Persons with Disabilities’ Right to Self-Determination in Bulgaria
A Bulgarian individual challenged his indefinite and involuntary placement under partial guardianship and in a remote psychiatric institute, in degrading conditions.
Rusi Kosev Stanev was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1975 and declared unfit to work in 1990. In 2000, following a request from his stepmother and half-sister, a court declared him partially legally incapacitated without notifying him. Since his relatives declined guardianship, a municipal council officer was appointed his guardian. Without informing Stanev, the guardian requested that he be placed in a social care home for ‘people with mental disorders’. Consequently, in 2002, Stanev was taken to an isolated home about 400 kilometers from his hometown and 80 per cent of his pension was transferred there as payment. Stanev’s identity papers were kept by the staff and, in 2005, the home director was appointed his guardian. He was under constant supervision and only allowed to leave the home with explicit permission. After visiting the social care home in 2003, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CPT) found that the deplorable living conditions and lack of therapeutic activities could be said to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. Nevertheless, Stanev remained confined there. Although the State had committed to close the home after the CPT visit, renovations were conducted in 2009.
In 2004 and 2005, through his lawyer, Stanev expressed the desire to leave the home permanently and asked the prosecutor and the mayor to bring actions to restore his legal capacity. They both refused based on medical assessments indicating that Stanev had schizophrenia and that the home was the most suitable place for him. His appeals against these decisions were upheld by the appellate prosecutor and various courts. In 2006, at his lawyer’s request, Stanev was examined by independent psychiatrist and psychologist who found that his schizophrenia diagnosis was inaccurate, his residence in the home was damaging his mental health, and he should be reintegrated into society.
In 2012, the Court found that Stanev’s indefinite and involuntary placement by State authorities in a home amounted to deprivation of liberty under Article 5(1) of the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR), primarily due to the lack of Stanev’s consent as required under partial guardianship laws. Additionally, due to the absence of a recent psychiatric assessment justifying the detention, it did not comply with requirements for “lawful detention . . . of persons of unsound mind.” Further, the Court found violations of Article 5(4) (judicial review of deprivation of liberty) and Article 5(5) (right to compensation) based on Stanev’s inability under Bulgarian law to directly challenge the lawfulness of his detention and to claim compensation. Taking Article 3 (degrading treatment) alone and with Article 13 (effective remedies), the Court also found that the conditions in the home amounted to degrading treatment (at least until the 2009 renovations) and that because Stanev’s residence was not considered detention under domestic law, he was not afforded an effective remedy. Furthermore, the Court found a violation of article 6(1) (access to court) because Stanev lacked standing to directly apply for judicial restoration of his legal capacity. Noting positive developments in Europe and in the international human rights system, the Court indicated that although the right is not absolute, the significance of a declaration of incapacity requires that restrictions on the right of affected individuals to access courts must be limited and proportionate to a legitimate aim.
The Court ordered Bulgaria to pay Stanev 15,000 euros in non-pecuniary damage. It further determined that the State should consult Stanev to ascertain whether he wished to stay in the home and, if not, to reconsider his situation. The Court also recommended that, as a general matter, the State take measures to ensure effective access to court for individuals under partial guardianship seeking restoration of their legal capacity.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is responsible for supervision of the execution of the judgment. In 2013, Bulgarian authorities reported that Stanev had been moved to a new “family-type clinic” in his hometown with his consent and that of his guardian. He was reportedly “satisfied,” but expressed a desire to live outside an institutional setting. Following review of his situation, the prosecutor declined to take action to restore Stanev’s legal capacity based on the lack of evidence that he is not suffering from a mental disorder and can take care of himself.
The Bulgarian government has instituted reform of the guardianship system for adults with intellectual disabilities. The Ministry of Justice has held public consultations on the “Natural Persons and Support Measures” bill, a draft law aimed at changing guardianship. The latest version of the bill was published on April 13, 2016. The Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) and other civil society actors are actively working to inform the reform process in order to ensure that the draft law emphasizes individual autonomy and abolishes guardianship while retaining protective measures, in keeping with the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Bulgaria ratified on January 26, 2012.
Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC), Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, INTERIGHTS (third party intervener)
This is a ground-breaking case with significant implications for people with mental disabilities who have been institutionalized in Europe, and beyond. The case represents the first time that the EHtCR found that the placement of a person with a psycho-social disability in a social care institution may amount to detention under the Convention and that poor conditions in such homes may violate the right to be free from degrading treatment. As a result of this decision, Bulgaria and other States will need to not only improve conditions in social care institutions and respect the human rights of residents, but also ensure that people placed under guardianship are able to directly challenge their placement before courts. It should be noted, however, that by declining to examine Stanev’s claims related to the right to respect for private and home life including his right to live in the community, the Court showed unwillingness to align the ECHR with best practices concerning the right of persons with disabilities to live in the community, therefore limiting the recognition of the systemic nature of such problems and the nature of the harm of long-term institutionalization.