Winterstein and Others v France

Facts

The applicants, 25 French citizens, had been living in mobile homes in a French town for many years. The site where the applicants’ mobile homes were situated was a protected natural area under the land-use plan of the department. The authorities never sought to enforce judgments against the applicants to leave the land, even after many years, but the authorities had taken steps to relocate several families. Four of the applicants’ families received social housing, two families moved in another part of the country, while the rest of the applicants remained on the same land.

Procedural history

The urgent-applications judge dismissed the action of the municipality to evict the residents. Another (non-urgent) action was brought by the municipality before the tribunal de grande instance, which ordered the defendants to leave the land within three months from the date of the judgment and pay a EUR 70 fine per person, for each day of delay. The Court of Appeal upheld the tribunal’s judgment. The applicants did not proceed with an appeal, as they were denied legal aid.

The 25 applicants and the International Movement ATD Fourth World complained to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the court order amounted to a violation of Article 8, protecting the right to respect for private and family life, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination). A Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held unanimously that the eviction of the travellers from the land they occupied for many years amounted to a violation of their right to private and family lives.

ERRC Involvement

The European Roma Rights Center submitted a third-party intervention, addressing several points.

Firstly, the ERRC emphasized that “sheds/caravans” qualify as “homes” or “possessions” for the purposes of Article 8 ECHR and Article 1, Protocol 1 to the Convention, on the right to property.

Secondly, the ERRC stressed that the demolition of Roma sheds or caravans should only take place under the same conditions for the demolition of “ordinary” houses including: access to a court, which alone can decide on the legality of the demolition; other legal safeguards which should be ensured; and an obligation on the state to provide alternative accommodation.

Further, the ERRC argued that adequate remedies to forced evictions should include a right to alternative accommodation.

Court Reasoning

The Court only considered the matter under Article 8 ECHR. The European Court of Human Rights found that the interference with the applicants’ right to respect for private and family life was prescribed by law and pursued the legitimate aim of environment protection. The Court found that the proportionality of the interference was not examined by the national courts. The national courts’ adjudication was based, according to the European Court, solely on the fact that the applicants’ living on the land was contrary to the land-use plan. The national courts therefore failed to strike a fair balance between competing interests and to assess whether there was a pressing social need to evict the applicants. The Court also made clear that Travellers and Roma should not be subject to forced evictions unless they are re-housed, except in cases of force majeure.

A blog by members of the ERRC legal team about the case is available here.

The ERRC’s third-party intervention is available here

The judgment is available in English here, in French here, and in Italian here.

The ERRC commissioned an Italian translation of the judgment.

A communication the ERRC sent to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, asking them to apply a stricter standard of scrutiny when overseeing the execution of the judgment, can be found here.

On 28 April 2016 the Court delivered a follow-up judgment on just satisfaction. Based on the judgment, the French Government had to pay amounts adding up to hundreds of thousands of euros to the applicants. The judgment (in French) is available here.

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