Kafka story-line at the European Court of Human Rights



You have a verbal argument with your girlfriend. The police come and take you to a psychiatric hospital. You’ve had a mental illness for many years. You’re allergic to neuroleptic drugs and tell this to the psychiatrists. They ignore you, injecting you with the drugs. As a result your vision is impaired for a year. You are trapped for twenty days inside the psychiatric hospital. You can’t complain to a court because your guardian (a local government bureaucrat you’ve never met) has signed some papers.

“Milan Sýkora’s case illustrates the very worst excesses of medicine and of law. Psychiatry still generates story-lines like a Franz Kafka novel. The government needs to prevent mental health systems from being used as a social dustbin”, asserted Oliver Lewis, Executive Director of the Mental Disability Advocacy Center. “The European Court of Human Rights accepts cases from all human beings irrespective of their legal status. We call on the Czech government to follow the same approach by amending the Civil Procedure Code to ensure access to justice for all”.



Milan Sýkora v. the Czech Republic

In the year 2000, Mr Sýkora, at that time 51 years old, was about to undergo a major change in his life, without even knowing. The local government of Brno (the Czech Republic’s second largest city) had him placed under guardianship, not bothering to inform him about the court proceedings. Mr Sýkora was ‘represented’ by an employee of the court, who never met him or took instructions from him.

Five years later, Mr Sýkora had a verbal dispute with his girlfriend. No violence was used, but the girlfriend called the police and ambulance. Mr Sýkora was taken to a psychiatric hospital because the girlfriend told the police that he had a mental illness. He didn’t show any signs suggesting any reason for hospitalisation. On arrival to the hospital, a psychiatrist told him to take an oral dose of neuroleptic medication. Mr Sýkora refused, saying that he was allergic and the medication would cause serious side effects. The doctors ignored this refusal, and forcibly injected him with the drugs. As a direct result, his eyesight was impaired for a year afterwards.

On day five out of his twenty days in hospital, Mr Sýkora contacted lawyers working for the Czech NGO the League of Human Rights and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center. Lawyers went to see him the same day, but Mr Sýkora’s access to justice was blocked, because as a person under guardianship he needed the permission of his guardian to challenge the detention: the same guardian who approved the detention in the first place. 

Mr Sýkora took a case to the Constitutional Court, which refused to hear the case. Having filed his case in 2007, today he has seen justice. The European Court of Human Rights awarded him 20,000 EUR compensation and ruled

- It is nonsense to classify someone as being a ‘voluntary’ patient in a psychiatric hospital if that person doesn’t want to be there (even if the patient’s guardian wants that person to be there). (For lawyers: the Court said that this constitutes detention for the purposes of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights – ECHR) Denying a detained person the opportunity to challenge the detention before a court is unfair (violation of Article 5(4) ECHR).

- A law which allows Person A (the guardian) to authorise the detention of Person B (the person under guardianship) without any control whatsoever is arbitrary and unacceptable (the Court found a violation of Article 5(1) of the ECHR).

- Having a blunt system of guardianship where Person A takes decisions about Person B’s life without ever meeting Person B has “serious consequences”for Person B. (Guardianship interfered with the right to private life, and Court found a violation of Article 8 of the ECHR.)

- Depriving someone of legal capacity and putting them under guardianship in proceedings where the legal representative of that person “effectively took no part in the proceedings” and where the judge “had no personal contact with the applicant” are “serious deficiencies” in the machinery of justice. (This also led the Court to find a violation of Article 8 of the ECHR)

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