Judgment of the ECHR of 30 January 2020 in the case "J.M.B. and Others v. France" (application no. 9671/15).
In 2015, the complainants were assisted in preparing their application. The application was subsequently communicated to France.
The case successfully addressed an application about the applicants' inadequate conditions of detention and the lack of an effective preventive remedy in this regard. The case violated the requirements of Article 3, Article 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The applicants were detained in six prisons in France. Their conditions of detention varied depending on their personal space and other aspects of their content. While in prison, some of the applicants lodged administrative complaints with the relevant administrative courts, either individually or through collective complaints filed by the French branch of International Prison Watch (OIP). The administrative courts upheld the complaints in part and ordered the administrations of the institutions concerned to take measures in relation to certain aspects of the applicants' conditions of detention, in particular regarding sanitary standards. Some of the applicants also took advantage of a compensatory remedy by applying to the administrative courts with claims against the State, as a result of which they were awarded compensation.
The applicants complained mainly about inadequate conditions of detention and the lack of an effective preventive remedy in this regard.
QUESTIONS OF LAW
Compliance with Article 13 of the Convention. In its pilot judgments on overcrowding in prisons (see Ananyev and Others v. Russia, 10 January 2012, no. 42525/07 and no. 60800/08, The judgment of the European Court of Justice in the case Torreggiani and Others v. Italy of 8 January 2013, application no. 43517/09 and others, the judgment of the European Court in the case of Neshkov and Others v. Bulgaria (Neshkov and Others v. Bulgaria dated January 27, 2015, application no. 36925/10 and others, and Varga and Others v. Hungary, judgment of 10 March 2015, application no. 14097/12 and others), the Court notes that the opportunity available to prisoners to improve their situation as a result of a judgment in their favor was not sufficient if the situation related to overcrowding did not improve. In such circumstances, the situation of one prisoner could only be improved by worsening the situation of the other prisoner, and the ability of the remedy to have a preventive effect was not proven.
Recently in France, complaints to the administrative courts (in the present case, urgent applications for the protection of fundamental freedoms) revealed problems of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the prisons concerned, which eventually led to rather rapid improvements in general conditions of detention. The development of jurisprudence has been largely driven by urgent petition cases filed by the OIP as an organization that oversees the penitentiary system to protect the rights of prisoners. Individual prisoners could also submit an urgent application for the protection of fundamental freedoms; legal representation in these cases was not mandatory. The urgent applications courts delivered their rulings quickly, taking into account the prison legislation, which guaranteed decent conditions of detention, as well as the rights under the Convention and other principles established in the case-law of the European Court. The conditions of detention were also evaluated taking into account the vulnerability and full accountability of the detainees. Finally, their rights guaranteed by Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention were fundamental freedoms.
However, the issue that should have been considered in the present case was whether the positive developments in the administrative courts' practice provided an opportunity to put an end to a situation in which conditions of detention were not in conformity with the Convention.
First, the powers of the courts for urgent applications were limited. These courts were not empowered to request overcrowding work in prisons or to order measures to reorganize the public justice system. They could only consider applying measures that could be quickly implemented. Moreover, it was not the task of the courts for urgent applications to monitor the application of criminal policy measures by the judiciary.
Secondly, the execution of their functions by the courts on urgent applications was due to the availability of funding from the prison administration and the measures already taken by them. Prison administrations were not empowered to make decisions on detention and were obliged to accept detainees even if prisons were overcrowded. “Pending a lasting decision”, the urgent applications courts ordered prison administrations to take unnecessary transitional measures that were incapable of rapidly ending the inhuman and degrading treatment to which the applicants were subjected. Finally, the prison administrations could not prevent the court from exercising the power to issue orders by reference to the scale of the work to be done or its cost.
This approach is incompatible with the inviolable nature of the right under Article 3 of the Convention. The Court has previously emphasized that high crime rates, lack of financial resources or other structural problems are not circumstances mitigating the responsibility of the State authorities and justifying the lack of measures to improve the situation in prisons. The public authorities were charged with organizing the prison system in such a way that the dignity of prisoners was respected.
Third, there were also problems in monitoring the implementation of the measures ordered by the court on urgent applications, despite the existence of procedures clearly designed to ensure the effectiveness of judicial decisions. The urgent applications court itself did not have to provide judicial supervision over the execution of its own orders, since in order to effectively execute these orders, it was necessary to apply to the relevant department of the Council of State. However, the time it took to execute the orders was incompatible with the requirement to immediately restore the violated rights. Prisoners in whose favor the judgment was made could not be expected to make numerous appeals to the relevant authorities in order to ensure that their rights were respected by the prison administration.
Finally, regardless of the procedures adopted, the Court notes that the measures taken did not always lead to the desired results. For example, insect and rodent control measures continued to be ineffective in some prisons, despite efforts made. This fact underlined the consequences of the dilapidated state of some prisons in France as a whole.
Thus, the measures ordered by the courts on urgent applications, insofar as they related to overcrowded prisons, were difficult to implement in practice. The fact that prisons were overcrowded and nearly destroyed, especially in places where there were few prisons and transfer to another institution was unlikely, meant that the use of the urgent petition mechanism to protect fundamental freedoms did not in practice provide persons deprived of their liberty the opportunity to obtain an immediate and complete cessation of serious violations of Article 3 of the Convention or a significant improvement in their situation.
In such circumstances, the prison administrations in France could not satisfactorily fulfill the requirements ordered by the courts for urgent applications and therefore ensure that the conditions of detention of prisoners were in line with the case-law of the European Court. While an urgent application to a court to protect a fundamental freedom appears to be a solid legal basis for addressing serious violations of prisoners' rights, it could not be regarded as the preventive remedy required by the Court. This also applies to urgent applications for appropriate measures, which were similarly challenged in practice.
There was a violation of the requirements of Article 13 of the Convention in the case (adopted unanimously).
The Court also held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention on account of the degrading conditions of detention, as the applicants were provided with 3 to 4 sq. m of personal space, which was degrading treatment.
Application of Article 46 of the Convention. The European Court has recommended that the French authorities consider the possibility of adopting general measures. In order to ensure that prison conditions meet the requirements of Article 3 of the Convention, these measures must first of all include a permanent end to the situation of overcrowding in prisons, by revising the methods for calculating the number of prisoners that can be held in a particular institution and improving compliance with the maximum prison population. The legislative program for 2018-2022 includes reforms in the field of criminal and prison policy, which can lead to positive results by reducing the number of people in detention. In addition, an effective preventive remedy must be created that, together with a compensatory remedy, would enable detainees to rectify the situation they are victims of and prevent the alleged violations from continuing.
Application of Article 41 of the Convention. The European Court awards each of the applicants between EUR 4,000 and EUR 25,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage.