ECHR principles applicable to cases involving child welfare measures

Strand Lobben and Others v. Norway [GC]

§§ 202-213

206.  In instances where the respective interests of a child and those of the parents come into conflict, Article 8 requires that the domestic authorities should strike a fair balance between those interests and that, in the balancing process, particular importance should be attached to the best interests of the child which, depending on their nature and seriousness, may override those of the parents (see, for instance, Sommerfeld v. Germany [GC], no. 31871/96, § 64, ECHR 2003‑VIII (extracts)), and the references therein).

207.  Generally, the best interests of the child dictate, on the one hand, that the child’s ties with its family must be maintained, except in cases where the family has proved particularly unfit, since severing those ties means cutting a child off from its roots. It follows that family ties may only be severed in very exceptional circumstances and that everything must be done to preserve personal relations and, if and when appropriate, to “rebuild” the family (see Gnahoré, cited above, § 59). On the other hand, it is clearly also in the child’s interest to ensure its development in a sound environment, and a parent cannot be entitled under Article 8 to have such measures taken as would harm the child’s health and development (see, among many other authorities, Neulinger and Shuruk, cited above, § 136; Elsholz v. Germany [GC], no. 25735/94, § 50, ECHR 2000-VIII; and Maršálek v. the Czech Republic, no. 8153/04, § 71, 4 April 2006). An important international consensus exists to the effect that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child (see Article 9 § 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, recited in paragraph 134 above). In addition, it is incumbent on the Contracting States to put in place practical and effective procedural safeguards for the protection of the best interests of the child and to ensure their implementation (see the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 14 (2013) on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration, paragraphs 85 and 87, quoted at paragraph 136 above).

208.  Another guiding principle is that a care order should be regarded as a temporary measure, to be discontinued as soon as circumstances permit, and that any measures implementing temporary care should be consistent with the ultimate aim of reuniting the natural parents and the child (see, for instance, Olsson v. Sweden (no. 1), 24 March 1988, § 81, Series A no. 130). The above-mentioned positive duty to take measures to facilitate family reunification as soon as reasonably feasible will begin to weigh on the competent authorities with progressively increasing force as from the commencement of the period of care, subject always to its being balanced against the duty to consider the best interests of the child (see, for example, K. and T. v. Finland, cited above, § 178). In this type of case the adequacy of a measure is to be judged by the swiftness of its implementation, as the passage of time can have irremediable consequences for relations between the child and the parent with whom it does not live (see, inter alia, S.H. v. Italy, no. 52557/14, § 42, 13 October 2015). Thus, where the authorities are responsible for a situation of family breakdown because they have failed in their above-mentioned obligation, they may not base a decision to authorise adoption on the grounds of the absence of bonds between the parents and the child (see Pontes v. Portugal, no. 19554/09, §§ 92 and 99, 10 April 2012). Furthermore, the ties between members of a family and the prospects of their successful reunification will perforce be weakened if impediments are placed in the way of their having easy and regular access to each other (see Scozzari and Giunta, cited above, § 174; and Olsson (No. 1), cited above, § 81). However, when a considerable period of time has passed since the child was originally taken into public care, the interest of a child not to have his or her de facto family situation changed again may override the interests of the parents to have their family reunited (see K. and T. v. Finland, cited above, § 155).

209.  As regards replacing a foster home arrangement with a more far-reaching measure such as deprivation of parental responsibilities and authorisation of adoption, with the consequence that the applicants’ legal ties with the child are definitively severed, it is to be reiterated that “such measures should only be applied in exceptional circumstances and could only be justified if they were motivated by an overriding requirement pertaining to the child’s best interests” (see, for example, Johansen, cited above, § 78, and Aune, cited above, § 66). It is in the very nature of adoption that no real prospects for rehabilitation or family reunification exist and that it is instead in the child’s best interests that he or she be placed permanently in a new family (see R. and H. v. the United Kingdom, no. 35348/06, § 88, 31 May 2011).

210.  In determining whether the reasons for the impugned measures were relevant and sufficient for the purpose of paragraph 2 of Article 8 of the Convention, the Court will have regard to the fact that perceptions as to the appropriateness of intervention by public authorities in the care of children vary from one Contracting State to another, depending on such factors as traditions relating to the role of the family and to State intervention in family affairs and the availability of resources for public measures in this particular area. However, consideration of what is in the best interests of the child is in every case of crucial importance. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the national authorities have the benefit of direct contact with all the persons concerned, often at the very stage when care measures are being envisaged or immediately after their implementation. It follows from these considerations that the Court’s task is not to substitute itself for the domestic authorities in the exercise of their responsibilities for the regulation of the care of children and the rights of parents whose children have been taken into public care, but rather to review under the Convention the decisions taken by those authorities in the exercise of their power of appreciation (see, for example, K. and T. v. Finland, cited above, § 154; and Johansen, cited above, § 64).

211.  The margin of appreciation to be accorded to the competent national authorities will vary in the light of the nature of the issues and the seriousness of the interests at stake, such as, on the one hand, the importance of protecting a child in a situation which is assessed as seriously threatening his or her health or development and, on the other hand, the aim to reunite the family as soon as circumstances permit. The Court thus recognises that the authorities enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in assessing the necessity of taking a child into care (see, for example, K. and T. v. Finland, cited above, § 155; and Johansen, cited above, § 64). However, this margin is not unfettered. For example, the Court has in certain instances attached weight to whether the authorities, before taking a child into public care, had first attempted to take less drastic measures, such as supportive or preventive ones, and whether these had proved unsuccessful (see, for example, Olsson (no. 1), cited above, §§ 72-74; R.M.S. v. Spain, no. 28775/12, § 86, 18 June 2013, § 86; and Kutzner v. Germany, no. 46544/99, § 75, ECHR 2002‑I). A stricter scrutiny is called for in respect of any further limitations, such as restrictions placed by the authorities on parental rights of access, and of any legal safeguards designed to secure an effective protection of the right of parents and children to respect for their family life. Such further limitations entail the danger that the family relations between the parents and a young child are effectively curtailed (see K. and T. v. Finland, cited above, ibid., and Johansen, cited above, ibid.).

212.  In cases relating to public-care measures, the Court will further have regard to the authorities’ decision-making process, to determine whether it has been conducted such as to secure that the views and interests of the natural parents are made known to and duly taken into account by the authorities and that they are able to exercise in due time any remedies available to them (see, for instance, W. v. the United Kingdom, 8 July 1987, § 63, Series A no. 121, and Elsholz, cited above, § 52). What has to be determined is whether, having regard to the particular circumstances of the case and notably the serious nature of the decisions to be taken, the parents have been involved in the decision-making process, seen as a whole, to a degree sufficient to provide them with the requisite protection of their interests and have been able fully to present their case (see, for example, W. v. the United Kingdom, cited above, § 64; T.P. and K.M. v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 28945/95, § 72, ECHR 2001‑V (extracts); Neulinger and Shuruk, cited above, § 139; and Y.C. v. the United Kingdom, no. 4547/10, § 138, 13 March 2012). From the foregoing considerations it follows that natural parents’ exercise of judicial remedies with a view to obtaining family reunification with their child cannot as such be held against them. In addition, in cases of this kind there is always the danger that any procedural delay will result in the de facto determination of the issue submitted to the court before it has held its hearing. Equally, effective respect for family life requires that future relations between parent and child be determined solely in the light of all relevant considerations and not by the mere effluxion of time (see W. v. the United Kingdom., cited above, § 65).

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