Press release - 535(2007)
EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Press release issued by the Registrar
SCHMIDT v. FRANCE
The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing its Chamber judgment1 in the case of Schmidt v. France (application no. 35109/02).
The Court held unanimously that there had been
· no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to the placement of the applicants’ daughter in care and the restrictions on contact between her and her parents;
· a violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial) on account of the failure to communicate the reporting judge’s report to the Court of Cassation;
· a violation of Article 6 § 1 combined with Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) on account of the lack of effectiveness of the applicants’ appeal to the Court of Cassation.
The Court considered that the finding of a violation constituted in itself sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants. (The judgment is available only in French.)
1. Principal facts
The applicants, Axel Schmidt, a French national who was born in 1959, and his wife Delwyn Schmidt, a New Zealand national who was born in 1966, both live in Carrickfergus (Northern Ireland). They are former members of the Eglise Chrétienne Biblique, also known as “The Citadel”, an evangelical Protestant church which was dissolved in 1990.
In 1993 Mr Schmidt was prosecuted for assaulting a four-year-old child.
The couple’s daughter Victoria, then aged three, was placed in the care of the Health and Social Affairs Department (DDASS) following a decision by the Versailles children’s judge on 12 February 1993. In support of her decision, the judge emphasised that the first applicant had been charged in the context of criminal proceedings for false imprisonment, lack of care and assault of minors. The judge noted in particular that the manner in which Victoria, like the other children whose parents were members of “The Citadel”, was being brought up was such that her psychological balance and development were likely to be seriously compromised.
The placement order was confirmed on 30 July 1993 and the applicants were granted access rights. The second applicant subsequently left France to rejoin her family in New Zealand and give birth to her second child in March 1995.
On 4 July 1995 Victoria’s paternal grandparents were granted custody of Victoria, at their request and in her interests, and the parents’ access rights were removed. This measure was confirmed in June 1996, and then extended on several occasions, in September 1997, May 1998 and June 1999. In the meantime, the second applicant settled in Northern Ireland. Having learnt that Victoria was on the point of being baptised as a Roman Catholic, the second applicant objected strongly to such a move and succeeded in having the plan shelved.
On 13 July 1998 the children’s judge summoned the second applicant for a fresh hearing, during which she saw her daughter again for the first time after a separation of five years. No action was taken as a result of this meeting.
In June 1999 the children’s judge granted the second applicant visiting rights, a measure which was confirmed on 31 March 2000. Furthermore, in July 2000 Victoria’s placement with her grandparents was confirmed and, following a psychological evaluation, the child’s mother was granted access and residential contact rights. On an unspecified date, but apparently during the residential contact granted for the dates of 12 to 15 July 2000, the second applicant left France with Victoria and went to Northern Ireland. An arrest warrant was issued against her for failing to return a minor. The French authorities filed an extradition request with the British authorities, together with a request for Victoria’s return on the basis of the Hague Convention.
On 16 August 2000 the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland awarded custody of Victoria to her mother. The father was authorised to have contact with Victoria, in agreement with the mother and with the approval of social services. In March 2001 the father was also granted custody of Victoria.
On 10 December 2002 the investigating judge in charge of the case issued a finding that there was no case to answer, thus discontinuing the proceedings brought against the second applicant. In December 2005 Mr Schmidt was given a suspended sentence of 18 months’ imprisonment for assaulting the youths J.A. and S.A. in 1989 and 1990.
2. Procedure and composition of the Court
The application was lodged before the European Court of Human Rights on 2 September 2002.
Judgment was given by a Chamber of 7 judges, composed as follows:
Corneliu Bîrsan (Romanian), President,
Jean-Paul Costa (French),
Elisabet Fura-Sandström (Swedish),
Alvina Gyulumyan (Armenian),
Egbert Myjer (Dutch),
David Thór Björgvinsson (Icelandic),
Isabelle Berro-Lefèvre (Monegasque), judges,
and also Santiago Quesada, Section Registrar.
3. Summary of the judgment2
The applicants complained that their daughter had been taken from them and that there had thus been an interference in their family life. They also complained of the unfairness of the proceedings in question. They relied on Articles 8, 6 and 13 of the Convention.
Decision of the Court
Article 8 of the Convention
The Court considered that the educative assistance measures ordered by the children’s judge and, more specifically, Victoria’s placement in the care of the social services and then of her grandparents, amounted to an interference in the exercise of the applicants’ right to respect for their family life. It noted that that interference had been provided for in Article 375 et seq. of the Civil Code, and had had the legitimate aim of protecting Victoria’s health and her rights and freedoms. The Court had then to determine whether the interference had been “necessary in a democratic society”.
The Court took account, firstly, of the reasons put forward to justify the initial decision to place Victoria in care. It noted that the children’s judge had based her decision on the fact that the applicant had been accused in the context of a criminal case concerning minors; that the reports by the DDASS and social services, as well as third-party statements, drew attention to the fact that children whose parents belonged to the Eglise chrétienne biblique were, amongst other things, cut off from the outside world, which was presented as Satanic, obliged to observe frequent fasts, had limits placed on their sleeping hours and were subjected to corporal punishment in the form of slaps and belt blows; and that this form of upbringing was such that Victoria’s psychological balance and development was likely to be seriously compromised. The Court considered that, having regard to the child’s best interests - which, in cases of this sort, had to take priority over any other consideration - these were sufficient grounds for placing her in care.
Secondly, the Court examined the grounds put forward for extending the placement order. It noted the periodic review of the situation prior to each extension of the order and the serious and thorough manner in which it had been conducted on each occasion, with a view to protecting the child’s interests.
The Court also examined whether the children’s judge had sought to maintain the link between Victoria and her family. It noted that the authorities had made serious efforts to achieve that aim, and that the failure of the mediation and support programmes put in place arose from the applicants’ opposition to such measures.
Finally, the Court noted that the second applicant had not been excluded from the decision-making process with regard to her daughter and, in particular, that she had been able to put a halt to the plan to have Victoria baptised.
In conclusion, the Court was persuaded that Victoria’s placement in care and the arrangements for it had been based on grounds that were not only relevant but also sufficient for the purpose of paragraph 2 of Article 8 of the Convention, and that the French authorities had taken the measures that could reasonably have been demanded of them. Accordingly, it concluded that there had been no violation of Article 8 with regard to Victoria’s placement and to the restrictions placed on her contacts with her parents.
Article 6 § 1 and Article 13 of the Convention
As to the failure to communicate the reporting judge’s report
Reiterating its consistent case-law in that connection, the Court concluded that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1 on account of the failure to communicate the reporting judge’s report to the Court of Cassation.
As to the effectiveness of the appeal to the Court of Cassation
The Court also noted that the Court of Cassation had delivered its judgment with regard to Victoria’s placement with her grandparents on 6 March 2002, in other words, three years after the case had been submitted to it. It had found that it was unnecessary to rule on the appeal since the placement order had expired and the children’s judge had ordered new measures with regard to Victoria.
The Court reiterated that proceedings relating to the award of parental responsibility required urgent handling as the passage of time could have irremediable consequences for relations between children and the parent who did not live with them. Accordingly, the Court concluded that there had been a violation of Articles 6 § 1 and 13 taken together, since, in the particular circumstances of the case, the appeal to the Court of Cassation could not be considered to have been effective.
The Court’s judgments are accessible on its Internet site (http://www.echr.coe.int) .
Emma Hellyer (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 42 15)
Stéphanie Klein (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 21 54)
Tracey Turner-Tretz (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 35 30)
Paramy Chanthalangsy (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 54 91)
The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.
1 Under Article 43 of the Convention, within three months from the date of a Chamber judgment, any party to the case may, in exceptional cases, request that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, a panel of five judges considers whether the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or its protocols, or a serious issue of general importance, in which case the Grand Chamber will deliver a final judgment. If no such question or issue arises, the panel will reject the request, at which point the judgment becomes final. Otherwise Chamber judgments become final on the expiry of the three-month period or earlier if the parties declare that they do not intend to make a request to refer.
2 This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.