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

Hokkanen v. Finland  | 1994

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

the non-enforcement of the applicant’s right of access … constituted a breach of his right to respect for family life…

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, September 1994

Background

Teuvo Hokkanen was a farmer. He and his wife had a daughter, Sini. Two years later Teuvo’s wife died. Sini’s maternal grandparents then looked after her. According to Teuvo, this was a temporary arrangement whilst he dealt with problems caused by his wife’s death. 

Soon afterwards, Sini’s grandparents told Teuvo that they did not intend to give her back to him. Legal disputes took place over custody of the child, lasting for seven years. During this time, the grandparents refused to let Teuvo have any contact with Sini. Teuvo obtained court rulings ordering there to be meetings – but they were not enforced.

Eventually the courts decided that it was in Sini’s best interests to stay with her grandparents.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court found no grounds to question the Finnish courts’ decision that it was in Sini’s best interests to stay with her grandparents. However, it ruled that Teuvo should have been able to have contact with his daughter. Indeed, the Finnish courts had ruled that such contact was in Sini’s best interests. Yet the authorities had failed to make sure that there were regular meetings between father and daughter.

This had violated Teuvo’s right to family life.   

[The Convention] includes a right for the parent to have measures taken with a view to his or her being reunited with the child and an obligation for the national authorities to take such action.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, September 1994

Follow-up

The Finnish authorities took steps to make sure that a similar situation would not happen again. The European court’s judgment was communicated to the relevant government ministries. A seminar was organised for social workers, in which emphasis was placed on avoiding such situations.  The law was also changed to make sure that court rulings in child custody cases would be properly enforced.


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