Russian woman with mental health issues takes fight to Strasbourg to challenge guardianship

MDAC and lawyer, Dmitri Bartenev, have submitted legal arguments to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on behalf of Russian citizen, Lyudmila Shakulina, after she was placed under guardianship in an unfair procedure. Ms. Shakulina also seeks recognition and redress for involuntary detention authorised by her guardians. 

Lyudmila Shakulina could not get justice at the St. Petersburg City Court (pictured) in Russia. Source: wikimapia.org.

Ms. Shakulina was placed in a psychiatric hospital against her will in 2001 for nine months. In 2004, a court in St. Petersburg removed her decision-making rights and a local authority gave her brother control over her life as her guardian. Ms. Shakulina was not informed at the time about these proceedings taking place and was only made aware of the outcome once it was too late to appeal the decision.  

Left subject to the will of her guardian, Ms. Shakulina turned to MDAC and lawyer, Dmitri Bartenev in an attempt to regain her autonomy. In 2004, proceedings were started at the St. Petersburg District Court which held that Ms. Shakulina’s “health status” was sufficient justification for shutting her out of proceedings. The St. Petersburg Appeal Court subsequently decided that her “delay” in challenging  her placement under guardianship – despite the fact she had not been able to participate in the initial proceedings – meant that she was out of time to reclaim her rights. Moreover, matters were made worse for Ms. Shakulina in 2008 when she was once again admitted to hospital against her will for seven months, on the authorisation of her legal guardian.

With no other legal avenues open to Ms. Shakulina in Russia, MDAC took her claims to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) arguing that her right to a private and family life had had been violated by being placed under guardianship (Article 8), and that her placement in a psychiatric hospital against her will constituted an unlawful deprivation of liberty (Article 5) under the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR). The Russian Government responded in 2015, rejecting claims that Russia’s guardianship system had unlawfully impeded on Ms. Shakulina’s autonomy. Relying on expert medical reports, Russia defended her treatment which, they said, was justified on health grounds and was authorised by her guardian.

MDAC’s response lodged at the ECtHR once again illustrates the justice gap for people with mental health issues in Russia, who can continue to be treated arbitrarily and on a discriminatory basis due to their disabilities. The submission also argues that Ms. Shakulina’s exclusion from the original guardianship proceedings runs counter to the right to a fair trial. The case is one of three MDAC have taken to the ECtHR tackling Russia’s guardianship system which also falls significantly below standards required by the ECHR and under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

In 2008, MDAC won the case of Shtukaturov v. Russia which found that placing a person under guardianship without their knowledge violated Articles 6 (fair trial) and Article 8 (private and family life) of the Convention. The case triggered a number of reforms in Russia, including a constitutional court judgment striking down provisions allowing for plenary (full) guardianship. Yet Russia still maintains a system of partial guardianship which can result in people with disabilities losing significant control over their lives.

Keeping the pressure up, MDAC also submitted legal arguments to the ECtHR in the case of Ms. Delova, which challenges her placement under guardianship despite having a network of supporters to help her make choices about her life. As the number of cases pending against the Russian Federation continues to increase, MDAC calls on the Russian Government to take systematic measures to amend national legislation and ensure that all people with disabilities can exercise their autonomy. An estimated 300,000 people [PDF] are still believed to be subject to guardianship orders.

Commenting after the submission in Ms. Shakulina’s case, lawyer Dmitri Bartenev said:

“The story of Lyudmila Shakulina is representative of the systemic abuses suffered under the Russian system of guardianship by persons with mental disabilities. Ms. Shakulina’s courage helped her to continue fighting for her rights all these years. This fight will hopefully inspire many other people with disabilities in Russia who have been locked in institutions and stripped of their decision making rights to pursue justice.”

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