Friday 24 July 2020

Constitutional Court strikes down oppressive guardianship provisions from Romanian Civil Code.

On 16 July 2020, the Romanian Constitutional Court struck down as unconstitutional the provision in the Civil Code regarding plenary guardianship (or ‘judicial interdiction’ in a literal translation), putting an end to a legal institution that had survived virtually unchanged since 1864. The official press release issued on this occasion states that ‘judicial interdiction’ is not accompanied by sufficient guarantees ensuring the respect of fundamental human rights and freedoms. Furthermore, ‘interdiction’ does not distinguish between different degrees of incapacity or take into account the plurality of individual interests, is not applied for a determined period and is not subject to regular review. The Court held that any measure of protection must be proportionate to the degree of capacity, adapted to the life of the person, apply for the shortest time possible, be revised periodically and take into account the will and preferences of persons with disabilities. Notably, the Court mentioned that its decision was guided by Article 12 of the CRPD. 

This judgment is the latest stage of a legal saga that extended over the past six years, involving Mr. N., a man with psycho-social disabilities and psychiatric hospitals survivor, and his representative, London-based Romanian lawyer Constantin Cojocariu, acting on a voluntary basis. The campaign includes, besides the Constitutional Court judgment, a breakthrough European Court of Human Rights judgment in the case N. v. Romania (2017), requiring the State to plot a path back to the community for hundreds of forensic patients who languish in Romanian psychiatric hospitals without any hope of release. Another case involving Mr. N., N. A. v. Romania, challenging his placement under guardianship, is pending before the European Court of Human Rights, has been communicated twice (here and here) and has been designated a leading case. In parallel, involvement in the execution procedure before the Committee of Ministers in relation to the N. v. Romania judgment has resulted in Mr. N. being transferred to supported housing in Bucharest after 18 years of institutionalisation, one of the first publicly funded schemes of this type in Romania, implemented on this occasion by Estuar Foundation. 

The Constitutional Court judgment is a rare clarion call in a country where people with disabilities face layers upon layers of deprivation, while advocacy on their behalf is often not rights-based and serves instead to entrench these phenomena. The judgment opens the way for a potentially wide-ranging and long-awaited reform of the country’s guardianship legislation. The Parliament has 45 days to legislate for an alternative solution once the full judgment is published in the Official Gazette. At the same time, the uncertain political situation in Romania, with two rounds of elections scheduled to take place by the end of the year, the continued fallout from the pandemics, poor administrative capacity and the relative absence of strong rights-based civil society and DPOs in particular may conspire to scupper this effort. 

The Constitutional Court judgment has been profiled by the Committee of Ministers on its front page here. Constantin Cojocariu has previously written about different aspects of this campaign for the European Implementation Network and Strasbourg Observers. A short case comment on N. v. Romania is available here.

The photo shows Mr. N. and his lawyer attending a hearing at the Constitutional Court at the end of 2019. Mr. N. is presumably the first and last person under ‘interdiction’ to address the Constitutional Court. 

Thursday 5 September 2019

Critical analysis of Stoian v. Romania judgment

With the end of summer, the pushback against the Court's drift on disability rights in general and inclusive education in particular begins.
In this contribution for the Strasbourg Observers blog, hopefully the first in a series, I am trying to dissect and (begin at least) to interpret some of the more egregious failures in the judgment Stoian v. Romania.
While this judgment appears to be part of a trend on disability rights as discussed in my article, downgrading disability rights appears to have been used as pretext for the court, or this particular panel of judges, to take great liberties with its procedure in order to achieve a pre-conceived outcome. 
Also included in the article is a link to some of my submissions and pieces of evidence in the case, if somebody cares to look into this matter in more detail - SEE THE FOLLOWING POST, below. 
"Stoian v. Romania: the Court’s drift on disability rights intensifies
September 5, 2019 Guest Blogger Disability, Right to Education, Stoian v. Romania
By Constantin Cojocariu
On 25 June 2019, the Court released an eagerly awaited judgment in the case of Stoian v. Romania, brought by a disabled child and his mother, who complained about the denial of the right to education. The Court, ruling as a Committee, rejected all claims, brutally ending an unprecedented litigation campaign on inclusive education that lasted a decade. While the judgment generated outcry among disability rights activists worldwide, it also displayed warning signs about procedural shortcuts taken by the Court and its approach to vulnerable applicants more widely. The judgment’s bottom line, that the fundamental rights of persons of disabilities are primarily a matter of resources that disqualifies them from protection under the Convention, is relatively unsurprising, though depressing and not befitting of a human rights court. What is more interesting is how the Court reached this verdict, by downgrading the case to the three-judge Committee level, by distorting the facts, by adopting the Government’s views wholesale and by refusing to apply meaningful scrutiny. In that sense, to some extent, what is lacking from the official record is more interesting than what was included. This is why an admittedly partisan account of the judgment such as the present one – I acted as the applicants’ co-counsel – may prove interesting to the readers of the Strasbourg Observers blog."

