Seminar: European Human Rights Culture – What Role for the Margin of…

On 15 February 2018, an expert will be held at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, focusing on that evergreen of ECHR scholarship: the margin of appreciation.

The speakers include scholars of ECHR law – including the Strasbourg Observer’s Professor Eva Brems – and legal theory, as well as ECtHR Judge Paul Lemmens.

For further information, please visit the seminar’s website. Note that the registration deadline is 5 February.

S.A.S. v. France as a problematic precedent

As this blog already features an excellent post on SAS v France, this is a brief contribution, with a specific focus, namely SAS v France as a problematic precedent beyond the issue of the face veil and even beyond religious freedom cases. I shall focus on two problematic aspects of the judgment: its acceptance of the promotion of ‘living together’ as a legitimate ground for the restriction of fundamental rights, coupled with a wide margin of appreciation; and the way it assesses the seriousness of the interference. Continue reading

S.A.S. v. France: A short summary of an interesting hearing

On Wednesday, our research team attended the Grand Chamber hearing at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S.A.S. v. France, in which we submitted a third party intervention on behalf of the Ghent University Human Rights Centre. The case concerns the French law banning the face veil, a highly debated piece of legislation, which was also obvious from the amount of international press covering the hearing. I will first briefly discuss the content of our third-party intervention and then turn to a summary of the hearing which left a positive impression on us.

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Mann Singh wins turban case in Geneva after losing in Strasbourg

The name Mann Singh will probably ring a bell with those who are familiar with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. In Mann Singh v. France (ECHR, 13/11/2008/, no 4479/07), the Strasbourg Court was confronted with the question whether the French obligation to appear bareheaded on photographs on identity documents was compatible with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In the case discussed in this post, the same applicant is involved, however, this time he made a claim concerning the prohibition to wear a turban on the photograph on his passport (instead of his driver’s license) and more importantly, he brought his claim in front of the UN Human Rights Committee (hereafter HRC). The same applicant going with almost the same claim to different human rights bodies is quite an exceptional situation. Continue reading

Freedom of Religion in Public Schools: Strasbourg Court v. UN Human Rights Committee

In a recent decision, the Human Rights Committee of the UN found a violation of the right to freedom of religion in a case concerning the famous and highly debated French law of 2004 that prohibits the wearing of religious garment in public schools. Accordingly the UN Committee called upon France to revisit its legislation. This UN Committee’s decision is remarkable, especially since the European Court of Human Rights was also confronted with the same question —whether expulsing pupils from school because of their wearing of religious garment is violating fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and the prohibition of discrimination—, but contrary to the UN jurisdiction, the ECtHR declared the claims manifestly ill-founded. This recent development is also relevant for the Belgian context, where the debate on headscarves in public schools has been reopened after the Flemish board of public schools announced two weeks ago that they will implement a general ban on religious “signs” for pupils and members of personnel. In this post, I will first summarize the UN decision and subsequently compare it to the Strasbourg case law.

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Scoppola v. Italy (no. 3): The Grand Chamber faces the “constitutional justice vs. individual justice” dilemma (but it doesn’t tell)

This guest post was written by Cesare Pitea, Researcher in International Law (Faculty of Law) and Assistant Professor of Interational Law (Faculty of Political Science), University of Parma (Italy).


1.       Judging in a Heated Political Context

In the Scoppola  v. Italy (no. 3) judgment ([GC], no. 126/05, 22 May 2012),  the third chapter of the “Scoppola Saga” (See Scoppola v. Italy, no. 50550/06, 10 June 2008 and Scoppola v. Italy (no. 2) [GC], no. 10249/03, 17 September 2009), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) had the chance of reassessing the issue of  prisoners’ deprivation of the right to vote under Art. 3 of Prot. No. 1. Indeed, the 2004 Grand Chamber judgment in Hirst v. the United Kingdom (no. 2) ([GC], no. 74025/01, 30 March 2004) on this very same subject had caused an heated debate between defenders of national sovereignty and subsidiarity (see Lord Hoffman’s critical remarks here) and supporters of a more effective and incisive international judicial review by the Court, causing  an on-going (see the post by L. Peroni and M. Burbergs) tension between the Court and one of its “founding fathers”, the United Kingdom. Echoes of this controversy have recently been heard in Brighton, where at the High-level conference convened by the British Government, the idea of narrowing the Court’s powers of review – inter alia by introducing the notion of the margin of appreciation in the text of the Convention – was initially flagged (see the UK Draft Brighton Declaration) and finally dropped (see the adopted Brighton Declaration).

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Remembering the private and family lives of mentally disabled persons

In the case of Stanev v. Bulgaria the Grand Chamber gives hope for future developments in the Court’s approach towards the protection of private and family lives of mentally disabled people (Lycette Nelson from the Mental Disability Advocacy Center has also blogged about this case, read it here). Even though the majority did not find it necessary to examine Mr. Stanev’s complaint under Article 8, the dissenting opinions of four judges show that there are voices within the Court that consider that the institutionalization of mentally disabled persons has more aspects the Convention should protect. Continue reading

S.H. and Others v Austria: margin of appreciation and IVF

In Austria, it is forbidden to use donated sperm or ova for in vitro fertilization (‘IVF’). Ovum donation is under all circumstances prohibited; sperm donation is only possible when the sperm is directly placed in the womb of a woman (in vivo artificial insemination). Two Austrian couples complained about this regulation; the first couple needs IVF treatment with use of donor sperm and the other couple needs IVF with use of a donor ovum to fulfill their wish for a child of which at least one of them is the genetic parent. In 2010, the First Section held in S.H. and Others v. Austria that the Austrian regulation violated Article 14 in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention, with a vote of 6-1 regarding the first couple and 5-2 vote regarding the second couple. Stijn and I have both blogged about that Chamber judgment (see here and here).

