European Court of Human Rights - case of Siliadin v. France - Summary of judgement (2003)

Press release issued by the Registrar

CHAMBER JUDGMENT

SILIADIN v. FRANCE

The European Court of Human Rights has today notified in writing a judgment in the case of Siliadin v. France (application no. 73316/01). The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 4 (prohibition of servitude) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court awarded the applicant 26,209.69 euros (EUR) for costs and expenses. As Ms Siliadin had made no claim for compensation in respect of damage sustained, the Court made no award. (The judgment is available only in French.)

1. Principal facts

The applicant, Siwa-Akofa Siliadin, is a Togolese national who was born in 1978 and lives in Paris.

In January 1994 the applicant, who was then fifteen and a half years old, arrived in France with a French national of Togolese origin, Mrs D. The latter had undertaken to regularise the girl’s immigration status and to arrange for her education, while the applicant was to do housework for Mrs D. until she had earned enough to pay her back for her air ticket. The applicant effectively became an unpaid servant to Mr and Mrs D. and her passport was confiscated.

In around October 1994 Mrs D. “lent” the applicant to a couple of friends, Mr and Mrs B., to help them with household chores and to look after their young children. She was supposed to stay for only a few days until Mrs B. gave birth. However, after her child was born, Mrs B. decided to keep the applicant on. She became a “maid of all work” to the couple, who made her work from 7.30 a.m. until 10.30 p.m. every day with no days off, giving her special permission to go to mass on certain Sundays. The applicant slept in the children’s bedroom on a mattress on the floor and wore old clothes. She was never paid, but received one or two 500-franc notes, the equivalent of 76.22 EUR, from Mrs B.’s mother.

In July 1998 Ms Siliadin confided in a neighbour, who informed the Committee against Modern Slavery, which reported the matter to the prosecuting authorities. Criminal proceedings were brought against Mr and Mrs B. for wrongfully obtaining unpaid or insufficiently paid services from a vulnerable or dependent person, an offence under Article 225-13 of the Criminal Code, and for subjecting that person to working or living conditions incompatible with human dignity, an offence under Article 225-14 of the Code.

The defendants were convicted at first instance and sentenced to, among other penalties, 12 months’ imprisonment (seven of which were suspended), but were acquitted on appeal on 19 October 2000. In a judgment of 15 May 2003 Versailles Court of Appeal, to which the case had subsequently been referred by the Court of Cassation, found Mr and Mrs B. guilty of making the applicant, a vulnerable and dependent person, work unpaid for them but considered that her working and living conditions were not incompatible with human dignity. It accordingly ordered them to pay the applicant the equivalent of EUR 15,245 in damages.

In October 2003 an employment tribunal awarded the applicant a sum that included EUR 31,238 in salary arrears.

2. Procedure and composition of the Court

The application was lodged on 17 April 2001 and declared partly admissible on 1 February 2005. A hearing took place in public in the Human Rights Building, Strasbourg, on 3 May 2005.

Judgment was given by a Chamber of seven judges, composed as follows:

Ireneu Cabral Barreto (Portuguese), President,

Jean-Paul Costa (French),

Riza Türmen (Turkish),

Karel Jungwiert (Czech),

Volodymyr Butkevych (Ukrainian),

Antonella Mularoni (San Marinese),

Elisabet Fura-Sandström (Swedish), judges,

and also Stanley Naismith, Deputy Section Registrar.

3. Summary of the judgment

Complaint

Relying on Article 4 (prohibition of forced labour) of the European Convention on Human Rights, the applicant submitted that French criminal law did not afford her sufficient and effective protection against the “servitude” in which she had been held, or at the very least against the “forced and compulsory” labour she had been required to perform, which in practice had made her a domestic slave.

Decision of the Court

As to the applicability of Article 4 and the positive obligations arising from it

The Court considered that Article 4 of the Convention enshrined one of the fundamental values of the democratic societies which make up the Council of Europe. It was one of those Convention provisions with regard to which the fact that a State had refrained from infringing the guaranteed rights did not suffice to conclude that it had complied with its obligations; it gave rise to positive obligations on States, consisting in the adoption and effective implementation of criminal-law provisions making the practices set out in Article 4 a punishable offence.

