant in person. “In such circumstances, it cannot be said that the judge had the benefit of direct contact with the person concerned, which would normally call for judicial restraint on the part of the Court. Furthermore, the applicant’s incapacitation proceedings ended at one level of jurisdiction, his participation in that decision-making process being reduced to nothing” (paragraph 120).

The court emphasised that “when restrictions on the fundamental rights apply to a particularly vulnerable group in society that has suffered considerable discrimination in the past, the Court has also held that then the State’s margin of appreciation is substantially narrower and must have very weighty reasons for the restrictions in question. The reason for this approach, which questions certain classifications per se, is that such groups were historically subject to prejudice with lasting consequences, resulting in their social exclusion. Such prejudice could entail legislative stereotyping which prohibits the individualised evaluation of their capacities and needs. In the past, the Court has identified a number of such vulnerable groups that suffered different treatment, persons with mental disabilities being one of them (see Alajos Kiss v. Hungary, no. 38832/06, § 42, 20 May 2010, and Kiyutin v. Russia, no. 2700/10, § 63, ECHR 2011)” (paragraph 125).

Comment

In light of the principles set out above, what would the Strasbourg court make of a decision (say) by the Court of Protection made on the papers to appoint a property and affairs deputy for a person, a decision that can only be made on the basis of a determination that the person is factually incapable of making decisions as to their property and affairs?   In light of Rule 3A of the Court of Protection Rules, introduced in July last year, and the express direction to the court to consider how the person concerned is to participate in what (in effect) are partial incapacitation proceedings, there are grounds to think that the court might think somewhat less dimly of such proceedings.   However, the ringing – and consistent – statements that, in principle, persons to be subject to such proceedings should see the judge (and that judge should, in essence, conduct their own capacity assessment upon them) do not sit entirely easily with Court of Protection practice even as modified by Rule 3A.   They should also – we suggest – serve as a reminder that justification will always be required in relation to any steps that are to be taken away from participation in CoP proceedings by way of full party status, together with representation by a representative charged with putting matters forward in support of P’s contentions (we suggest either as to capacity or best interests).   In other words, party status and ‘direct’ representation (i.e. representation on the basis of such instructions as can be obtained from P, not ‘best interests’ representation as at present) should be the starting point, not the end point, in any consideration of how rights under Articles 6 and 8 ECHR (let alone 12 and 13 CRPD) are to be secured.

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