- 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.
Mother wins legal fight to get her children back
Liliana loved her children but struggled to raise them alone. A Portuguese judge, however, thought she was a bad mother, ordering that her youngest children be taken away from her. The European court said that decision breached Liliana’s rights, and the authorities should have tried to keep the family together. Its judgment led to Liliana being reunited with her children.
Woman’s legal fight to find out about her origins
Anita Godelli was abandoned at birth. She tried for decades to find out about her origins, but Italian law prevented her from accessing the information. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this was unfair and in violation of Anita’s rights. As a result of the European court’s judgment, Anita was finally able to learn the identity of her birth mother.
Ban lifted on medically assisted reproduction for healthy carriers of serious genetic diseases
As healthy carriers of a serious genetic disease, Rosetta Costa and Walter Pavan were unable to undergo medically assisted reproduction under Italian law. The European court ruled that the law in this area was inconsistent, and in breach of the couple’s rights. This judgment led Italy to lift the ban, which means couples like Rosetta and Walter can now access the treatment they need.
Harm to family life from motorway pollution prompts better environmental protections
Natalya Grimkovskaya’s family home became almost uninhabitable after local authorities re-routed a busy motorway through the street outside. Doctors diagnosed her young son with chronic lead and copper poisoning. The European court found that the authorities had not done enough to protect Natalya’s family life. This prompted Ukraine to introduce new environmental protections.
France recognises family ties of parents of surrogate children
Born abroad through a surrogacy arrangement, sisters Valentina and Fiorella grew up in legal uncertainty. France refused to recognise their birth certificates, which caused them and their parents countless problems. The European court found that this undermined the girls’ identities within French society. France changed its case law to recognise the family ties of parents of surrogate children.
Woman’s legal fight prompts Ukraine to lift restrictions on name changes
Nataliya Garnaga wanted to change her patronymic name to more closely associate herself with her stepfather and the family she loves. But the registration office refused her request because the law did not allow it. A European court ruling found little basis for the restrictions, causing Ukraine to give everyone the right to change their patronymic name.
Teachers stop hitting children after Scottish mums complain to Strasbourg
Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans sent their children to state schools which continued to allow the use of corporal punishment. The two mothers complained to the European court, which found that this violated their right to have their children educated in line with their own convictions. Soon afterwards, the UK abolished the use of corporal punishment in state schools.
Reforms made following the inhuman treatment of a four-year-old girl
When she was four years old, Tabitha Mitunga was held by the Belgian authorities for almost two months – without family, friends, or anybody to look after her. She suffered psychological damage and the European 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.
Justice for shoemaker who lived without rights for 20 years
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, 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.
Man’s struggle leads to the legalisation of homosexuality in Ireland
David Norris suffered from anxiety attacks and depression after realising that any open expression of his homosexuality could lead to a criminal prosecution. The European 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.
Father wins battle to see his son - and rights for all Czech parents
When Vladimír Zavřel’s wife left the family home, she took the couple’s six-year-old son and stopped Vladimír seeing him. Vladimír 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.
Woman wins landmark case for the rights of single mothers and their children
Paula Marckx was unmarried when she gave birth. She was shocked to find out that, because she was single, her baby girl would not be recognised as 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 rights – leading to a change in the law.
Reforms to protect family life after a father was separated from his daughter
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.
Reforms made after mother lost custody of her children simply because of her religion
Ingrid Hoffmann was a Jehovah’s Witness. When she got divorced, a child psychologist advised that she should be given custody of her children, because of their close bond. However, an Austrian 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 thing happening again.
Justice for thousands of “erased” people after 20 years without rights
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.
Reforms after children were taken away from their parents because they were poor
Emílie Wallová and Jaroslav Walla’s five children were taken away by the authorities, on the grounds that they did not have enough money to look after them. The European 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.
Vulnerable child was denied a full adoption because her new mother was single
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...
A mother’s struggle to be with her children leads to better protection for family life
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.
Justice for elderly widow forced to change her name by the government
Tiborné Daróczy was 71 years old when the government made her change her name - even though she she had used it for fifty years. Tiborné 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 Tiborné to keep her old name.
Improved custody rights for fathers of children born out of marriage
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 at the European court, the law was changed to give fathers like Horst more rights.
Fair custody rights for fathers of children born out of marriage
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 European court, Gerald Sporer successfully argued that this was unfair – leading to a change in the law.
Justice for a mother who lost custody of her child
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, Verica only regained custody of him six years later. The case led to reforms to make sure the right people have custody of children.
Reforms made after a child was unable to be legally recognised as her father’s daughter
Nessa Williams-Johnston could not be legally recognised as her father’s daughter because he had previously been married to someone other than her mother. After the European court ruled in the family’s favour, new legislation was passed to give children in Nessa’s position proper legal status.
Case of a mother separated from her child
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 María went to the Spanish courts, they refused to issue an international arrest warrant and closed the case. The European court ruled that this decision had breached María's right to family life.
Legal reforms after court-ordered child support was unpaid for thirteen years
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 European court ruled that this breached Snežana'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 European court ruled that the child's rights were not properly protected. Laws were changed to help prevent the problem from happening again.
Reforms made to unreasonable government control of registered ethnicity
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 European court ruled in Mihai's favour, and later reforms gave people more control over their registered ethnicity.
Reforms to protect family life after father was unable to see his child
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 Stefano complained to the Swiss authorities, they failed to take action to reunite father and son. The European court ruled that this breached Stefano's right to family life. The relevant procedures were subsequently reformed.
Council of Europe’s Children’s Rights Division
Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:
Children’s rights PDF (400 Ko)
Gestational surrogacy PDF (196 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)