The Grand Chamber reversed that judgment a few days ago. With a vote of 13 to 4, the Grand Chamber concludes that the restrictive Austrian assisted reproduction regulation is not contrary to the Convention. Quite frankly, I have difficulties writing this post. The case raises very complex issues, situated as it is within a highly contentious debate about the way the Court should adjudicate culturally or ethically sensitive issues. Recently, the Court has had to endure a barrage of critique for what is perceived as its usurpation of power from the Contracting States. The majority of the Grand Chamber goes to great lengths in this case to appease its critics and appear respectful of State sovereignty: ‘the Court’s task is not to substitute itself for the competent national authorities in determining the most appropriate policy for regulating matters of artificial procreation’ (par 92). And: ‘The Court considers that concerns based on moral considerations or on social acceptability must be taken seriously in a sensitive domain like artificial procreation’ (par. 100). The stakes are high; a lot of pressure is put on the Court. In its third-party intervention, the Italian Government practically announces the apocalypse if ovum donation were allowed: ‘to call maternal filiation into question by splitting motherhood would lead to a weakening of the entire structure of society’ (par 73).

It is impossible to navigate this debate and discuss all the facets of the case satisfactorily in a blog post. I will limit my discussion to the Court’s use of the margin of appreciation- and consensus-arguments, and Austria’s reasons in support of its restrictive legislation as regards assisted reproduction. Continue reading

Lautsi v. Italy: Possible Implications for Minority Religious Symbols

What are the implications of the recent landmark judgment in Lautsi for minority religious symbols in state school classrooms? At first sight, the Court seems to adopt a more open approach towards the presence of religious symbols in the school environment. On closer examination, however, this may not necessarily be the case. This post briefly speculates on the Court’s answers in two post-Lautsi imaginary scenarios: What would happen in a case filed by a state school teacher wearing a headscarf against a Member State that bans it? What might be the Court’s response to a parent’s complaint against a Member State that allows teachers to wear the headscarf in state schools? Continue reading

Kiyutin v. Russia: landmark case concerning the human rights of people living with HIV

Recently, the Court came down with a judgment that strongly condemns the stigmatization of people living with HIV. Kiyutin v. Russia is, as far as I was able to ascertain, the first case in which the Court rules on the merits of a claim of discrimination on the ground of a person’s HIV-positive status. Straight away, the Court has chosen to become a leader in the battle against stigma and discrimination of people with HIV. Continue reading

2010: year of “profound moral views”?

2010 was a turbulent year for the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has been under fire both for usurping too much power and for achieving too little. The first type of critique is made by conservatives who recycle the old idea that an international court has no legitimacy to judge the situation on the ground in individual states; this year vocally proclaimed in for, for example, the Netherlands (in Dutch) and Russia. The second type of critique – that the Court is doing too little – refers primarily to the huge backlog in cases. The Court is not managing its workload; therefore we saw such initiatives as the Interlaken Conference.[1]  

 To my mind, the year was characterized by an intense debate about the legal relevance/importance of an individual society’s moral values.  The abortion case of A, B and C v. Ireland is the most recent of a series of high-profile cases, all delivered in 2010 and all essentially revolving around the question to what extent the Strasbourg Court should take national morality into account when determining whether human rights violations have taken place in a certain state.  Apart from the abortion case, I’m thinking here of cases concerning sexual orientation (Schalk and Kopf v. Austria and Alekseyev v. Russia) and sex discrimination (Konstantin Markin v. Russia). What follows is a brief review and a critique of A, B and C v. Ireland. Continue reading

Zubczewski v Sweden: margin of appreciation as a blank check

An observer of the Strasbourg case-law should always remember to include the inadmissibility decisions in her research. The changes in the Court’s procedures, introducing committees of three judges and judges sitting alone, have made this more difficult (those decisions are not on HUDOC), yet at the same time have resulted in a situation in which the inadmissibility decisions that figure on HUDOC are already a selection, since the most interesting ones are still likely to be dealt with by a chamber of seven. Inadmissibility decisions can be frustrating , because the Court’s reasoning in such cases tends to be quite succinct. This is particularly the case if you do not agree with the Court’s finding that a case is ‘manifestly ill-founded’.

This was my experience recently with the case of Zubczewski v Sweden. As a result of his marriage at the age of 63, this gentleman found his pension reduced with approximately 50 Euros per month. The reasoning behind this is the idea that persons who live together have lower expenses per head than persons living alone. Yet as Zubczewski’s wife did not have any income, this reasoning did not apply to his case. Total expenses of the household had increased while the pension had decreased. He claimed that the lack of an exception for his situation was discriminatory.

I do not spontaneously sympathize with men who invoke the economic dependency of their wives as a source of discrimination. Yet the Court’s reasoning in this case left me unsatisfied.

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