Case Watch: Pretrial Detention, Pilot Judgments and the European Court of Human Rights

In our “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide quick-hit analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.

The European Court of Human Rights recently delivered the latest in a series of “pilot judgments”, this one concerning the degrading conditions of pretrial detention in Russia. In use since 2004, and formalized in 2011, the pilot judgment procedure has introduced a form of “class action” litigation in Strasbourg, where the court is based, and has helped to decrease congestion in its caseload. The pilot judgment procedure is a means of dealing with large groups of identical cases that derive from the same systemic problem.

In Ananyev v Russia, the applicants had been detained pending trial in overcrowded cells in various Russian remand prisons. They claimed that they had been detained in inhuman and degrading conditions and that they could not effectively complain about these conditions or receive compensation.

The European Court unanimously held that there had been a violation of the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and the right to an effective remedy (Article 13). It considered that inadequate conditions of detention were a recurrent and systemic problem in Russia. Since 2002, the Court had found violations of Articles 3 and 13 in over 80 judgments against Russia; 250 cases were pending before the Court in which Russian applicants complained about detention conditions.

Applying the pilot judgment procedure, the court set out in detail how the Russian government should comply with the judgment and resolve the systemic human rights violations at issue. The court held that Russia had to: improve the conditions of detention, by shielding the toilets in cells, removing thick netting from cell windows and increasing the frequency of showers; change the applicable legal framework as well as attitudes and practices; establish maximum capacity for each prison to prevent overcrowding; and ensure that victims can complain effectively about, and obtain compensation for, inadequate detention conditions.

Importantly, the court identified the primary cause of overcrowding as the excessive use and duration of pretrial detention without proper justification. It observed that remand in custody should be an exception rather than the rule at the pretrial stage. These findings accord with the Open Society Justice Initiative’s global campaign for pretrial justice, which seeks to expose the pervasive impact of pretrial detention on public health, poverty, torture and corruption.

To implement the judgment, the court required Russian authorities and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to produce a binding time-frame within six months for resolving the problem. Russia also has to ensure accelerated settlement of the 250 pending cases within 12 months. Unlike many pilot judgments, the court did not adjourn the pending cases, leaving them on foot as an uncomfortable reminder to Russia to enforce the pilot judgment.

The court’s use of the pilot judgment procedure to deal with repetitive applications involving systemic issues is to be commended. It continues to build on its successes, recently indicating that it will follow a similar process to deal with an influx of 8,000 applications relating to pension rights in Hungary. By providing a remedial steer, pilot judgments facilitate compliance with Court rulings and induce the state to resolve large numbers of issues arising from the same recurrent problem at the domestic level.

As debate over reform of the Court reaches fever pitch, it is essential to recognize initiatives like the pilot judgment procedure that the Court has taken to manage its caseload. Jean-Paul Costa, the former President of the Court observes: “We need to build on procedures that have already been introduced … so the Court can deal expediently and fairly with similar complaints from large numbers of applicants”. In the UK-chaired Council of Europe conference in November 2011, the pilot judgment procedure was endorsed as “effective in dealing with problematic situations and repetitive cases.”

In the face of emotional, politicized attacks on the court, accusing it of being unable to respond to the challenges it faces, the pilot judgment procedure is an important innovation, and an eloquent witness for the defense.

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