Shelley v. United Kingdom

Application No. 23800/06; [2008] ECHR 108; (2008) 46 EHRR SE16
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The applicant was a United Kingdom national imprisoned at H.M. Prison Whitemoor who complained that the Government’s failure to provide needle exchange programs in prisons violated the rights of prisoners under Article 2 (respect for the right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment), Article 8 (respect for private life), and Article 14 (freedom from discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”).

Studies showed that certain diseases, such as HIV, Hepatitis C, and Hepatitis B, were prevalent in prison populations. These diseases posed serious threats to the health of those infected and could ultimately result in death. One of the primary causes of these diseases was the sharing of needles during drug use. The United Kingdom offered needle exchange programs to the general population. Needle exchange programs were not, however, available to the prison populations in England and Wales. At the time of the application, the prisons provided disinfecting tablets to clean needles as a means of managing the risks of sharing needles, however such tablets were not as effective as needle exchange programs in reducing the risk of infection.

The applicant was a prisoner who did not specify in his application that he was himself a drug user or that he had directly suffered from health impacts related to the sharing of needles among inmates. The applicant originally pursued domestic remedies in the form of judicial review claiming that the policy in English and Welsh prisons violated Articles 2, 3, and 8 of the Convention. The judicial review was denied as the courts acknowledged the Government’s policy of trying to discourage drug use in prisons. It was accepted that while some prisons in Europe were doing a trial run of needle exchange programs, the benefits of such programs had yet to be proven.

After the denial of domestic remedies, the applicant sought review by the European Court of Human Rights.

Ultimately, the Court held that the application was inadmissible based on the following findings:

With regards to Articles 2 and 3, the Court held that the application of the prisoner, who did not claim to be a drug user or someone directly affected by the sharing of needles, did not raise concerns with enough specificity to invoke protections under Article 2’s right to life or Article 3’s prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, because the applicant’s fear or risk of infection as a general member of the prison community was not “sufficiently severe”.

With regards to Article 8, the Court acknowledged that this guarantee might require preventative measures to reduce infection rates in prisons. There was no state obligation, however, to pursue any particular preventative measures for health threats falling short of the standards set out by Article 2 and Article 3 and for matters of health care policy the domestic authorities enjoyed a margin of appreciation to determine their preferred measures. Here, the applicant failed to demonstrate any directly negative effect on his private life. He was not denied access to appropriate information or assistance regarding the potential threats to his health. Considering the margin of appreciation which domestic authorities enjoyed to implement health policy and the preventative steps which had already been taken, the Court held that the Government did not fail to respect the applicant’s private life in violation of Article 8.

With regards to Article 14, the Court held that there was no violation as any discrimination was justifiable based on the facts. Article 14 of the Convention provided for freedom from discrimination in the “enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention.” The Court determined that the applicant had exhausted domestic remedies and that the classification of prisoner was deemed to be a status for the purpose of attracting the prohibition against discriminatory treatment under Article 14. The Court also determined that any distinction in treatment between two similarly-situated persons would be considered discriminatory unless there was a objective and reasonable justification.

In assessing such justification, the Court granted a wide margin of appreciation to the state, especially in areas of preventative measures in which considerations of limited resources and social policies were relevant. In the present case, the state argued that the current policy was a better deterrent on drug use in prisons and, considering  that there was not sufficient evidence that the use of needle exchange programs would reduce the risks of diseases in prisons, the Court was unwilling to substitute its judgment on this matter for that of the domestic authorities.  The Court also noted the relevance of the fact that the risk of infection flowed directly from the prisoner’s conduct instead of the authorities’ conduct. Therefore, the Court held that the denial of needle exchange programs was not an unjustified difference in treatment.

“So far as preventative health is concerned, there is no authority that places any obligation under Article 8 on a Contracting State to pursue any particular preventative health policy….While it is not excluded that a positive obligation might arise to eradicate or prevent the spread of a particular disease or infection, the Court is not persuaded that any potential threat to health that fell short of the standards of Articles 2 or 3 would necessarily impose a duty on the State to take specific preventative steps. Matters of health care policy, in particular as regards general preventative measures, are in principle within the margin of appreciation of the domestic authorities who are best placed to assess priorities, use of resources and social needs.” Page 11.

“[T]he Court recalls that prisoners do not forfeit the protection of the other fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Convention…although the manner and extent to which they may enjoy those other rights will inevitably be influenced by the context. Whether or not the applicant prisoner can claim to be in an analogous position [with the general population] will therefore depend on the subject-matter of his complaint.…The Court would observe that the European Prison Rules, the Committee for the prevention [sic.] of Torture (CPT) and the domestic prison regulations themselves provide that the health care in prisons should be the same as that in the community.” Page 13.

“[T]he margin or appreciation must be particularly wide in the area of preventative measures in which considerations such as priorities, resources and social policies will come into play….The Court also recalls that the authorities take the view that, as many individuals give up drugs use on entering prison, the best policy is to encourage this opportunity rather than to put the emphasis on ensuring access for such prisoners to clean needles.” Page 14.