Friday 28 June 2019

Court goes rogue in inclusive education case - initial thoughts on Stoian v. Romania judgment

The Court's judgment in Stoian v. Romania has to stand as a major stain on the record of an organisation, that is anything but unblemished. 
A HUMAN RIGHTS court that distorts and truncates the facts. 
A HUMAN RIGHTS court that reduces a case that resulted from years and years of litigation, that includes mountains of evidence, that attracted multiple interventions from prestigious organisations, concerning an uncharted area of jurisprudence, to a committee case (formed of such luminaries as the judges from ROM, HUN and BiH), to be dismissed definitively with a minimum of fuss.
A HUMAN RIGHTS Court that cherry picks the facts and brushes complexity aside to suit a pre-determined outcome.
A HUMAN RIGHTS Court that refuses to engage with the facts of case, effectively denying people with disabilities protection under the Convention. 
A HUMAN RIGHTS court that dismisses a story that boils down to a woman carrying her disabled child on her back to school for years on end, as responsible state policy.
A HUMAN RIGHTS court that characterises a police operation that involved forcefully removing a mother from school for providing personal assistance to her disabled child and causing her injuries that required 45 days of medical treatment as not in any way "disproportionate."
A HUMAN RIGHTS court that systematically dismisses people with disabilities as a drain on public resources and as essentially disposable.
Is not a court and has nothing to do with human rights. 
I have worked with this court for fifteen years and during this time I have had good moments and bad moments. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared me for this blow, that left me and my clients in tears and gasping for air. 
This is shameful, but it also portents great danger ahead. Our assumptions are collapsing before our eyes, as far as I am concerned I no longer take anything for granted.

Thursday 9 May 2019

Persoanele cu dizabilități la moment de sărbătoare: între un prezent apăsător și un posibil viitor incluziv

 Am scris acest articol pentru publicatia Jurnal Social a Consiliului National al Dizabilitatii din Romania, cu ocazia Zilei europene a vietii independente, celebrate pe 5 mai 2019. 

Ziua europeană a vieții independente, sărbătorită în fiecare an pe 5 mai, oferă persoanelor cu dizabilități un prilej de a revendica o societate mai bună, care le respectă autonomia, care oferă oportunități egale și care le asigură accesul la aceleasi opțiuni și la decizii proprii în viața de zi cu zi. Viața independentă presupune un mediu construit accesibil, accesul la tehnologii asistive, accesul la asistență personală și la servicii de sprijin localizate în comunitate. Această viziune generoasă vine în contrast cu realitatea cotidiană din România, caracterizată de precaritate socio-economică, dependență, segregare, excluziune, prejudecăți și stigmă.

Faptul că persoanele cu dizabilități duc o viață foarte grea este o afirmație banalizată prin repetare. Dincolo de generalități și sloganuri, avem niște oameni mai degrabă invizibili și familiile lor. Multe persoane cu dizabilități, de ordinul sutelor de mii, trăiesc izolate în comunitate. Ele sunt mai sărace decât restul populației și multe nu au un loc de munca. Persoanele cu dizabilități sunte adesea blocate într-o relație de depedență față de Stat (care le acordă unele beneficii modice) și față de familie (ca singură sursă de suport). Lipsa accesibilității mediului construit completează acest peisaj deprimant. Pe de altă parte, avem persoanele cu dizabilități din instituții, de ordinul zecilor de mii. Acolo ajung cei care nu respectă profilul mai sus amintit, de obicei pentru ca au pierdut într-un fel sau altul sprijinul familial sau din cauza unui șoc economic în contextul regimului de austeritate și degradare economică de după căderea comunismului. Instituționalizarea este în vasta majoritate a cazurilor un drum cu sens unic. Deși pretextul instituțiilor este caritabil si asistențial, în fapt ele au menirea de a controla o gamă largă de indivizi cu trăsături indezirabile din diverse motive. Sistemul instituțional reproduce si consolidează stereotipurile negative la adresa persoanelor cu dizabilități, previne crearea unor alternative efective de sprijin în comunitate și este caracterizat de dezechilibre vaste de putere între ‘beneficiari’ și angajații statului, fapt ce crează condiții prielnice pentru săvârșirea și disimularea unor abuzuri grave. 

