ERA: Recent European Court of Human Rights Case Law in Family Matters (conference report)


Report written by Tine Van Hof, researcher at the University of Antwerp

On the 13th and 14th of February 2020, the Academy of European Law (ERA) organized a conference on ‘Recent ECtHR Case Law in Family Matters’. This conference was held in Strasbourg and brought together forty participants coming from twenty-one different countries. This report will set out some of the issues addressed at the conference.

The presentation, made by Ksenija Turkovi?, Judge at the European Court of Human Rights, focused on children on the move and more specifically on minors in the context of migration. On this topic the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has developed a child-specific human rights approach. This approach implies taking into account three particular concepts: vulnerability, best interests and autonomy. Judge Turkovi? pointed to the interesting discussion on whether vulnerability could only apply to young migrant children. On this discussion, there is now agreement that the vulnerability applies to all children under the age of 18 and regardless whether they are accompanied by adults. The ECtHR made very clear in its case law that migrant children are especially vulnerable and that this vulnerability is a decisive factor that takes precedence over the children’s migrant status. This vulnerability also plays a role in the cases on the detention of children. The more vulnerable a person is, the lower the threshold for a situation of detention to fall within the scope of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), encompassing the prohibition of torture.

Family unification and the free movement of family status was the second topic of the day. Michael Hellner, professor at Stockholm University, discussed several cases of the ECtHR (Ejimson v Germany) and the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) (K.A. v Belgium, Coman and S.M.). He concluded that family life does not automatically create a right of residence but it can create such a right in certain circumstances. In the Coman case for example, the CJEU decided that Romania had to recognize the marriage between the two men for the purpose of enabling such persons to exercise the rights they enjoy under EU law (i.e. free movement). Professor Hellner noted that it seems to be quite easy to circumvent national law in the future if one looks at the Coman case. He considered it positive if the consequence was that same-sex marriages and surrogacy arrangements created abroad were recognized. However, he made the interesting observation that it might be a very different story if one thinks about child marriages and the recognition thereof.

Maria-Andriani Kostopoulou, consultant in family law for the Council of Europe, thereafter shared her insights on parental rights, pre-adoption foster care and adoption. She discussed i.a. the evolution in the case law of the ECtHR on the representation of the child before the Court. In the Strand-Lobben case, the Court stated that the issue of representation does not require a restrictive or technical approach and thus made clear that a certain level of flexibility is necessary. In the Paradisio and Campanelli case, the ECtHR provided three criteria that should be taken into account for assessing the representation of the child: the link between the child and the representative, the subject-matter of the case and any potential conflict of interests between the interests of the child and those of the representative. The latest case, A. and B. against Croatia, introduced a security safeguard. In this case, the ECtHR asked the Croatian Bar Association to appoint a legal representative for the child for the procedure before the ECtHR since the Court was not sure that there were no conflict of interests between the child and the mother, who proposed to be the representative.

To end the first conference day, Dmytro Tretyakov, lawyer at the Registry of the ECtHR, enlightened us about the misconceptions and best practices of submitting a case to the Court. His most important tips for a submission to the Court are the following:

  • Use the current application form and not an old one;
  • Submit well in time and certainly within the six-month period;
  • Summarize the facts of the case on the three pages provided. This summary has to be clear, readable (for those that do it in handwriting) and comprehensible;
  • To state claims, refer to the relevant Article from the ECHR (do not cite it) and explain what the specific problem is with regard to that Article;
  • Support each claim with documents; and
  • Sign the form in the correct boxes and carefully look where the signature of the applicant and where the signature of the representative is required.

The second day of the conference started with the presentation of Nadia Rusinova, attorney-at-law and lecturer at the Hague University of Applied Science, on international child abduction. She discussed i.a. the issue of domestic violence in child abduction cases. Several questions can be raised in this regard, for example: what constitutes domestic violence? When should a court accept the domestic violence to be established? What is adequate protection in light of the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction (1980) and who decides on this? In the case O.C.I. and others v Romania, one of the questions was whether there is such a thing as light violence that does not amount to a grave risk in the sense of Article 13(1)(b) of the Hague Convention. The ECtHR approached this issue very critically and stated that no form of corporal punishment is acceptable. Regarding the adequate measures, the Court stated that domestic authorities have a discretion to decide what is adequate but the measures should be in place before ordering the return of the child. Another point raised by Ms. Rusinova is the time factor that is required. If one looks at Article 11(2) of the Hague Convention and at Article 11(3) of the Brussels IIbis Regulation together, six weeks is the required time period for the return proceedings. The Brussels IIbis Recast clarified that the procedure should take no more than six weeks per instance. However, according to Ms. Rusinova it is hardly possible to do the procedures in six weeks; it will only work when the proceeding is not turned into an adversarial proceeding in which all kinds of claims of both parents are dealt with.  

Samuel Fulli-Lemaire, professor at the University of Strasbourg, addressed the interesting evolution of reproductive rights and surrogacy. In the case of C. and E. v France, the French Court of Cassation asked the ECtHR for an advisory opinion on the question whether the current state of the case law in France was compatible with the obligations under Article 8 ECHR (the right to respect for private and family life). The status of the French case law was that the genetic parent was fully accepted but the other intended parent was required to adopt the child if he or she wished to establish parentage links. The ECtHR replied that the obligation under Article 8 entailed that there must be a possibility of recognition of the parent-child relationship but that it is up to the States to decide how to do this. Adoption is a sufficient method of recognizing such relationship, provided that it is quick and effective enough. The Court also refers to the possibility of transcription of the birth certificate as an alternative to adoption. However, professor Fulli-Lemaire pointed out that there is a misconception on what transcription means under French law. The mere transcription of the birth certificate does not establish legal parentage in France. The fact that the ECtHR says that an intended parent can adopt or transcribe the birth certificate is therefore tricky because under French law the effects of the two methods are not at all the same.

The very last presentation of the conference was given by Gabriela Lünsmann, attorney-at-law and member of the Executive Board of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany. She spoke about LGBTQI rights as human rights and hereby focused i.a. on transsexuals’ gender identity and the case of X. v North-Macedonia. The question raised in that case is whether the state must provide for a procedure to recognize a different gender. The applicant had tried to change their gender but North-Macedonia did not offer any possibility to undergo an operation or to have medical treatment in that regard. The applicant then went abroad for treatment. Back in North-Macedonia, he had his name changed but it was not possible to change his officially registered gender. The applicant claimed that this amounted to a violation of Article 8 ECHR and specially referred to the obligation of the state to respect a person’s physical and psychological integrity. The Court found that there was indeed a violation. What is as yet unclear, and is thus an interesting point for reflection, is whether states are under an obligation to provide for a procedure for the recognition of a change of gender without the person having had an operation.

The author would like to thank ERA for the excellent organization of the conference and for the interesting range of topics discussed.