The ECHR ruling of May 11, 2021 in the case "Yocheva and Ganeva v. Bulgaria" (applications NN 18592/15 and 43863/15).
In 2015, the applicants were assisted in the preparation of applications. Subsequently, the applications were combined and communicated to Bulgaria.
In the case, applications were successfully considered about the discriminatory refusal to pay benefits assigned to the surviving spouse, a single mother of young children, if the father of the child is unknown. The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 14 of the Convention.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The first applicant, a single mother whose young children were not recognized by their father, was denied a monthly allowance, which was paid to families in which the children had only one living parent.
Regarding compliance with subparagraph "b" of paragraph 3 of article 35 of the Convention. In addition to the financial side of the issue, the complaint of the first applicant indicated that, as a result of the refusal to assign benefits, her children were in a less favorable position compared to children from families in which there was only one living spouse. Consequently, the present case raised an issue of importance for the applicant and for the legal relations objectively affected by the complaint. At the same time, respect for human rights also required consideration of the complaint on the merits, since the decisions of the Bulgarian authorities, which made it necessary to identify the father of the children in order to assign benefits, had significant consequences for the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to respect for private life.
In the case, the preliminary objection was rejected.
Regarding compliance with article 14 of the Convention, considered in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention.
(a) Whether the first applicant was in a relatively similar or similar situation compared to the groups of persons who were eligible for benefits. The European Court answered this question in the affirmative. Firstly, with regard to the fathers of children whose mothers have died, as in the case of child care benefits, men and women were in the same position in relation to family benefits intended to support families with children where there is only one living parent. They were also "in the same position" from the position of their role as the sole guardians of their children. Secondly, the first applicant was in a "relatively similar situation" as widows whose children were born in marriage, and single mothers whose children were recognized as their fathers before death, given that the payment of the allowance was aimed at long-term monthly support for families with children who, for various reasons, were in vulnerable situation, as well as the role of mothers who were the sole guardians of their children.
(b) Whether there was a difference in treatment. The first applicant was denied the assignment of benefits because she could not provide documents confirming the death of the children's father and that the children were his legitimate heirs, unlike other families who were entitled to receive benefits, since they could provide these documents, since the children had established legal ties with both parents. Consequently, there was a difference in treatment between the attitude towards the first applicant's family and other groups of families.
(c) Whether the difference in treatment was based on the "feature" referred to in article 14 of the Convention. The first applicant was treated differently on two grounds: (i) on the basis of sex: since motherhood was determined by the act of birth, in most cases only the paternity of the child is unknown; as the mother of children born to an unknown father, the applicant could not submit the documents required by law, while the single father whose children died their mother, in a normal situation, could provide such documents; (ii) on the basis of marital status, that is, as a single mother, the identity of the father of whose children is unknown. This situation was the result of the application of Bulgarian legislation only to families with one surviving parent and, as confirmed and explained by the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria, requiring that the second parent be recognized as deceased.
(d) Whether the difference in treatment was objectively justified. In the absence of convincing arguments by the Bulgarian authorities, the European Court ruled that the authorities of the respondent State had not provided reasonable or objective justifications for refusing to grant benefits to the first applicant. The European Court took into account, inter alia, the following aspects:
- the difference in treatment, which followed from the applicable legislation and was based on an extremely traditional, outdated and stereotypical understanding of the family as necessarily consisting of two legally recognized parents. This argument could not be a sufficient justification for the difference in treatment, as well as an excuse for similar stereotypes based on race and gender, skin color or sexual orientation;
- the fact that the purpose of the allowance was made dependent on the disclosure of intimate information by the first applicant and/or on taking measures to establish paternity (all these issues related directly to the private life of the first applicant, and she did not intend to disclose the relevant information or carry out appropriate actions), put the full exercise by the first applicant of her right to respect her family life under the condition of derogation from the exercise of her right to respect for her social and personal identity and psychological integrity, which were protected by article 8 of the Convention;
- the presence of children whose father was unknown, who were deprived of custody and protection of one of the parents to the same extent as children whose parent died. It cannot be argued that these children required less care and protection than children recognized by both parents, or that they were in a better position, without taking into account the totality of other accompanying and relevant circumstances, which inevitably differ depending on each particular case;
-- the marital status of the first applicant, which, according to her, was characterized by the complete absence of the father of her children in the life of her family and could not, as a rule, be considered favorable for children;
- to the extent that it could be concluded from the observations of the Bulgarian authorities that the requirement to establish the identity of the father of the children was intended to protect the State from fraudsters, the Bulgarian authorities did not ever claim that the first applicant tried or had the goal of committing fraud against the State by demanding to assign her an allowance. In addition, in general, the Bulgarian authorities did not provide evidence of widespread fraud of this kind or did not demonstrate how the policy being appealed was aimed at protecting against such fraud, or that other standard measures to counter this fraud proved ineffective.
Neither the absence of common standards in the system of assigning social benefits, nor the broad discretion in the field of economic or social policy does not exempt States that have introduced a scheme of social benefits from the obligation to pay these benefits without discrimination, nor does it justify the adoption of discriminatory laws or conduct discriminatory practices. Thus, the argument that granting such a category of persons, to which the first applicant belonged, the right to receive benefits would lead to the fact that the authorities would have to pay more, in itself was not sufficient to justify the difference in treatment. Moreover, in view of the importance of prohibiting discrimination and respecting the right to respect for family life, the political significance of a potential measure that could eliminate the payment of benefits altogether could not prevent the European Court from considering the complaint on its merits.
The Bulgarian authorities did not claim or provide relevant evidence that the unknown father of the first applicant's children would have taken care of them or supported them, or in any other way participated in their lives. Consequently, in the present case, the Bulgarian authorities have not demonstrated that there were compelling reasons unrelated to the first applicant's marital status or her gender that would compensate for the discriminatory impact of the legislation applied to her case.
Taking into account the above, the Court concluded that the first applicant had been the victim of discrimination on the grounds of both her marital status and her gender.
The case involved a violation of the requirements of article 14 of the Convention, considered in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention (adopted unanimously).
The European Court dismissed the second applicant's complaint as having been filed in violation of the six-month deadline for filing a complaint.
In the application of article 41 of the Convention. The European Court awarded the first applicant 4,500 euros in compensation for moral damage and 3,915 euros in compensation for material damage.