Scoppola v Italy  ECHR 50550/06 (10 June 2008) The European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of art 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights because the applicant’s conditions of detention were not appropriate to his state of health.
In the Court’s view, in circumstances such as these, the State should have either transferred the applicant to a better-equipped prison in order to avoid any risk of inhuman treatment or deferred execution of a sentence that had become tantamount to treatment contrary to art 3 of the Convention.
The applicant, Franco Scoppola, was sentenced to life imprisonment by theRome Assize Courtin January 2002.
In December 2003, the applicant, who was in Regina Coeli Prison inRomeand was confined to a wheelchair, unsuccessfully requested to be transferred to another prison inRome, the architectural design of which would have provided more time outside and more humane conditions of detention.
According to a medical report of 9 January 2006, the applicant’s state of health was ‘totally incompatible with detention in prison and required the adoption of alternative measures, such as transfer to a hospital outside the prison capable of providing the applicant with suitable and necessary medical care, or to a home for the treatment and rehabilitation of long-term patients requiring 24-hour care’.
After breaking his thigh bone in April 2006, the applicant was admitted to SandroPertiniHospital. A medical report of 6 June 2006 certified that the applicant could leave hospital on condition that he was transferred to a treatment centre capable of providing him with the necessary care (in particular, round-the-clock care, a special anti-bedsores mattress and physiotherapy).
On 16 June 2006, theRome Courtgranted the applicant detention at home for one year on the grounds that his state of health required care that could not be provided in prison and had reached the stage where it had become an ‘unnecessary violation of the prohibition of inhuman treatment in respect of the prisoner’. That decision was set aside on 8 September 2006 on the ground that detention at home was impossible because the applicant did not have a home adapted to his needs.
On 29 December 2006 the Prison Service of the Ministry of Justice ordered the applicant to be transferred to Parma Prison, which had appropriate facilities for inmates with disabilities. The applicant was not transferred until 23 September 2007.
Relying on art 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), the applicant alleged that keeping him in prison constituted inhuman treatment.
TheEuropean Courtobserved that the applicant, who has been unable to walk since 1987 and fractured his thigh bone in April 2006, was confined to a wheelchair. He had no personal autonomy whatsoever and was obliged to spend every day in bed. He was now 67 years old, suffered from heart disease and a failing metabolism, diabetes, deteriorating muscles, hypertrophy in the prostate gland and depression. The expert instructed by the applicant concluded that his state of health was incompatible with detention in prison, given that he required round-the-clock care. That opinion was confirmed by the medical report of 6 June 2006 recommending that the applicant be moved to a suitably equipped treatment centre.
In the light of those expert opinions, theEuropean Courtaffirmed the conclusion of theRome Courtthat the care required for the applicant was unavailable in prison, that continuing to detain him in prison amounted to inhuman treatment, and that he should be subject to home detention.
TheEuropean Courtnoted that the decision to allow the applicant to serve his sentence outside the prison had been set aside on 8 September 2006 on the ground that the applicant did not have a home with facilities adapted to his condition. Consequently, the applicant was kept in the Regina Coeli prison.
TheEuropean Courtdid not overlook the efforts made by the Italian authorities, which had eventually placed the applicant in a prison that was equipped with a clinical centre and was architecturally better suited to the applicant’s condition (Parma Prison). Furthermore, in both prisons the applicant had undergone numerous medical tests designed to treat his failing metabolism and had physiotherapy sessions. However, the absence of an intention on the part of the national authorities to humiliate or debase the person concerned did not definitively rule out a finding of a violation of art 3.
In the applicant’s case, the requirement that the applicant not be detained in a prison had remained a dead letter for reasons that could not be attributed to the applicant. In the Court’s view, in circumstances such as these, the State should have either immediately transferred the applicant to a better-equipped prison in order to avoid any risk of inhuman treatment or deferred execution of a sentence that had become tantamount to treatment contrary to art 3 of the Convention.
Relevance for the Victorian Charter
A number of influential courts and bodies – including the European Court of Human Rights, the UK Court of Appeal and the UN Human Rights Committee – have consistently held that public authorities have a particular duty and responsibility for the health and well-being of those in its custody.
In recent cases, the European Courthas stated that the quality of healthcare to those imprisoned by the state is not to be relative. While an individual in society may have no right to healthcare as such, where they are in the state's custody the state must ensure that they receive the medical care required (see, eg, Holomiov v Moldova ( ECHR 30649/05); Istratii and others v Moldova ( ECHR 8721/05)). Both the European Court and UK courts have stated that scarce resources or logistical difficulty will not be legitimate excuses for inadequate medical treatment to prisoners (see, eg, Mamedova v Russia  ECHR 7064/05; Frolov v Russia  ECHR 205/02; R (Noorkoiv) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ 770). Where authorities decide to place and maintain a seriously ill person in detention, they must demonstrate special care to provide conditions of detention to accommodate the disability (see, eg, Testa v Croatia  ECHR 20877/04).
Given recent observations by the Victorian Ombudsman that ‘there are significant deficiencies in the health care provided to prisoners’ it is imperative that the relevant public authorities review and improve Victorian prison conditions and prisoner health care services if they are to meet the threshold required by s 10 (protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment), s 21 (right to liberty and security of person) and s 22 (humane treatment when deprived of liberty) of the Victorian Charter.
This case summary is partly sourced from the Registry of the European Court of Human Rights as the judgment is only available in French at this stage.
Philip Lynch is Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre