Rights of persons with mental disability: landmark ruling by Strasbourg Court

The European Court of Human Rights has taken a decision which should affect positively the situation of persons with mental health problems all over the continent. The ruling means that no one should be totally deprived of his or her legal capacity.

The Court found that Stefan Stankov had been unlawfully detained in Bulgarian disability institutions for over 15 years, and had been subjected to degrading treatment. In 1999 Mr Stankov had been put under guardianship by his mother and ever since had lived in institutions, segregated from society and prohibited from authoring his own life.

In the institutions he shared a pool of clothes with other residents. The toilets and bathrooms were unsanitary and dilapidated, and for a decade – day in and day out – the food was “insufficient and of poor quality”. The Court noted that all of this would have created “a sense of inferiority” in Mr Stankov.

The main point is that in the institution his life was wasted: the State denied him the right to live in and contribute to his community like everyone else.

The Court awarded Mr Stankov 15,500 EUR and ordered the government to pay the non-governmental Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC) 6,000 EUR towards its legal costs during the legal process.

This case demonstrates the enormous importance of competent litigation by organisations such as MDAC, which researched and brought the case to the Strasbourg Court. Without these efforts Mr Stankov would not have been given a chance to start a real live again.

Persons with mental health problems and intellectual disablities are extremely vulnerable even in today’s societies. Their human rights are too often violated and they have in many cases few possibilities to complain. Therefore, this ruling is particuarly significant and certainly in total compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

It sends a crucial message to all those states which still allow guardianship to mean deprivation of all individual rights.