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The role and significance of the principle of proportionality in measures for the protection of children’s interests

All state interventions in the relationship between parents and children must comply with the principle of proportionality.[1] The principle of proportionality is one of the fundamental legal principles of our day. However, its origins can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, which also incorporates the law of retaliation or talion principle (Latin lex talionis) known for the phrase an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.[2] The development of the principle of proportionality was also influenced by classical Greek concepts of corrective justice (Latin justitia vindicativa) and distributive justice (Latin justitia distributiva) as rational concepts.[3] The principle of proportionality can also be found in the Magna Carta Libertatum4, which recognizes the so-called principle of proportional punishment. From this principle, the punishment had to be proportional to the committed crime.[5]

 

Today, the principle of proportionality is one of the key concepts that courts should follow. Based on the principle of proportionality, this means that, for example, courts should, when making their decisions, not only judge based on the criteria of legality and rationality but also take into account the principle of proportionality. The principle of proportionality aims to limit the State’s excessive interference in individuals’ rights. It also serves as a guideline for legislators in formulating legal rules.[6] Therefore, in any such limitation of human rights and freedoms, it is necessary to start from the general constitutional principle of proportionality as one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the social State (Article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia[7])[8], which stipulates that intervention in human rights should provide the individual with as much assistance as genuinely needed. In principle, fundamental rights can only be limited to protect the rights of others and in the public interest. Limitations must, therefore, be in line with the principle of proportionality, which states that intervention must be appropriate and necessary to achieve the goal, not unduly burden the individual, and its consequences must be reasonable.[9] This means starting with a mild measure if it can sufficiently protect the child’s best interests. The principle of proportionality is one of the possibilities to balance the individual’s rights and the broader public interest. 

 

The principle of proportionality is based on the ‘proportionality test’, aiming to prevent excessive interventions, ensure the adequacy of interventions, and ensure that measures (such as the deprivation of parental care) align with their purpose.[10] The first element of this principle requires that the measures must be suitable for achieving the goal. The State must follow legitimate and lawful objectives in its actions (interventions, measures). Furthermore, the measures must be necessary – meaning no milder alternative exists. The measure should be suitable and directly related to achieving the legitimate aim. Proportionality stricto sensu anticipates that a certain means is impermissible if it has an excessive or disproportionate impact on individual rights. It is balancing the impact on individual rights against the public interest. The legitimate aim, necessity, and proportionality in stricto sensu are open concepts, so their content depends on the type of subject matter and the interests or rights to which they are applied.[11] 

 

Measures to protect children must be proportional, as seen in the Slovenian Family Code[12] (hereinafter: FC). But Ireland has gone even further and has incorporated the principle of proportionality into its constitution (Irish Bunreacht na hÉireann).[13] Thus, Article 42A(2)(1), which explicitly addresses children’s rights, states that in exceptional cases, where the parents, regardless of their marital status, fail in their duty towards their children to such extent that the safety or welfare of any of their children is likely to be prejudicially affected, the State as the guardian of the common good shall, by proportionate means as provided by law, endeavor to supply the place of parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.[14] 

 

The European Court of Human Rights (hereafter: ECtHR) also refers to the principle of proportionality in its decisions. In its judgments, the ECtHR applies a proportionality test, which determines whether the States had ‘relevant and sufficient reasons’ for adopting the contested measures (e.g., removing a child from parents and placing them in residential care [15] Therefore, the question arises whether there has been a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 8 of the ECHR protects the right to respect private and family life. When assessing cases related to family matters, such as the removal of a child from their parents, the ECtHR considers whether the interference with the right to family life was proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued by the State. The principle of proportionality in this context involves evaluating whether the State’s actions were necessary and whether they struck a fair balance between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community (balance between public and private interest[16]). The ECtHR will assess whether the reasons given by the State for the interference were relevant and sufficient and whether the measures taken were proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. [17] 

 

