Prosecutors Behaving Badly: Revisiting the Operational Duty to Protect Trafficked Persons in V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom

By John Trajer, PhD Researcher in Law at the European University Institute


In V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom, delivered on 16 February 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (‘the Court’ or ‘the ECtHR’) was called upon to consider whether the prosecution of potential victims of trafficking could engage state responsibility under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While it has been recognised that victims should not be held liable for unlawful acts committed as a direct consequence of their trafficking (see the paper on ‘non-punishment’ by the former UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons), this was the first time that an international court had pronounced on this issue.

The result is a judgment which contributes in a significant way to the Court’s existing jurisprudence on positive obligations under Article 4 ECHR (prohibition of slavery and forced labour). Paying attention to the special situation of minors throughout, the judgment introduces important safeguards to ensure that victims of trafficking suspected of committing criminal offences are not unduly deprived of the right to be identified and protected. The ruling also recognises for the first time that a failure to adequately investigate the status of possible victims of trafficking can undermine the right to a fair trial under Article 6(1) ECHR.

Following a summary of the background facts, this post describes the key points addressed in the Court’s assessment. It concludes with a reflection on the judgment’s contribution to the Court’s growing jurisprudence on human trafficking.

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