Authorities’ obligations to adequately respond to domestic violence

Irene Wilson v The United Kingdom [2012] ECHR, Application no. 10601/09 (23 October 2012)


The European Court of Human Rights found that the Northern Ireland authorities had not failed in their duty to respond to domestic violence perpetrated against the applicant, Ms Irene Wilson, and her complaint was deemed inadmissible.


On 20 October 2007 the applicant was assaulted by her husband, Scott Wilson. She suffered a severed artery on the right side of her head and multiple bruising.

Mr Wilson was arrested and charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do grievous bodily harm, contrary to section 18 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. After considering the available evidence, the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland (PPS) decided that there was insufficient evidence of intention to do grievous bodily harm and the charge was reduced to one of grievous bodily harm contrary to section 20 of the same Act.

Mr Wilson pleaded guilty to the section 20 charge and was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment, which was suspended for three years.

The applicant alleged violations of her human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and made several complaints regarding the criminal proceedings, including that the sentence was unduly lenient and was much lower than would have been delivered had the offence occurred outside marriage.


The Court reviewed its jurisprudence on the positive obligation under article 8 of the Convention (right to respect for family and private life) in relation to authorities’ responses to domestic violence. Several relevant principles were restated, namely:

  • While the essential object of article 8 is to protect the individual against arbitrary action by public authorities, there may also be positive obligations inherent in effective “respect” for private and family life and these obligations may involve the adoption of measures in the sphere of the relations between individuals. Children and other vulnerable individuals, in particular, are entitled to effective protection.
  • The concept of private life includes a person’s physical and psychological integrity. Under article 8, States have a duty to protect the physical and moral integrity of an individual from other persons. To that end they are to maintain and apply in practice an adequate legal framework affording protection against acts of violence by private individuals.
  • Victims of domestic violence are of a particular vulnerability and the State should be actively involved in their protection.
  • The Court’s task is not to substitute itself for the competent domestic authorities in determining the most appropriate methods for protecting individuals from attacks on their personal integrity, but rather to review under the Convention the decisions that those authorities have taken in the exercise of their power of appreciation.

The Court considered that, in contrast to previous cases, this was not a case where the domestic authorities did nothing in the face of repeated and credible complaints of violence. The Court found that it was a matter for the PPS to decide whether the intent element of section 18 could be proved and to reduce the charge to the next most serious offence if it could not. Further, the Court found that the sentencing judge had sufficient information to enable him to assess the seriousness of the offence and the sentence imposed was not manifestly inadequate.

Ultimately, the Court decided that the Northern Ireland authorities did not fail in their positive obligation to secure the applicant’s right to private and family life and concluded that the complaint was manifestly ill-founded and therefore inadmissible.


Australian Federal and State Governments are obliged, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to protect the right to private and family life of victims of domestic and family violence, including through effective prosecution and punishment of offenders. In Victoria that obligation is further enshrined in section 13 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

While the applicant was not successful in this case, the Court’s decision provides a useful summary of legal principles and case law relevant to the adequacy of public authorities’ responses to domestic and family violence (see [37]-[46]).

The decision is available online at

Rachel Ball is Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the HRLC.