As to the violation of Article 4

The Court noted that, in addition to the Convention, numerous international treaties had as their aim the protection of human beings from slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had pointed out, although slavery was officially abolished more than 150 years ago, “domestic slavery” persisted in Europe and concerned thousands of people, the majority of whom were women. In accordance with modern standards and trends in that area, the Court considered that States were under an obligation to penalise and punish any act aimed at maintaining a person in a situation incompatible with Article 4.

In order to classify the state in which the applicant was held, the Court noted that Ms Siliadin had worked for years for Mr and Mrs B., without respite, against her will, and without being paid. The applicant, who was a minor at the relevant time, was unlawfully present in a foreign country and was afraid of being arrested by the police. Indeed, Mr and Mrs B. maintained that fear and led her to believe that her status would be regularised.

In those circumstances, the Court considered that Ms Siliadin had, at the least, been subjected to forced labour within the meaning of Article 4 of the Convention.

The Court had then to determine whether the applicant had also been held in slavery or servitude.

With regard to slavery, although the applicant had been deprived of her personal autonomy, the evidence did not suggest that she had been held in slavery in the proper sense, in other words that Mr and Mrs B. had exercised a genuine right of ownership over her, thus reducing her to the status of an object. Accordingly, the Court held that it could not be considered that Ms Siliadin had been held in slavery in the traditional sense of that concept.

As to servitude, that was to be regarded as an obligation to provide one’s services under coercion, and was to be linked to the concept of “slavery”. In that regard, the Court noted that the forced labour imposed on the applicant lasted almost 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Brought to France by a relative of her father’s, Ms Siliadin had not chosen to work for Mr and Mrs B. As a minor, she had no resources and was vulnerable and isolated, and had no means of subsistence other than in the home of Mr and Mrs B., where she shared the children’s bedroom.

The applicant was entirely at Mr and Mrs B.’s mercy, since her papers had been confiscated and she had been promised that her immigration status would be regularised, which had never occurred. Nor did Ms Siliadin, who was afraid of being arrested by the police, have any freedom of movement or free time. In addition, as she had not been sent to school, despite the promises made to her father, the applicant could not hope that her situation would improve and was completely dependent on Mr and Mrs B.

In those circumstances, the Court considered that Ms Siliadin, a minor at the relevant time, had been held in servitude within the meaning of Article 4.

Accordingly, it fell to the Court to determine whether French legislation had afforded the applicant sufficient protection in the light of the positive obligations incumbent on France under Article 4. In that connection, it noted that the Parliamentary Assembly had regretted in its Recommendation 1523(2001) that “none of the Council of Europe member states expressly [made] domestic slavery an offence in their criminal codes”. Slavery and servitude were not as such classified as criminal offences in the French criminal-law legislation.

Mr and Mrs B., who were prosecuted under Articles 225-13 and 225-14 of the Criminal Code, were not convicted under criminal law. In that connection, the Court noted that, as the Principal Public Prosecutor had not appealed on points of law against the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 19 October 2000, an appeal to the Court of Cassation was made only in respect of the civil aspect of the case and Mr and Mrs B.’s acquittal thus became final. In addition, according to a report drawn up in 2001 by the French National Assembly’s joint committee on the various forms of modern slavery, those provisions of the Criminal Code were open to very differing interpretation from one court to the next.

In those circumstances, the Court considered that the criminal-law legislation in force at the material time had not afforded the applicant specific and effective protection against the actions of which she had been a victim. It emphasised that the increasingly high standard being required in the area of the protection of human rights and fundamental liberties correspondingly and inevitably required greater firmness in assessing breaches of the fundamental values of democratic societies.

Consequently, the Court concluded that France had not fulfilled its positive obligations under Article 4.

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The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Since 1 November 1998 it has sat as a full-time Court composed of an equal number of judges to that of the States party to the Convention. The Court examines the admissibility and merits of applications submitted to it. It sits in Chambers of 7 judges or, in exceptional cases, as a Grand Chamber of 17 judges. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe supervises the execution of the Court’s judgments. More detailed information about the Court and its activities can be found on its Internet site.

Under Article 43 of the European Convention on Human Rights, within three months from the date of a Chamber judgment, any party to the case may, in exceptional cases, request that the case be referred to the 17-member Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, a panel of five judges considers whether the case raises a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or its protocols, or a serious issue of general importance, in which case the Grand Chamber will deliver a final judgment. If no such question or issue arises, the panel will reject the request, at which point the judgment becomes final. Otherwise Chamber judgments become final on the expiry of the three-month period or earlier if the parties declare that they do not intend to make a request to refer.

This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.