In the case of the removal of a child and placing them under guardianship (or foster care, adoption, or in residential care), the goal is, on the one hand, to ensure the continuity of the child’s protection and their rights and interests. On the other hand, every such measure (removal of the child) also constitutes interference with parental care. It may be a starting point for a violation of the right to private and family life. Depriving parental care affects the relationship between parents and children. The court must conduct the so-called three-part proportionality test when deciding on this measure to justify such a radical interference with the right to private and family life. The ECtHR emphasizes that courts must always balance the interests of the Member State and the applicant’s interests. Deprivation of parental care and the removal of a child are measures of a more permanent nature that significantly disrupt the parent-child relationship and will be legitimate if all three prerequisites are cumulatively fulfilled in the three-part proportionality test, namely. Therefore, the proportionality test must affirm that there is:  

a) a legal basis for the intervention – the deprivation of parental care must be determined by law (see Article 174 of the Slovenian FC); 

b) legitimacy of the goals pursued by the intervention – the deprivation of parental care and, consequently, for example, placing the child under guardianship, pursues legitimate goals (protecting the best interests of the child) that cannot be achieved by other milder measures (appropriateness of the measure); 

c) the necessity of the intervention in a democratic society – the measure of depriving parental care is necessary in a democratic society.[18] 

 

In child law, it is necessary to observe the proportionality between the intervention and the outcomes precisely because the intervention can significantly impact a specific child. Therefore, the level of conviction in proportionality must be higher, as excessive interference in rights or family life, and thus in the relationships between the child and parents, can cause significant harm to the child. When a child is removed, it is evaluated whether the consequence resulting from separating the child from their parents is exclusively in the child’s best interest and whether the child will benefit from it or whether the intervention will be disproportionate to the intended effect, leading to harm to the child. 

 

The principle of proportionality dictates that any intervention in the rights of a child should provide the child with as much assistance as it truly needs. This is also derived from Article 156 of the Slovenian FC, which relates to the principle of the least restrictive measure. When choosing a measure to protect the best interests of the child, there are two limitations that the court should consider:  

  1. the measure should be pronounced in a way that minimally restricts the parents in exercising parental care if this measure is sufficient to protect the interests of the child;  
  1. the measure should be pronounced in a way that does not deprive the child of parents if this measure can sufficiently protect the child’s interests.[19] 

 

Therefore, in the case of the removal of a child and subsequent adoption under Slovenian parental care law, on the one hand, the aim is to ensure the continuity of the child’s protection and their rights and interests. On the other hand, adoption is the most radical measure of interference in parental care and family life. It can be a starting point for a violation of the right to private family life (e.g., Article 8 of the ECHR). Adoption should be the ultima ratio measure, as Slovenia allows only full adoption (Latin adoptio plena), meaning that all legal ties between the child and their biological parents are severed. On the other hand, it creates a complete relationship between the child and the adoptive parents, in which the adoptive parent acquires parental care, including all the rights and responsibilities.  

Reference

[1] VSC sklep Cp 506/2016, 29.09.2016. 

[2] Engle, 2012, p. 1 ff. Compare also The Bible Exodus 21:23-25: » (23)But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, (24)eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (25)burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.«

[3] Barak, 2012, p. 175 ff.

[4] See Article 20 of the Magma Carta Libertatum: »(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.«

[5] Barak, 2012, p. 175 ff.

[6] See affirmative separate opinion of the judge dr. Matej Acceto regarding the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Repuvblic of Sloveni Up-320/14-34, U-I-5/17-13, 14.09.2017, http://www.us-rs.si/documents/7c/7f/up-320-14-u-i-5-17-pritrdilno-lm-dr-accetto2.pdf (16 January 2024).

[7] Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia (Slovene Ustava Republike Slovenije) (CRS): Uradni list (official gazette) RS, no. 33/91-I, 42/97 – UZS68, 66/00 – UZ80, 24/03 – UZ3a, 47, 68, 69/04 – UZ14, 69/04 – UZ43, 69/04 – UZ50, 68/06 – UZ121,140,143, 47/13 – UZ148, 47/13 – UZ90,97,99, 75/16 – UZ70a, 92/21 – UZ62a.

[8] VSL sklep I Cp 1582/2019, 16 October 2019.

[9] Emiliou, 1996, p. 23.

[10] Šturm, no date.

[11] Taskovska, 2000, p. 69; see also decisions of Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia U-I-18/02, 24October 2003 and Up-75/95, 7 July 1995.

[12] Family Code (Slovene Družinski zakonik): Uradni list RS, no. 15/17, 21/18 – ZNOrg, 22/19, 67/19 – ZMatR-C, 200/20 – ZOOMTVI, 94/22 – odl. US, 94/22 – odl. US, 5/23.

