Varga and five others v. Hungary, a Chamber judgment of 10th March 2015 (application nos. 14097/12, 45135/12, 73712/12, 34001/13, 44055/13, and 64586/13)
Issue for hearing: Systemic overcrowding in prisons
On 10 March 2015, the European Court of Human Rights handed down its judgment in Varga & others v Hungary, finding a breach of Article 3 due to chronically overcrowded prison conditions. In the first decision of a reported 450 pending applications on the same point, the seven-strong court found, unanimously that there is systemic overcrowding in the Hungarian prison estate which breaches the high threshold for a finding of torture and ill-treatment. Moreover, the court found that the applicants’ right to an effective remedy had equally been violated.
The decision is also notable, since it marks a departure in Strasbourg’s usual practice of suspending the resolution of pending cases before a pilot judgment is handed down. This usually affords an offending state three months to appeal the decision and also a timetable by which to make the necessary improvements or legal amendments to address the court’s findings.
It may be, then, that thecourt has decided that allowing the pending cases to continue to the merits stage, will exert sufficient pressure on the Hungarian authorities to make amends. Indeed, the judgment not only awarded each applicant substantial damages and their costs, it included a demand that urgent remedial measures be taken.
The corollary of this decision is surely that no EU member state will contemplate acceding to any Hungarian extradition request for the time being.
Of greater concern, perhaps, is the vexed chronology to Strasbourg decision in Varga. Hungary has been the subject of four previous decisions and declarations by the Strasbourg court in Article 3 prison conditions complaints. This may explain the apparently expedited timetable of three years, from the making of the complaint in Varga to judgment.
The underlying cause of the overcrowding appears to be a sharp rise in the number of prisoners due to a change in sentencing policy. As with some other Council of Europe member states, the Hungarian courts now impose minimum sentences for offences where none previously existed. Yet adding more prison space alone, as Hungary told the court it planned to do, by enlarging the personal, useable space available to each prisoner, is unlikely to solve the problem unless the sentencing regime is ameliorated.
Moreover, the Hungarian government has not released any plans or memorandums to the court for any such new addition to the prison estate. It is surely regrettable that the court did not seize this opportunity to stipulate a blueprint for reform of Hungary’s prisons. Or indeed that the court did not embrace the submissions of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who represented three of the six applicants, which urged the authorities to eschew the practice of pre-trial detention and make greater use of house arrest where appropriate.
Therefore, the fate of Hungarian extradition requests, to the UK at least, is unlikely to survive challenges based on its overcrowded prisons, still less the close scrutiny of any assurances relating to the same, as recently urged by the House of Lords Extradition Select Committee.