Elberte v. Latvia |2015

Clearer rules on consent after a widow was not told about the removal of tissue from her late husband’s body

In the special field of organ and tissue transplantation it has been recognised that the human body must still be treated with respect even after death.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, January 2015


Dzintra Elberte’s husband, Egils, died in 2001. 

Dzintra was distraught when her husband’s body was returned to her with his legs tied together. He had to be buried like this. 

Two years later, the police contacted Dzintra. They were investigating allegations of the illegal removal of organs and tissue from dead bodies between 1994 and 2003. Tissue had been taken from Egils’ body after his death without Dzintra’s knowledge or consent.

Under a state-approved agreement, Egils’ body tissue was removed and sent off to be transformed into bio-implants. Medical experts said that Egils’ passport did not contain a stamp to show that he wished to opt-out of donating. Dzintra claimed that they could not have checked this because her husband’s passport was at home. 

The experts believed that, legally, they only had to check whether the potential donor was opposed to the removal of organs or tissue during their lifetime. If relatives objected, their wishes were respected, but the experts did not actively try to contact them. 

Police and prosecutors disagreed on whether the experts should have only removed organs or tissue when it had been expressly allowed by a potential donor or by their relatives. 

The criminal investigation was closed and reopened several times because of these conflicting views. A final decision was reached when a Latvian court ruled, in 2008, that the experts did not break the law by not informing relatives of their intentions to remove tissue from the bodies of their loved ones.  

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that Latvian law in this area was unclear and open to abuse. Dzintra had to face a long period of uncertainty, anguish, and distress over what had been done to her husband’s body. The court found that her human rights had been violated.

. . . such disagreement as to the scope of the applicable law among the very authorities responsible for its enforcement inevitably indicates a lack of sufficient clarity.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, January 2015


Latvia brought in clearer rules on establishing consent for the use of a person’s organs or body tissue after their death:

  • In 2004, the law was changed to give relatives the right to inform a medical institution, in writing, about their loved one’s wishes if there is no recorded data in the register. 
  • The 2010 law on patients’ rights set out the rights of relatives to take a decision on medical treatment in situations where the wishes of a person must be established. This law also applies to organ and tissue removal.
  • In 2017, a new guide was issued to help medical experts to verify information about a dead person’s consent, or opposition, to the use of their organs or body tissue. 
  • Latvia signed the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking in Human Organs in March 2017.