Pavlovi v. Bulgaria – European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) condemns Bulgarian authorities (e.g. youth protection, police) for inadequate action and violation of the right to family life (ECHR, Art. 8) in the event of contact frustration by mother (ECtHR, 1 Feb 2022)
9. The general principles concerning the implementation of contact rights of one of the parents have been summarized in Ignaccolo-Zenide v. Romania (no. 31679/96, § 94, ECHR 2000-I), Prizzia v. Hungary (no. 20255/12, § 35, 11 June 2013), and Vyshnyakov v. Ukraine (no. 25612/12, §§ 35-36, 24 July 2018). The general principles concerning relations between grandparents and grandchildren can be found in Marckx v. Belgium (13 June 1979, § 45, Series A no. 31) and Kruškić v. Croatia ((dec.), no. 10140/13, §§ 108-11, 25 November 2014).
10. In the present case the Court observes that, although the child’s father and grandparents saw her on occasion after they had obtained the court decisions of 12 March and 17 April 2014, they have been unable to exercise their contact rights for years, despite having actively pursued enforcement proceedings and sought related assistance from different authorities (see paragraphs 4 and 5 above). A number of institutions were involved during the period to varying degrees and with varying intensity. However, the measures taken were not sufficient, or adequate and timely, to bring about the decisions’ implementation or to rebuild their relationship with the child, both of which were in the child’s interest according to the different authorities starting with the courts.
11. The first, third and fourth applicants demonstrated patience and understanding, and cooperated with the authorities. The bailiff did not regularly fine L. for non-compliance with the court decisions. The police warned L. about her legal obligations and the prosecution, having considered each file separately, refused to open criminal proceedings on most occasions. In 2018 the Sofia District Court acquitted L. in three related criminal cases which had reached the court.
12. The Court considers that the social services could and should have played a decisive role in the particular circumstances. The Court attaches particular importance to the conclusions of a commission of the State Agency for Child Protection which evaluated their work on the case and in June 2016 found as follows: the social services had drawn up action plans and reports, been present at times when the bailiff had attempted to hand the child over, and organised meetings between social workers and psychologists, and the father, mother and child. The social services themselves had observed between June 2014 and November 2015 that the mother considered unnecessary for the child to stay with her father and grandparents, that she had frequently not taken the child to meet with social workers, that her unwillingness to encourage meetings between father and daughter was damaging for the child, that there was a serious risk for the child to develop parental alienation syndrome, and that psychological work with the father alone was insufficient. The commission concluded that the prolonged ineffective use of social facilities, and absence of change in the social services’ course of action despite a lack of progress, had allowed L. to postpone the implementation of the first applicant’s contact rights and to increase the child’s alienation from her father. The social services had waited too long to issue mandatory directions to L. in the face of her refusal to cooperate; they had failed to signal to the prosecution L.’s refusal to comply with the judicial decisions. The omissions had created conditions for breaches of the child’s rights.
13. The Court considers that adequate preparatory measures were vital for ensuring the child’s autonomous engagement with the situation, independently from L.’s decisive influence. This was critical early in the process, before alienation deepened, especially given the social services’ specific findings: for example, in an April 2015 report that, while the child refused to follow the father, when briefly left alone with him she had relaxed and started talking to him freely; and in a June 2015 report that work only with the father was not enough and complex measures were needed involving mother and child. However, the relevant authorities failed to ensure that timely targeted support was effectively provided to the child, which was critical for her to accept to spend time with her father and grandparents, and that relevant measures were pursued in respect of L.
14. On this last point, in view of the particularly long period in which L. had not assisted the child in visiting her relatives, but in essence had obstructed contact between the applicants, those measures could have included coercive actions. However, the prosecution did not examine as a whole the numerous related complaints brought by the adult applicants and failed to draw relevant conclusions and pursue adequate and timely actions. The three sets of criminal proceedings eventually opened against L. (see paragraph 11 above) had no effect and L. continued to hamper enforcement in both cases. Although coercive measures in the sensitive context of relations with children are not desirable, the use of sanctions must not be ruled out faced with unlawful conduct by the parent who owes enforcement (see Cengiz Kılıç v. Turkey, no. 16192/06, § 131, 6 December 2011, and, Karadžić v. Croatia, no. 35030/04, § 61, 15 December 2005).
15. While the authorities remained involved with the situation throughout the period at stake, there is no indication of their acting with special diligence when handling the case. In sum, the authorities failed to take all measures which could reasonably be expected to implement the applicants’ contact rights.
16. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention.
Judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg in the Case of Pavlovi v. Bulgaria, 1 February 2022