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ECtHR Grand Chamber ruled on government’s unilateral declarations

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights heard the case Jeronovics v. Latvia (application no. 547/02). The case concerned inhuman and degrading treatment (Convention Article 3) and the right to have one’s case heard in a reasonable time (Convention Article 6).

The applicant was sentenced to a prison term of nine years for a robbery. He was placed at an overcrowded cell without a window or sanitary facilities. The Latvian Government issued a unilateral declaration in the case, acknowledging a violation of the Convention and offering the applicant compensation for moral injuries. The declaration was approved by the Court and used as the basis for strucking the application out of the cases list.

Since Mr Jeronovics was unable to reopen proceedings and also, in consequence, to challenge the decision on the deletion of the case from the case list, he applied to the ECtHR arguing that despite the government’s unilateral declaration that acknowledged a breach of the Convention, the breach persisted (application no. 44898/10). The case reached the Court’s Grand Chamber.

On 11 May 2015, the HFHR presented an amicus curiae brief to the Grand Chamber, which pointed that governments abuse the unilateral declaration procedure. The unilateral declaration is a procedure applied in the proceedings before the ECtHR, under which the government acknowledges responsibility for a violation of the Convention and proposes the amount of compensation for non-pecuniary damage. The procedure for striking a case from the case list based on unilateral declarations has been introduced in order to reduce the workload of the Strasbourg Court.

Under the existing case law of the ECtHR unilateral declarations should be used only in recurring cases guided by the established case law. Unfortunately, in practice governments sometimes propose a unilateral declaration also in proceedings that are likely to set a precedent.

The HFHR’s opinion was referred to in the judgment of the Grand Chamber of 5 July 2016. The opinion’s line of argument was also quoted by the judges who submitted dissenting opinions to the judgment. The Court reminded a principle arising from Article 19 of the Convention, which obliges it to monitor Member States’ performance of the Convention obligations. Strasbourg judges dismissed the government’s argument that the payment of non-pecuniary damages is a sufficient remedy for a violation of the Convention.

One of the key aspects of the case was the reopening of proceedings regarding inhuman and degrading treatment. The ECtHR clearly emphasised that Jeronovics had been able to request the reopening on the basis of the strike-out decision. The Court ruled that the absence of reopening had resulted in a violation of the procedural limb of Article 3 of the Convention. The applicant received EUR 4,000 in non-pecuniary damages.

“The judgment of the Grand Chamber is extremely important from the perspective of the Polish practice, where unilateral declarations are often presented by the government”, the drafter of the HFHR’s opinion Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska comments. “The Court itself will need to adopt a more cautious approach to accepting unilateral declarations. A Member State, on the other hand, will be obliged to perform the duty to implement individual measures such as a reopening of proceedings in the case, if this is necessary to remedy a violation of the Convention”, the lawyer adds.

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