Murray v. The Netherlands

[2016] ECHR 10511/10
Download Judgment: English

In 1980, the Applicant, Mr. James Clifton Murray, was found guilty of the murder of a six year old girl in Aruba. At the time of his conviction, the Netherlands consisted of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles, which included the islands of Aruba and Curaçao. The judgment from the First Instance Court of the Netherlands Antilles included a psychiatric report which stated Mr. Murray suffered from pathological disturbance and, although he had diminished criminal responsibility, should be held criminally liable. The psychiatrist also said Mr. Murray should be placed in a clinic for psychopaths and undergo treatment. In Curaçao, the only choices for sentencing are prison or a mental hospital; due to the level of risk Mr. Murray may have on others, the psychiatrist said the sole option was to send him to prison but to undergo treatment within that setting to avoid recidivism in the future. The First Instance Court sentenced Mr. Murray to twenty years imprisonment, stating that a life sentence would be inappropriate in this case as it cannot be deduced from the psychiatric report that his condition was not amenable to improvement.  

On appeal to the Joint Court of Justice of the Netherlands Antilles (currently called the Joint Court of Justice of Aruba, Curaçao, Sin Maarten and of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba), the First Instance Court’s judgment was quashed and a sentence of life imprisonment was ordered.

Mr. Murray served 19 years of his sentence in a prison in Curaçao which had a unit for prisoners showing signs of mental illness, the Forensic Observations and Counselling Unit (FOCU), which had a section for treatment. However, Mr. Murray was not placed in the unit. Mr. Murray then requested and was granted a transfer to a prison in Aruba to be closer to his family. The prison in Aruba did not have a unit for mentally ill patients.

Mr. Murray applied for pardon multiple times and was rejected. In 2012, after 33 years of serving his sentence, the Joint Court of Justice conducted a review where they found the sentence still served a reasonable purpose as there was nothing to indicate the risk of him committing an offence had diminished and did not grant an early release.  Mr. Murray then filed an application against the Kingdom of the Netherlands alleging that, in violation of Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, his life sentence de jure and de facto irreducible and that he had not been placed in a facility befitting of his mental condition. He alleged that even if a possibility of release was created, he had no prospect for release because he was not provided with psychiatric treatment. Without psychiatric treatment, the risk of recidivism continued to be too high for release. Mr. Murray’s application was heard by the Chamber on December 10, 2013 who determined there was no violation of Article 3. In 2013, Mr. Murray was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was granted pardon. He passed away in 2014 but his son and his sister wished to pursue this case.

The issue before the Court was whether the lack of psychiatric treatment that the Applicant received constituted a violation of Article 3 of the Convention. The Court found that the lack of treatment did constitute a violation of Article 3 for the following reasons.

The Court stated that they had consistently held that Article 3 required the authorities to ensue that the health of prisoners be adequately secured by medical assistance. This includes the state being obligated to transfer prisoners to special facilities to receive adequate treatment. In cases of mental illness, the prisoners are not obligated to seek treatment, but the onus is on the state to diagnose the problem and provide proper treatment. Prisoners may be unable to complain coherently about their conditions or how they are affected by certain treatments so the state should take responsibility. The Court held that life prisoners who were found to be criminally responsible may still have mental health problems, such as personality disorders, as in this case. These problems may impact their risk of reoffending if released.

In order to comply with its obligations under Article 3, the Court found the state needs to adopt the following approach with regard to providing health assistance. The state is first required to assess the prisoners’ needs in regard to treatment with a goal of facilitating rehabilitation, by taking into account the prisoner’s individual situation and personality. If the assessment shows a particular treatment may help the prisoner towards rehabilitation, the prisoner should receive that treatment to the extent possible, especially when this treatment effects the life prisoner’s possible eligibility for future release. Moreover, the state is obligated to provide treatments capable of enabling the prisoner to rehabilitate even when the prisoner is not making progress.

In this case, no assessment of the need for treatment had been conducted on Mr. Murray and no form of treatment with a view to rehabilitation was given. The Court believed the authorities were aware that treatment was recommended to prevent reoffending and were aware Mr. Murray did not receive any. Treatment was a precondition for the possibility of rehabilitation which would reduce the risk of him reoffending. This risk affected the de facto reducibility of Mr. Murray’s life sentence. The Court stated little if any relevance should be given to the fact that Mr. Murray had not sought treatment as people suffering from mental illness may not be able to assess their own needs or indicate they require treatment. Therefore, Mr. Murray’s sentence was not de facto reducible, and violated Article 3.

“It is firstly required that an assessment be made of those prisoners’ needs as regards treatment with a view to facilitating their rehabilitation and reducing the risk of their reoffending…Where that assessment leads to the conclusion that a particular treatment or therapy may indeed help the life prisoner to rehabilitate himself or herself, he or she is to be enabled to receive that treatment to the extent possible within the constraints of the prison context. This is of particular importance where the treatment in effect constitutes a precondition for the life prisoner’s possible future eligibility for release.” (Para 108)

“a state will have complied with its obligations under Article 3 when it has provided for conditions of detention and facilities, measures or treatments capable of enabling a life prisoner to rehabilitate himself or herself, even when that prisoner has not succeeded in making sufficient progress.” (Para 111)

“Very little, if any, relevance falls to be attached to the fact that the Applicant himself had not apparently been concerned about procuring treatment…persons with mental-health problems may have difficulties in assessing their own situation or needs, and may be unable to indicate coherently, or even at all, that they require treatment.” (Para 124)