Disability rights victories in European Court of Human Rights won by HLS advocate

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In October, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued two rulings bolstering the rights of persons with psycho-social disabilities. Both cases were brought by Hungarian-Slovakian disability rights activist János Fiala-Butora, LL.M. ’10, an S.J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School and an associate of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, known as HPOD. (See a feature about the program.)

In one of the cases, Bures v. Czech Republic (PDF), the plaintiff, who had been hospitalized after he inadvertently overdosed on medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, was strapped to a bed for several hours, resulting in long-term injuries to his arms and ending his career as a cello player. He brought criminal charges, but they were dismissed.

In its decision in Bures, the European Court of Human Rights found that “the application of restraining belts on the applicant was a willful act constituting inhuman and degrading treatment“ violating Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court also held that the failure to sufficiently investigate the client’s complaint was a violation of the convention. The plaintiff was awarded 20,000 euros. (Among the co-counsel in the case was another HLS graduate, human rights attorney Babora Bukovská, LL.M. ’05.)

Fiala-Butora says he hopes the decision will lead to the reform of the use of restraints on patients in psychiatric facilities in Central Europe. More broadly, he says, “it opens a new avenue for lawyers and courts to contest decisions which have until now been in a purely medical domain.”