In Centre for Legal Resources on behalf ofValentin Campeanu v Romania, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has modified the Court’s jurisprudence on the admissibility of applications in an important way. Establishing a new exception from the requirement that the applicants must claim to be a victim of a violation of a right enshrined in the Convention, the ECtHR accepted that a Nongovernmental Organisation may in very specific circumstances have standing to submit an application on behalf of the person directly affected by a human rights violation, even though this person had not given the NGO power of attorney.
The case concerned Mr Valentin Campeanu, a Romanian citizen of Roma ethnicity who died in a psychiatric hospital.
Mr Campeanu had been abandoned by his mother at birth and had grown up in an orphanage. When he was about five years old, he had been diagnosed as HIV positive. He was also found to have an IQ of 30, constituting a ‘profound intellectual disability’.
When Mr Campeanu reached the age of 18, the competent Romanian authorities decided that he be placed in a psychiatric hospital. The hospital informed the authorities that it could not admit Mr Campeanu, since it was not equipped to provide care for persons with HIV and a mental disability.
A protracted conflict ensued between various institutions and health care facilities regarding the admission of Mr Campeanu and the treatment he should receive. Mr Campeanu was transferred to different hospitals for short periods of time. During this period, his state of health and his general condition deteriorated significantly. He was malnourished, lacked proper clothing and necessary medication was not administered.
In February 2004, staff members of the Centre for Legal Resources visited the facilities. They became aware of the condition Mr Campeanu was in and asked for his immediate transferal, which was refused. Shortly after, Mr Campeanu died. Unaware of his death, the Centre for Legal Resources sent urgent letters to various officials (including the Minister of Health) and alerted them to Mr Campeanu’s case.
When the Centre for Legal Resources learned of Mr Campeanu’s death, they filed a criminal complaint. However, the ensuing investigation did not lead to any findings of misbehavior.
The Centre for Legal Resources filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
An important part of the judgment deals with the admissibility of the application. The Romanian government argued that the applicants did not have standing to submit an application on Mr Campeanu’s behalf.
Article 34 ECHR requires that the applicant has to claim to be a victim of a violation of one of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. The applicant must be directly affected by an action or omission which infringes upon his rights under the Convention. Legal acts or the conduct of a state cannot be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights just on the grounds that the applicant thinks that they are not in compliance with the ECHR, but the applicant has to substantiate that he or she was affected by said conduct.
The Centre for Legal Resources, which had submitted the application, had not been affected by the conduct of the Romanian state. The victim was Mr Campeanu. He had neither filed the application nor given the Centre for Legal Resources power of attorney or otherwise authorized them to act on his behalf.
The European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged a number of exceptions from the rule that only the victim have standing before the Court: Close family members who suffer from effects of a human rights violation directly affecting someone else may in certain circumstances have the right to submit an application as so called indirect victims (see for example Kurt v Turkey in which the Court held that the mother of a young man who was detained illegally and tortured had standing to file an application). In many cases, in which the applicant died before the proceedings before the Court were finalized, the European Court of Human Rights has granted relatives permission to pursue the case. Even in cases where the victim died before he could submit an application, the Court has sometimes accepted that family members could lodge an application if they had an interest in doing so.
However, all these exceptions have in common that the persons who pursued the case had close ties to the (direct) victim and could substantiate on interest in the outcome of the case on their own. None of this applied to the Centre for Legal Resources.
Regarding NGOs, the European Court of Human Right had held on several occasions that they do not have standing to submit an application on behalf of persons or groups they are advocating for – unless they have been expressly authorized by direct victims.
Consequently, the Romanian government argued that the Centre for Legal Resources did not have standing.
The European Court of Human Rights was faced with a difficult decision: Its prior jurisprudence suggested that the application had to be dismissed as inadmissible. While previous judgments and decisions are not formally binding to the Court, it does not deviate from them without strong justification. Also, declaring the application admissible was not easy to reconcile with the express requirement that the applicant had to be a victim. It might entail the risk of softening this criterion and opening the gate to introducing elements of an ‘actio popularis’ into the Convention contrary to its language.
On the other hand, it was the very particularity of Mr Campeanu’s situation that there had been virtually no one to represent his interests. He had been an orphan with no financial means and an intellectual disability, belonging to a marginalized ethnic group and suffering from a disease often giving rise to discrimination. It is hard to imagine how somebody could be more vulnerable. While he was in obvious need for special care and attention, his situation made it impossible for him to take the initiative to obtain assistance. Rejecting the application as inadmissible on the grounds that the Centre for Legal Resources did not have power of attorney from Mr Campeanu in a way would have meant perpetuating this situation.
The European Court of Human Rights held that the applicants had standing to lodge an application with the Court. The Court pointed out that the rights enshrined in the Convention were to be practical and effective. It also pointed out that its judgments did not only serve the purpose to decide the individual cases brought before it, but also to advance human rights in Europe.
The Court stated that rejecting the application submitted by the Centre for Legal Resources would allow Romania to escape from its accountability in the case of Mr Campeanu. Considering this and given that the Legal Resources Centre had already acted on Mr Campeanu’s behalf on the domestic level, the European Court of Human Rights held that the application was admissible.
Four judges criticized the solution opted for by the majority in their separate opinions. Judge Pinto de Albuquerque protested that the Court should have developed a general approach to cases concerning particularly vulnerable victims rather than basing its ruling on the exceptional circumstances of the individual case. In his view, the case had given rise to important questions of the interpretation of human rights treaties and of the representation of members of vulnerable groups as well as to the limits of judicial powers. The Court had, in his opinion, failed to answer these questions.
The Court found violations of the right to life under article 2 of the ECHR and of the right to an effective legal remedy (article 13 ECHR). It stated that Romania had failed to take necessary precautions to ensure the protection of Mr Campeanu’s life despite his bad condition and vulnerable state. It also held that Romania had not undertaken the effective investigation of the circumstances of Mr Campeanu’s death