Stanková v Slovakia  ECHR 7205/02 (9 October 2007)
The European Court of Human Rights has held that the eviction of a woman from public housing in circumstances where the public authority had not ensured that she had adequate alternative housing constituted a violation of the right to respect for private life and the home.
The applicant, Milota Stanková, had lived in a two-room flat with her father and two children since 1992. The flat was leased by the applicant’s father from Poprad Municipality. Following the father’s death in 1994, the applicant sought to be registered as the tenant of the flat. The Municipality refused to transfer the tenancy and argued that she could move into her son’s one-room flat. The Municipality sought and obtained an eviction order and placed the applicant on a public housing waiting list.
The applicant challenged the Municipality’s decision in the domestic courts, including by filing a petition with the Slovakian Constitutional Court alleging a violation of her constitutional right to protection of her private and family life. The Constitutional Court stated that in order for an interference with the applicant’s private and family life to be permissible, it was necessary to consider whether there had been a pressing social need for the interference and whether it had been proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, having regard to the particular circumstances of the case. In this respect, the Constitutional Court held that the Municipality's ownership rights in respect of the flat ‘could not be dissociated from its obligation to assist citizens of Poprad in having their basic needs satisfied’. It found that, particularly having regard to the likely impact of evicting the applicant and her under-age daughter, the interference could not be regarded as being ‘necessary in a democratic society’.
As the remedial powers of the Constitutional Court are only declaratory and did not provide an effective remedy, the applicant filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.
Before the European Court, the applicant argued that her eviction constituted a violation of art 8(1) of the European Convention which provides that ‘everyone has the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence’. Pursuant to art 8(2), limitations on this right are only permissible if they are in accordance with law and necessary in a democratic society.
The Court held, and it was not disputed between the parties, that the eviction of the applicant from her flat amounted to an interference with her right to respect for her home. The Court further held that the eviction was based on relevant provisions of the Slovakian Civil Code and the interference was therefore ‘in accordance with the law’. The Court further accepted that the eviction pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the rights of the Poprad Municipality, which owned the flat. The issue, therefore, was whether that interference was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ to achieve this aim. The Court held that in order for an interference with a right to be ‘necessary in a democratic society’, it must pursue a legitimate aim, being a ‘pressing social need’, and the measure employed must be proportionate to this aim. The Court must also consider whether the reasons adduced to justify the interference are ‘relevant and sufficient’.
In the present case, the European Court considered that the facts of the case and the issues of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality were examined in detail by the Slovakian Constitutional Court and held that there were no grounds for reaching a different conclusion to that of the Constitutional Court (namely, that the applicant's right to respect for her home and private life had been violated). Adopting the reasoning of the Constitutional Court, the European Court stated that the effect of the order ‘to leave the flat without being provided with any alternative accommodation produced effects which were incompatible with her right to respect for her private and family life and for her home, regard also being had to the special protection of children and juveniles’. The Court noted that Poprad Municipality had de facto acknowledged the ‘gravity’ of the eviction by placing the applicant on a public housing waiting list, albeit at the same time as it had initiated eviction proceedings. It also took into account that the Municipality was ‘in charge of public housing’ and, in that capacity, was ‘under an obligation to assist the town's citizens in resolving their accommodation problems’. The European Court held, accordingly, that there had been a violation of art 8 of the European Convention and ordered payment of damages and just satisfaction.
Implications for the Victorian Charter
This decision is significant for the interpretation and application of s 13(a) of the Charter, which provides that ‘a person has the right not to have his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with’, particularly as that provision relates to access to, and eviction from, public housing.
Although s 13(a) of the Charter is arguably narrower than art 8 of the European Convention, in that it prohibits unlawful or arbitrary interference with the home rather than requires ‘respect’ for the home, it is well established under international and comparative law that the notion of ‘arbitrariness’ incorporates considerations of ‘appropriateness’, ‘justice’ and ‘proportionality’. Accordingly, the eviction of a person from public housing may constitute an interference with s 13(a) of the Charter in circumstances where it is not just or proportionate, particularly in circumstances where the eviction may impact on children who are entitled, pursuant to s 17(2) of the Charter, to protection in their best interests.
The decision also has significance for s 7 of the Charter, suggesting that any limitation on human rights must be in pursuit of a pressing social need under s 7(2)(b), proportionate under s 7(2)(c) and supported by relevant and sufficient reasons under s 7(2)(d).
Philip Lynch is Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre