A mother’s struggle to be with her children leads to better protection for family life

M.D. and Others v. Malta  | 2012

A mother’s struggle to be with her children leads to better protection for family life

Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life …

Extract from Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights


M.D. is the mother of two children. When the children were aged between three and five, the presumed father, X., was convicted for repeatedly beating them. He was sentenced to two years in prison and the children were put into an institution.

The Maltese courts also found that, possibly because of X’s threats, M.D. had not reported his violent behavior and had behaved roughly. Therefore M.D. was also sentenced to one year in prison.

After the criminal case had started, M.D. took steps to make things right. Her relationship with X. ended, and she rebuilt her relationship with her children. Yet they were still in the care of an institution. M.D. wanted to have them back.

However, the relevant government minister refused her request. She wanted to go to court to prove that things had changed. However, because of her conviction M.D. had lost all parental rights over her children, forever. Under Maltese law, there was no way she could bring a claim and prove her case.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court ruled that M.D.’s right to access a court had been breached, because she had been denied the opportunity to argue that circumstances had changed and she should get her children back. Furthermore, her right to family life had been breached, because she had automatically and permanently lost her parental rights after her conviction – without any chance of getting them back.  


In July 2012 the children were re-united with their mother. Monthly home visits from social workers raised no concerns about their welfare.

In 2014 the law was changed. Parents in M.D.’s position can now ask a court to review decisions to separate children from their families. The Criminal Code was also changed, so that a conviction for certain offences no longer leads to an automatic loss of parental rights.

Related examples

Reforms made following the inhuman treatment of a four-year-old girl

When she was four years old, Tabitha Mitunga was detained by the Belgian authorities for almost two months – without family, friends, or anybody assigned to look after her. She suffered psychological damage and the Strasbourg court ruled that her rights had been violated. Her case highlighted the need for better protections for unaccompanied children in Belgium and led to substantial reforms.

Read more

Reforms to protect family life after a father was separated from his daughter

When Teuvo Hokkanen’s wife died he temporarily allowed her parents to look after his daughter, Sini. The grandparents then refused to return Sini or to let Teuvo see her. The Finnish courts ordered regular meetings to take place between Teuvo and his daughter, but the authorities failed to enforce that order. The European court ruled that this had violated Teuvo’s right to family life.

Read more

Justice for thousands of “erased” people after 20 years without rights

In February 1992, 25,671 people in Slovenia were automatically stripped of their right to live there. Many people – including Ana Mezga - had their papers taken away, were evicted from their homes, could not work, lost personal possessions or had their families broken apart. The law was changed and a compensation scheme set up after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.

Read more

Reforms after children were taken away from their parents because they were poor

Emílie Wallová and Jaroslav Walla’s five children were taken away by the authorities, on the grounds that the parents did not have enough money to look after them. The Strasbourg court ruled that taking the children away in these circumstances had breached the parents’ right to family life. New legislation banned putting children in care just because of the financial situation of their parents.

Read more

Vulnerable child was denied a full adoption because her new mother was single

With the help of an international agency, Jeanne Wagner adopted a child from an orphanage in Peru. However, after they travelled back to Europe, the Luxembourg courts refused to recognise the full adoption because Jeanne was not married. The European court ruled that this was unfair and violated the right to family life. The adoption was recognised and the ban on single-parent adoption was ended.

Read more

Justice for elderly widow forced to change her name by the government

Tiborné Daróczy was 71 years old when the government made her change the name - even though she she had used it for fifty years. Mrs Daróczy saw her name as a strong link to her late husband. She did not want to be forced to change it. The European court ruled in her favour and the Hungarian authorities then allowed Mrs Daróczy to keep her old name.

Read more

Improved custody rights for fathers of children born out of marriage

Horst Zaunegger had a daughter and separated from the child’s mother. German law limited his chances to obtain joint custody, because he and the mother had never been married. After he won his case in Strasbourg, the law was changed to give fathers such as Mr Zaunegger more rights.

Read more

Fair custody rights for fathers of children born out of marriage

Under Austrian law, custody of a child born out of marriage was automatically given to the mother, with few exceptions. Meanwhile, custody of children born within marriage was decided according to the child’s best interests. At the Strasbourg court, Mr Sporer successfully argued that this was unfair – leading to a change in Austrian law.

Read more

Justice for a mother who lost custody of her child

Verica Šobota-Gajić was given custody of her children after her relationship ended. However, her former husband took their son away. Due to the authorities’ inaction, Ms Šobota-Gajić only regained custody 6 years later. The case led to reforms to make sure the right people have custody of a child.

Read more

Reforms made after a child was unable to be legally recognised as her father’s daughter

Nessa Williams-Johnston could not be legally recognised as her father’s daughter, because her father had previously been married to someone other than Nessa’s mother. After the Strasbourg court ruled in the family’s favour, new legislation was passed to give children in Nessa’s position proper legal status.

Read more

Child unable to discover identity of her father for 5 years – and reforms to protect children’s rights

A child was born outside of marriage. The mother asked the courts to establish who the father was. Due to legal delays and the father’s refusals to have a DNA test, the case lasted over 5 years. The Strasbourg court ruled that children’s rights were not properly protected. Laws were changed to help prevent the problem from happening again.

Read more