Noțiuni generoase precum viața independentă, încorporate de altfel în Convenția ONU pentru drepturile persoanelor cu dizabilități, par un alt exemplu de auto-iluzionare si escapism, o beție cu apă rece. Avem doar și noi legile noastre care garantează drepturi fundamentale pentru toți și care interzic abuzurile, dar care co-există cu o viață segregată incepând din copilărie (în școli speciale) și până la moarte (în instituții rezidențiale). Legile noastre par mai mult o perdea de fum, menită să ascundă și să cosmetizeze precaritatea și lipsa de speranță a vieții de zi cu zi. Deși, date fiind aceste condiții vitrege, fatalismul și renunțarea sunt de înțeles, e bine de știut totuși că există destui care nu au depus armele. Văd două posibile strategii pentru ieșirea din pasivitate și dependență: activismul juridic și implicarea politică. 

În ceea ce privește activismul juridic, există unele condiții favorabile. Avem pe de o parte mai-sus menționata Convenție pentru Drepturile Persoanelor cu Dizabilități, adoptată cu participarea persoanelor cu dizabilități și ratificată universal, care articulează aspirația la participare și incluziune pentru toți, o unitate de măsură care ne permite să evaluăm situația actuală si direcția în care ne îndreptam, care conferă putere simbolica și suport moral. Avem mai apoi acces la un sistem de instanțe rezonabil de independente și competente, care trebuie învățate să înțeleagă experiența persoanelor cu dizabilități și să acorde protecție efectivă împotriva discriminării. Problema cu pasivitatea este că transformă predicția privind inutilitatea drepturilor în realitate – dacă nu te lupți pentru drepuri, nimeni nu va veni să ți le ofere pe un platou, sau cel puțin nu în Romania.

În ciuda aparenței unei populații amorfe și supuse, există multe persoane curajoase și cu spirit de sacrificiu care se luptă de ani întregi cu sistemul. Ele trebuie cunoscute mai bine și celebrate pentru munca de pionierat pe care o fac. Mamele (singure) de copii cu dizabilități, care fac totul de la cărat copilul în cârcă la școală, supravegheat în timpul orelor, agonisit traiul de zi cu zi, făcut munca de predare acasă, mers în instanțe judecătorești pentru lupte de ani întregi cu autorităţile statului. Bărbatul în scaun rulant care dorește să studieze, dar care ajunge până la CEDO pentru a se plânge de lipsa de accesibilitate a universităților. Bărbatul cu schizofrenie închis pe nedrept timp de 17 ani într-un spital de psihiatrie, care merge în instanță an de an pentru a-și revendica drepturile, care ajunge până la CEDO și este pus în libertate. Bărbatul în scaun rulant dat afară de la servici atunci când biroul său este mutat la etajul unei clădiri inaccesibile, și care constată ca instanțele sunt de asemenea inaccesibile. Copilul cu dizabilități de clasa a V-a hărțuit și insultat de profesori și alți copii timp de luni întregi, ai cărui parinți merg în instanță și obțin condamnarea vinovaților. 

Implicarea politică, temă predilectă a organizațiilor europene din zona dizabilității în acest an electoral, poate de asemenea reprezenta o soluție. Conform statisticilor oficiale, avem aproximativ opt sute de mii de persoane cu dizabilități. Dacă includem și rudele apropiate, ajungem la cifra respectabilă de peste un milion de votanți direct interesați de politicile statului în domeniul dizabilității. Trebuie însă să coborâm cu picioarele pe pământ. Obstacolele structurale menționate mai sus limitează în egală măsură participarea in viața publică. Impedimente de ordin practic sau juridic precum lipsa accesibilității, lipsa informației în format accesibil, procedura punerii sub interdicție sau izolarea în instituții, împiedică adesea exercitarea dreptului la vot. În plus, persoanele cu dizabilitati, lipsite de informație și cu un nivel mediu de educație mai scăzut, sunt susceptibile cântecelor de sirenă populiste din partea unor partide care pledează de fapt pentru politici care le defavorizează, cum ar fi cele de reducere a statului.  Și aici avem de a face cu un cerc vicios, căci lipsa de participare transmite ideea politicienilor că interesele persoanelor cu dizabilități nu sunt demne de luat în considerare, sau că acestea sunt incapabile de a-și exercita drepturile cetățenești. Este important ca persoanele cu dizabilități să fie mai exigente cu politicienii, prioritizând drepturile proprii atunci cand evaluează ofertele electorale. 

