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Restricting prisoners access to banking services violates the right to property, according to the ECtHR

On 13 September, the European Court of Human Rights passed a judgement in the case Siemaszko and Olszyński v. Poland. In its judgement, the Court found that making it difficult for prisoners to access banking services and enabling them to put their earnings into a savings account with a very low interest rate violated their right to property (Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention).

The applicants served their prison sentences from 2000 until 2012. While in prison, the applicants worked. In keeping with the regulations, a half of their prison earnings was paid into special deposit accounts in order to constitute a kitty that would be available to them on their final release. However, the annual interest rate was very low – it was 0.1% which was well below the average inflation rate in Poland. The applicants requested the prison administration on numerous occasions to allow them to save their money on accounts with better interest rates; however, their requests were always rejected.

In 2008 and 2009, the inmates filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights claiming a violation of Article 1 of the Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which warranted them the right to protect property. In 2011, the HFHR submitted its advice as part of a programme called Klinika Prawa Własności [the Property Law Clinic]. The Foundation pointed out that the interest rate on the bank accounts was significantly lower than the average inflation rate and the average interest rate on bank term deposits in Poland; as a consequence, the inmates were deprived of their right to reap profits from their property and actually sustained losses. “In its advice, the Foundation also emphasised that imprisonment as such may not be a reason for depriving a person of access to banking services,” Marcin Szwed, HFHR’s lawyer, explains.

In its judgement, the ECtHR shared the view of the applicants and of the HFHR. The ECtHR reminded that while interfering with the property rights, the public authorities should always strive at maintaining a balance between the public interest and the individual rights. In the discussed case, the interference was excessive as the applicants were forced to place their savings in a bank account carrying an interest rate below the inflation rate. While the loss they sustained was not particularly high in objective terms, it must be concluded, bearing in mind their economic situation, that it had a material impact on their lives.

“It is worth noting that the regulations on the basis of which the applicants were denied access to banking services were subject to major amending in 2012. Under the amended regulations, the inmates were given the ability to save not only on special deposit accounts but also on selected bank accounts. However, in 2015 the regulations were amended again, and the amended regulation is rather ambiguous,” adds Marcin Szwed.

The ECtHR judgment (in French) may be accessed here.

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