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€20,000 for failure to investigate complaints of domestic violence and provide legal protections to victim

In Polshina v Russia [2020] ECHR 448, the European Court of Human Rights held that the police’s failure to investigate complaints of domestic violence and the state’s failure to provide legal protections for such victims were violations of Articles 3 and 14 and justifying damages of €20,000.

A man grabbed his wife, the applicant, and hit her head against a door frame in their home. A trauma unit recorded injuries and informed the police. The police declined to open criminal proceedings on the basis that verbal threats were not an offence and the applicant would pursue a private prosecution [5]. The applicant divorced her husband and moved out [6]. They made another attempt to live together but again separated, in early 2012 [7].

In July 2012, the applicant told the police that her ex-husband called to say he would kill her and gouge out her eyes, that this was not an isolated menace and that she feared for her life. The police held no offence could be established without objective or eye-witness evidence [8].

In November 2012, whilst the applicant was collecting her son, her husband grabbed her by the chin, told her that she “would not last much longer” and “would die before [him]”, causing her facial bruises. The police declined to investigate. In December 2013, the applicant’s husband pushed her, causing her to injure her knees on the pavement. The police declined to bring proceedings without eye-witness evidence [10]. The applicant filed a complaint with the police listing previously reported incidents, medical certificates and details of witnesses. The police held there were no indications of an offence and it was a civil family matter [11].

The court reiterated that domestic violence could range from physical assault to “sexual, economic, emotional or verbal abuse”, which “does not always surface since it often take place within personal relationships or closed circuits” [27], of which psychological impact formed an important part [28]. There was a particular vulnerability of victims of domestic violence [27].

The applicant had suffered physical violence and injuries which, on their own, satisfied the threshold for Article 3. In addition, he had locked her up in the flat, causing her to move home and he had assaulted her when she met him in meetings for the custody arrangements of their son. The resulting fear, anxiety and powerless also amounted to inhuman treatment under Article 3 [28].

Not only did the Russian legal framework fall short of punishing domestic violence and safeguarding victims [32], the criminal investigations were inadequate. Special diligence was required in dealing with such cases, which had to take into account domestic violence’s specific nature [33].

The applicant reported four instances of serious violence, medical reports and details of eye-witnesses. The authorities never opened a criminal investigation that was able to lead to the trial and punishment of the perpetrator [35], which made a serious attempt to establish the circumstances of the assaults or that took a global view of the violent acts that was required in domestic violence cases. The police took no statements from the suggested witnesses and commissioned no medical assessments. They were required, and failed, to make a serious attempt to find out what happened.

The continuing failure to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence also amounted to a violation of Article 14 – discrimination [46]-[48].

There was, therefore, a violation of Article 3 with respect to the obligations to afford legal protection against ill-treatment and to conduct an effective investigation, and an violation of Article 14. The court awarded €20,000 [52].