Și în această privință există motive de optimism, în ultimul timp făcându-și apariția pe scena politică unele inițiative care prioritizează explicit drepturile persoanelor cu dizabilități. Demos este un partid social democrat nou înființat, care își asumămisiunea politicăde a lupta împotriva inegalităților sociale și pentru respectarea drepturilor fundamentale pentru toți. Dizabilitatea este inclusă transversal în toate documentele, politicile și luările de poziție ale partidului, dublat de o înțelegere nuanțată a resorturilor social-economice care împing persoanele cu dizabilități spre marginea societății. Demos își propune sărecruteze în mod activ persoane din categorii vulnerabile si dezavantajate în structurile sale, deja numărând activiști cu dizabilitățidiverse din comunitate, dar și din instituții, printre membri si simpatizanți. În plus, campania candidatei independente la alegerile pentru Parlamentul European, Mădălina Turza, care a reușit performanța remarcabilă de a aduna zeci de mii de semnături în sprijinul unei platforme dedicate exclusiv drepturilor copiilor cu dizabilitățila participare si incluziune socială. 

Constantin Cojocariu este avocat si activist Demos. Ajută persoanele cu dizabilități de 15 ani să-și reclame drepturile în instanțele din România și din Europa. 

Thursday 28 March 2019

Deinstitutionalisation of psychiatric patients in Romania

This is a short note that I wrote for the European Implementation Network website, where it was published originally

On 29 January 2001, Alexandru Nabosnyi was arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital, based on a short news story in a local newspaper, accusing him of various sexual crimes. A psychiatric report subsequently stated he lacked discernment due to being diagnosed with schizophrenia and a court formally validated the psychiatric detention order. The criminal investigation, which was protracted and superficial, resulted in most charges against him being dropped. Regardless, Mr. Nabosnyi went on to spend his next seventeen years involuntarily detained in high security psychiatric hospitals. 

Mr. Nabosnyi went before courts regularly, asking to be released, but the default position was that he was too ill and too dangerous to be released, despite the charges against him having been dropped. The European Court of Human Rights took a different view. By a judgment delivered on 28 February 2018 in the case N. v. Romania, the Court decided that Mr. Nabosnyi had been unlawfully detained since at least 2007. The national authorities had failed to adduce any evidence to prove that he was dangerous. His release was delayed by the absence of suitable facilities helping patients re-settle after long periods of detention. The proceedings reviewing the validity of Mr. Nabosnyi’s detention were flawed due to poor ex officio legal assistance and widespread procedural irregularities. In line with Mr. Nabosnyi’s request, the Court made use of its powers under Article 46 and instructed the Romanian Government to immediately release him in conditions meeting his needs and to take general measures ensuring that psychiatric detention was lawful, justified and not arbitrary.

From the outset, two obstacles hampered the implementation process. First, after having spent seventeen years in psychiatric detention, Mr. Nabosnyi lacked a network of support in the community, besides not owning any property. Far from being a mere formality, his release and transition to living in the community required substantial preparation and assistance. Second, at the beginning of 2018, after separate proceedings occasioned by his initial complaint to Strasbourg, a local court placed him under plenary guardianship and named a local village mayor to act as guardian. This decision had complex ramifications to do with being able to take decisions related to living in the community or enjoying the just satisfaction awarded by the Court.  

On 2 May 2018, I filed a Rule 9§1 submission on Mr. Nabosnyi’s behalf, informing the Committee of Ministers about the bureaucratic inertia hindering his release to a suitable community-based arrangement and about his placement under guardianship. Following the submission, on 29 May 2018, Mr. Nabosnyi was finally released from the psychiatric hospital and transferred to a social care home in Bucharest, his hometown. Although that is also a closed institution, it is a superior arrangement that provides a sense of progress after seventeen years of psychiatric detention. On 20 August 2018, I made the second Rule 9§1 submission, attempting to dispel the Government’s argument to the effect that the social care home constituted a satisfactory solution, rather than, as I argued, a mere stepping-stone to a community-based arrangement, corresponding with the Court’s Article 46 request. 

