R.M. v. Latvia – 53487/13 (European Court of Human Rights)

Last Updated on December 9, 2021 by LawEuro

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 257
December 2021

R.M. v. Latvia – 53487/13

Judgment 9.12.2021

Article 8
Article 8-1
Respect for family life

Justified temporary suspension of parental authority and limitation of contact with vulnerable child, in context of uncooperative parent: no violation

Facts – The applicant is the mother of X, a minor at the relevant time. After a fight in the family home in February 2013, the applicant’s parental authority over X was suspended and her contact rights with him were limited. X was placed in care.

X was initially placed in the psychiatric unit of a children’s hospital after becoming agitated on the night of the February 2013 incident, and later placed in a children’s home after being discharged in March. He was placed in a psychiatric hospital again in May after having been aggressive towards other children. Two days later the applicant and X left the hospital and the applicant refused to disclose the latter’s whereabouts to the authorities. Although the applicant was found at the applicant’s usual place of residence and returned to the psychiatric unit, he later ran away. The applicant returned to his mother on several further occasions and the latter refused to cooperate with the authorities in the matter.

During this time, the applicant’s parental authority over X remained suspended, although it was considered by the guardianship institution and domestic courts on several occasions. It was eventually restored in November 2014.

Law – Article 8:

The suspension of the applicant’s parental authority and the limitations imposed on her contacts with her child had interfered with her right to respect for family life. The impugned measures had conformed to the requirements of domestic law and pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, namely those of X.

With respect to the incident in February 2013, the police had picked up an inappropriately dressed, 12 year-old boy on the street at night, with him claiming to have had a fight with his mother. The Court accepted that the authorities had been called upon to adopt urgent measures temporarily separating the mother and child.

The measures taken by the domestic authorities had been prompt and far-reaching. On the day following the incident the applicant’s parental authority had been suspended and two weeks later her contact rights with X had been removed in their entirety. No temporal limits for the suspension had been set, but – if her parental authority had not been restored within a period of one year – the applicant had risked having it completely removed. As X’s maternal relatives had been considered to have played an active role in his mother’s failure to cooperate with the specialists, their contact rights with X had also been removed. Despite the far-reaching nature of the measures taken by the domestic authorities, they could not be criticised for having made the choice to separate the applicant from her son, given the urgency of the situation.

As to the decision-making process, the initial decision to suspend the applicant’s parental authority had been taken by the director of the relevant guardianship institution on the day following the incident of February 2013. All subsequent decisions not to restore her parental authority had been taken collegially by the relevant guardianship institutions after having heard the applicant and reviewing the available material. There was no basis for considering that the applicant, who had attended with her lawyer or other representative, had not been allowed to fully participate in the decision-making process or that the process had not allowed her rights and interests to be taken into account. The applicant had also brought several sets of proceedings to seek restoration of her parental authority and the matter had been examined in three court instances. She had also applied for an interim measure which had been examined in expedited proceedings in two court instances.

Regarding the reasons for the impugned measures, the first-instance court had essentially found that the suspension of the applicant’s parental authority had been necessary because there had been fears that she had committed physical and emotional abuse against X and given her inability to understand his needs. The appellate court and the court of cassation had also relied on the fact that the applicant had been hiding the child and had grounded their decisions on her repeated refusals to cooperate with the domestic authorities despite the child’s need for specialist help. The Court also could not lose sight of the context in which the domestic authorities had been operating: the applicant’ son had come to the attention of the authorities at a very young age and had made several attempts to harm himself and others, as a result of which he had been an inpatient in the psychiatric unit of a children’s hospital.  His custody had been the subject of proceedings involving different guardianship institutions with which the applicant had refused to cooperate, changing her address twelve times between 2009 and 2012. The Court therefore accepted that those had been “relevant” considerations.

As to whether those considerations had been “sufficient” to justify the impugned measures, the Court noted that, while the initial allegations by X of physical abuse by the applicant had not been confirmed, concerns about emotional abuse had remained. Regarding the applicant’s inability to understand the needs of her child and the suspected emotional abuse, the administrative courts had referred extensively to various expert reports which had been relatively recent and rather comprehensive. On the basis of those reports, the domestic courts had had a solid basis for concern about the applicant’s relationship with her child and the effect it had had on his development and well-being. Moreover, the domestic courts had also examined the family situation as a whole over an extended period of time.

The  material before the Court revealed a particularly worrying trend in Latvia for dealing with emotionally vulnerable children with behavioural problems – it appeared that the authorities had considered placing these children in psychiatric institutions as a first resort. Placement in psychiatric institutions could not be considered conducive to the well-being of the child or in his or her best interests in the absence of a psychiatric illness or any indication that his or her state of health necessitated particular treatment. The Court also referred to the conclusions of the Ombudsperson concerning the fundamental deficiencies in Latvian children’s homes including recourse to psychiatric hospitals in order to handle behavioural problems, placement in distant children’s homes, failure to address individual behavioural issues, and the lack of alternative out-of-family care arrangements.  While mindful of the complexity of the situation facing the authorities at the time, and considering the context in which they had been operating, the Court considered that the authorities might not have sufficiently considered the possibility of other placement arrangements more protective of a vulnerable child.

The Court noted the importance of parents’ cooperation when measures to ensure the well-being of a child are undertaken by the competent authorities. The applicant’s action of taking X away from the hospital, flagrantly disregarding the decision to suspend her parental authority, had been an unlawful act of particular gravity which had brought about an escalation of the situation. Even if the applicant had assumed that X’s health and well-being had been at risk in the children’s home, there could be no justification for her taking matters into her own hands in such a way. Instead she should have sought urgent intervention by the competent authorities.

The Court rejected the applicant’s argument that the refusals to restore her parental authority had been aimed at punishing her for her conduct. The applicant’s failure to cooperate over many years had been a central factor which had objectively limited the options that the authorities had had in finding the right balance between the interests involved, and her living in hiding with X had harmed him.

The Court also had to examine whether the Latvian authorities had duly weighed the different interests involved. The administrative courts had not invited the applicant’s son to express his wishes, on the basis of the view that he had been traumatised by the whole situation and various expert conclusions that he should not be repeatedly questioned or participate in court proceedings. Taking into account the margin of appreciation enjoyed by the domestic authorities, their view had been reasonable. While the appellate court had taken note of X’s wish to stay with the applicant, it had considered that those views had been unduly influenced by the applicant. The Court could not agree with the applicant that the domestic courts had not taken into account what had appeared to be X’s best interests at the relevant time and had done so against a background of her sustained refusal to cooperate with the authorities. The domestic authorities had weighed X’s interests against those of the applicant and had given precedence to the child’s interests in reaching their conclusions.

Further, the domestic courts had ruled on the applicant’s claim in the light of circumstances that had prevailed at that time and had made it clear that they might reconsider the situation if some of the circumstances weighing in favour of separating the family would cease to exist. When the applicant had started to cooperate with the domestic authorities, seeking to engage with measures in the best interests of X, the situation had been reassessed and her parental authority had been restored.

In sum, the authorities had given relevant and sufficient reasons for the impugned measures, which had fallen within the margin of appreciation afforded to the respondent State.

Conclusion: no violation (six votes to one).

(See also Strand Lobben and Others v. Norway [GC], 37283/13, 10 September 2019, Legal Summary)

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