Back

Fair trial breach leads to better approach to resolving medical disputes

Sara Lind Eggertsdóttir v. Iceland |2007

Fair trial breach leads to better approach to resolving medical disputes

The memory of Sarah Lind will live on.

Quoted in an obituary of Sara Lind Eggertsdóttir, who sadly passed away in 2008

Background 

Sara Lind Eggertsdóttir was born in 1998. It became clear soon after her birth that she was severely physically and mentally disabled. 

Her parents, Eggert and Sigurmunda, took legal action against the state, claiming that hospital staff had made mistakes during the birth which had caused Sara Lind to suffer brain damage. 

In 2002, Reykjavík district court partly agreed with Eggert and Sigurmunda’s claims. It ruled that mistakes were made immediately after their daughter’s birth. The court awarded compensation to Sara Lind.

The state appealed against the judgment. The case went to Iceland’s highest court, which asked the State Medico-Legal Board for an opinion. Sara Lind’s parents strongly opposed this request because several doctors who had seats on the board were associated with the hospital where their daughter was born. 

The State Medico-Legal Board told the court there was no reason to criticise Sara Lind’s treatment at the hospital following her birth.

In 2004, Iceland’s highest court overturned the earlier judgment in Sara Lind’s case. It ruled that the brain damage she suffered was not caused by medical mistakes. 

Sara Lind’s parents decided to take their daughter’s case to Strasbourg. 

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that Iceland’s highest court had not given Sara Lind a fair hearing. 

There were good reasons to fear, as Sara Lind’s parents did, that the State Medico-Legal Board had not acted in a neutral way, not least because several board members were employed at the hospital where Sara Lind was born. 

These people had not previously been involved in the case, but as board members they had to evaluate the performance of their colleagues. In addition, their own superior at the hospital had supported critical statements about the district court’s judgment. 

The State Medico-Legal Board also had a special legal role as a provider of medical opinions to the Icelandic courts, which meant that its views carried greater weight than ordinary expert witnesses. 

This compromised the impartiality of Iceland’s highest court, which caused a violation of Sara Lind’s right to a fair trial. 

In its case-law the Court has recognised that the lack of neutrality on the part of a court-appointed expert may in certain circumstances give rise to a breach of the principle of equality of arms inherent in the concept of a fair trial.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, July 2007

Follow-up 

As a result of the European court’s judgment in Sara Lind’s case, Iceland abolished the State Medico-Legal Board in 2008. Disputes on medical issues are now handled by the domestic courts, with the help of court-appointed assessors and specialist judges.