Beyond individual implications, Mr. Nabosnyi’s case shines a light on Romania’s forensic detention system, which warehouses psychiatric patients in very poor conditions, often indefinitely, without meaningful judicial scrutiny. A European Implementation Network workshop in May 2018 helped me prepare the forthcoming exchanges with the Romanian Government before the Committee of Ministers regarding general measures. On 29 October 2018, the Government submitted a poor action plan, devoid of meaningful substance. On 21 November 2018, I submitted a detailed Rule 9§2 briefing on behalf of three disability rights non-governmental organizations, providing the Committee of Ministers with information regarding the general state of the forensic detention system in Romania and outlining the general measures required with a view to achieving reform and ensuring access to justice for patients. 

In December 2018, the Committee of Ministers issued a very positive decision, in line with our expectations. On general measures, the CM asked the Government to submit a revised action plan. On individual measures, the CM accepted that the social care home was but a temporary arrangement and called on the Government to ensure Mr. Nabosnyi’s move to community living as soon as practicable. In addition, the CM strongly criticized the guardianship system in place in Romania, which deprived Mr. Nabosnyi of “the exercise of his civil and political rights,” called for immediate reform and asked the Government to ensure his interests were safeguarded in the interim period. 

The Committee of Ministers process constituted a catalyst for increased advocacy at the domestic level to reform the forensic detention system. New alliances were formed, that engaged in dialogue with the Government. Other procedures were leveraged for pressure, including by securing positive references in the Commissioner for Human Rights’ report on her visit to Romania in November 2018. On individual measures, the authorities are working towards securing Mr. Nabosnyi’s transfer to the first state-run sheltered housing facilities in Bucharest, that are due to be opened this year. 

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Disability inclusive education case communicated by European Court of Human Rights

This is a short note regarding an inclusive education case v. Romania communicated recently by the European Court of Human Rights. I act as the applicants' co-counsel, along with Catalina Radulescu.

The case M.C. and others. v. Romania involves an 11-year old child with persistent disciplinary problems attributed to a diagnosis of oppositional disorder, and his parents. In 2010, an NGO contracted by the parents to evaluate and monitor his condition, issued the school in Bucharest where he was enrolled with detailed advice about handling the situation, including by creating a predictable, rule-based learning environment, using a support teacher and a school counsellor, highlighting positive behaviour and ignoring minor incidents, keeping criticism at a minimum. 

However, once the NGO team left, the situation deteriorated fast. The school failed to take any of the measures available under the law to evaluate and accommodate the child’s disability and started instead to blame him for the disruption.  At the beginning of 2011, the child’s parents installed a hidden recording device in his school uniform. Thus, they obtained many hours of recordings of intemperate and vicious abuse inflicted on the child by teachers and other children. Confronted by the parents, the school applied pressure on the applicants to seek a transfer, instigated other parents to complain about and campaign against the presence of a disabled child in school, blamed and denigrated the parents and the child and applied increasingly more severe disciplinary sanctions. The regulatory and supervisory agencies refused to get involved. The child was effectively forced to drop out from school. He started the next academic year with a private school where he received the support he needed and eventually flourished. 

Criminal proceedings focused narrowly on the liability of one teacher, who received a suspended prison sentence of one year for abusive behaviour. Civil proceedings focusing on bullying, the lack of reasonable accommodation and support were thrown out, with courts rejecting the use of audio recordings as evidence on the basis that they were done illegally, and ignoring the verdict rendered in criminal courts that they theoretically were bound to follow. The decisions handed down at the national level are rife with negative stereotypes regarding the ability of children with psychosocial disabilities to learn in mainstream schools and disregard for relevant regulations that would accommodate disability. 

We lodged the complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in September 2018. The Court communicated the case in in record time, in February 2109. All relevant issues are well represented in the questions asked by the Court – the States’ obligation to prevent, protect from and investigate bullying, the accommodations required in order to ensure equal access to education for children with psychosocial disabilities with challenging behaviour, access to justice with respect to abuses taking place in school, and in particular the use of evidence from hidden recording devices, disability-based discrimination. The evidence is very persuasive and the case has been argued reasonably well at all stages. 

This is an important opportunity for pushing the Court to develop its standards on inclusive education for children with psychosocial disabilities. We therefore invite support in any form, including third party interventions. The communication is available HERE.

This is the second disability education case against Romania that a team of lawyers involving Constantin Cojocariu and Catalina Radulescu have brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The first one, still pending, is Stoian v. Romania, which drew third party interventions from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Disability Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights among others. The Court communications in that case are available HERE and HERE