- The European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to respect for family life.
- This includes the rights of parents to have custody and contact with their children, and the rights of children to be with their parents.
- The European Court of Human Rights helps to protect families from being unlawfully separated – including protecting the rights of parents to recover abducted children.
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.
In February 1992, over 25,000 people living in Slovenia were automatically stripped of their residency rights. Many of them – including Mustafa Kurić – had their papers taken away, were evicted from apartments, could not work or travel, lost personal possessions or lived in poor conditions. The law was changed and a compensation scheme set up after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.
David Norris suffered from anxiety attacks and depression after realising that any open expression of his homosexuality could lead to a criminal prosecution. The Strasbourg court ruled that the criminalisation of his sexuality breached his basic rights. In 1993, this led to the full legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults under Irish law.
When Vladimír Zavřel’s wife left the family home, she took the couple’s six-year-old son and prevented Vladimir from seeing him. Vladimir got a court order for contact with his boy, but the authorities failed to enforce it. The European court ruled that this had violated the right to family life. Contact was re-established and the law was changed to prevent similar situations happening again.
Paula Marckx was unmarried when she had a baby girl. Paula was shocked to discover that, because she was single, her child would not be recognised as being hers unless she went through a legal process. Even after this, her daughter would have a reduced legal status and would not inherit from her. The European court ruled this violated their right to family life – leading to a change to Belgian...
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.
Ingrid Hoffmann was a Jehovah’s Witness. When she got divorced, a child psychologist advised that Ingrid should be given custody of her two children, because of their close emotional ties. However, a court ruled that the father should get custody, because of Ingrid’s religion. The European court ruled that this had been discriminatory – leading to changes to prevent the same happening again.
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.
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.
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.
M.D. lost custody of her two children after the authorities found that her former partner had been beating them and she had not protected them. M.D. then ended her relationship with the abusive partner and tried to get her children back. However, under Maltese law she had lost custody of the children forever, and she had no way to challenge this in the national courts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When María Iglesias Gil had a son by her ex-husband, she was given custody of the child. However, her ex-husband took the child away to the United States. When Mrs Iglesias Gil went to the Spanish courts, they refused to issue an international arrest warrant and closed the case. The Strasbourg court ruled that this decision had breached Ms Iglesias Gil’s right to family life.
Snežana Boucke had a baby daughter out of marriage. The father was ordered to pay child support. The authorities failed to make sure the order was enforced, and the payments were not made for 13 years. The Strasbourg court ruled that this breached Ms Boucke’s right to have court rulings properly enforced. The case led to significant reforms to improve the enforcement of court orders.
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.
Mihai Ciubotaru is a writer and a professor. He wanted to have his ethnicity registered as Romanian. The authorities refused his request, despite his clear links with the Romanian ethnic group. The Strasbourg court ruled in Mr Ciubotaru’s favour, and later reforms gave people more control over their registered ethnicity.
Stefano Bianchi was given custody of his son when he separated from his wife. However, his wife took the child abroad and refused to return. When Mr Bianchi complained to the Swiss authorities, they failed to take action to reunite father and son. The Strasbourg court ruled that this breached Mr Bianchi’s right to family life. The relevant procedures were subsequently reformed.
Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:
Children’s rights PDF (400 Ko)
International child abductions PDF (300 Ko)
Parental rights PDF (500 Ko)
Protection of minors PDF (320 Ko)
Unaccompanied migrant minors in detention PDF (190 Ko)
Handbook on European law relating to the rights of the child PDF (2,326 Mo)