Arbitrary detention in psychiatric hospital leads to reforms to protect liberty

Winterwerp v. the Netherlands  | 1979

Arbitrary detention in psychiatric hospital leads to reforms to protect liberty

Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. …

Opening words of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights


In 1968, Frits Winterwerp was put into a psychiatric hospital. Local courts had ordered him to be kept there, and throughout the 1970s they gave annual orders to ensure that he could not leave. When entering the institution Mr Winterwerp had automatically lost control of his money and his assets.

Mr Winterwerp insisted that he had no mental illness, that he was not a danger to himself or others, and that he should not be locked up in an institution. He made four different requests to be released – all of which were refused.

Mr Winterwerp argued that he had been prevented from making his case in the courts, and that they kept extending his detention without hearing his objections. 

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that, whilst the authorities may detain a person with a mental illness, the person should have the right to challenge the decision before the courts. They should also have the chance to be heard in court and be represented by a lawyer.

However, Mr Winterwerp had been repeatedly refused permission to make his case in court as to why he should be released. There had also been no representative in the Dutch courts to make his case for him. Indeed, he was never told when the proceedings were happening, or what the outcome was.

Therefore, although there had been court reviews of Mr Winterwerp’s detention, he had been almost totally prevented from making his case against it. This had violated his right to liberty and his right to a fair trial.


In 1980 new legislation was introduced. This required that, in all cases of involuntary admission to a psychiatric hospital, the patient has the right to be heard when a court is considering whether the patient should stay detained. 

The law was also changed so that patients who are involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital do not automatically lose control over their property.

Mr Winterwerp was released from psychiatric detention, to live in a hostel during his reintegration into society.