Lack of Adequate Health Care for Prisoners may Amount to Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment

Holomiov v Moldova, (Application No 30649/05), 7 November 2006 (European Court of Human Rights) The European Court of Human Rights has found a violation of art 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights on account of the authorities’ failure to provide a prisoner with medical care appropriate to his conditions.


The applicant, Victor Holomiov, is a Moldovan national who was arrested on 24 January 2002 on suspicion of having aided and abetted bribery.  He was indicted the next month and remained in custody pending the hearing of the case.  His detention was prolonged several times until 23 May 2002.  After that date, the applicant remained in detention without having his detention warrant renewed.  In total, the hearing was adjourned 44 times: on 15 occasions due to the applicant’s ill-health or to change his lawyers, and on the rest due to the management of proceedings by the Moldovan authorities.

The applicant suffers from a number of serious urological diseases.  During his detention, he was prescribed medical treatment and even urgent surgery on his kidneys; however, these recommendations were never followed up.  The applicant submitted numerous requests for release relying, in particular, on his medical condition and on the impossibility of receiving appropriate medical care in prison due to a lack of specialised doctors and medication.  These requests were all rejected.

Complaints and Findings

The applicant alleged that he was detained in inhuman and degrading conditions and that he was not provided with proper medical care.  He further complained that he was detained unlawfully after his detention warrant had expired.  Finally, he complained about the length of the criminal proceedings.  He relied on arts 3, 5(1) and 6(1) of the Convention.

Article 3

Article 3 of the Convention prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The Court concluded that, while suffering from serious kidney diseases entailing serious risks for his health, the applicant was detained for almost four years without appropriate medical care.  It found that the applicant’s suffering constituted inhuman and degrading treatment and held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of art 3.

The Court’s view was that the issue was not the lack of medical care in the prison system in general, but rather the lack of adequate medical care for the applicant’s particular conditions.  The Court was careful to point out that art 3 does not lay down a ‘general obligation to release detainees on health grounds’.  It found that the authorities had failed to act where one of the doctors had stressed the seriousness of the applicant’s condition and pointed to the risk that the applicant could lose his kidney if surgery was not performed.  Indeed, the Court noted that the domestic courts accepted that there was a lack of appropriate medical care during the applicant’s detention.

The case is particularly important for confirming, however, that the state owes particular obligations to persons in its custody or control.  According to Rachel Marcus of One Crown Office Row:

The quality of healthcare to those imprisoned by the action of the state is not to be relative.  Whilst an individual in society may have no right to healthcare under the Convention, let alone adequate healthcare, where he is in the state's custody the state must ensure that he receives the medical care he requires.  Scarce resources or logistical difficulty will not be legitimate excuses.

Article 5(1)

Article 5(1) of the Convention provides that everyone has the right to liberty and security of person.  The Court found that the applicant’s detention after the expiry of his detention warrant issued on 23 May 2002 was not based on any legal provision.  Accordingly, it found unanimously that there had been a violation of art 5(1).

Article 6(1)

Article 6(1) of the Convention provides a detailed right to a fair trial, which includes the requirement that a trial take place within a reasonable time.  The Court noted that the proceedings had lasted for nearly five years and, having regard to the circumstances of the case, it considered that such a length of time was excessive.  Accordingly, the Court concluded unanimously that there had been a violation of art 6(1).

The applicant was awarded 25,000 euros in compensation for the collective violations.

The Court’s decision is available at