[13] Constitution of Ireland, available: https://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html#article42A (accessed 16 January 2024).

[14] Kraljić and Drnovšek, 2021a, p. 270.

[15] Kilkelly, 2003, pp. 31-32.

[16] Endicott, 2014; Letwin, 2023.

[17] Kraljić and Drnovšek, 2021b, p. 57.

[18] Kraljić, 2019, p. 381; see also Jadek Pensa, 2018, p. 1295.

[19] Kraljić, 2019, p. 533; Čujović IN Novak, 2019, p. 484.

Sources

*Affirmative separate opinion of the judge dr. Matej Acceto regarding the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia Up-320/14-34, U-I-5/17-13, 14.09.2017, available: http://www.us-rs.si/documents/7c/7f/up-320-14-u-i-5-17-pritrdilno-lm-dr-accetto2.pdf (16 January 2024). 

Barak, A. (2012) ‘The historical origins of proportionality’ in Proportionality: Constitutional Rights and their Limitations, Cambridge Studies in Constitutional Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 175-210. 

*Code of Hammurabi (translated by King, L. W.), text available: http://www.general-intelligence.com/library/hr.pdf (23 January 2024). 

*Constitution of Ireland, available: https://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html#article42A (accessed 16 January 2024). 

*Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia (Slovene Ustava Republike Slovenije) (CRS): Uradni list (official gazette) RS, no. 33/91-I, 42/97 – UZS68, 66/00 – UZ80, 24/03 – UZ3a, 47, 68, 69/04 – UZ14, 69/04 – UZ43, 69/04 – UZ50, 68/06 – UZ121,140,143, 47/13 – UZ148, 47/13 – UZ90,97,99, 75/16 – UZ70a, 92/21 – UZ62a. 

*Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia U-I-18/02, 24 October 2003. 

*Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia Up-75/95,  

*Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia Up-320/14-34,  

*Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia U-I-5/17-13 

*Emiliou, N. (1996) The principle of proportionality in European law: a comparative study, London: Kluwer Law International. 

*Endicott, T. (2014) ‘Proportionality and Incommensurability’ in Huscroft, G., Miller, B. W. and Webber, G. (eds.) Proportionality and the Rule of Law: Rights, Justification, Reasoning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 311-342. 

*Engle, E. (2012) The History of the General Principle of Proportionality: an overview. The Dartmouth Law Journal, X:1, pp. 1-11. 

*European Convention on Human Rights, text available: https://www.echr.coe.int/documents/d/echr/convention_ENG (24 January 2024). 

*Family Code (Slovene Družinski zakonik): Uradni list RS, no. 15/17, 21/18 – ZNOrg, 22/19, 67/19 – ZMatR-C, 200/20 – ZOOMTVI, 94/22 – odl. US, 94/22 – odl. US, 5/23

*Jadek Pensa, D. (2018) Nepravdni in izvršilni postopki v ustavnosodni presoji. Podjetje in delo, 6-7/2018, pp. 1292-1305. 

*Kilkelly; U. (2003) The right to respect for private and family life A guide to the implementation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Council of Europe: Strasbourg. 

*Kraljić, S. and Drnovšek, K. (2021a) ‘Zaštita najboljeg interesa djeteta kod posvojenja i utjecaj načela razmjernosti’ in Huseinbegović, A. (ed.). Aktuelna problematika porodičnopravne teorije i prakse: zbornik radova. Deveti međunarodni naučni skup Dani porodičnog prava, pp. 264-276. Mostar. Mostar: Pravni fakultet Univerziteta „Džemal Bijedić”. 

*Kraljić, S. and Drnovšek, K. (2021b) ‘Utvrdivanje najboljeg interesa deteta u slučajevima odvajanja deteta od roditelja’ in Varady, T. and Kovaček Stanić, G. (eds.) 30 godina primene Konvencije Ujedinjenih nacija o pravima deteta: savremeni aspekti: zbornik radova sa naučnog skupa održanog 10. decembra 2020, Str. pp. 47-60. Beograd: SANU. 

*Kraljić, S. (2019) Družinski zakonik s komentarjem. Maribor: Poslovna založba MB. 

*Letwin, J. (2023) Proportionality, Stringency and Utility in the Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Human Rights Law Review, 23, pp. 1–23. 

*Magna Carta Libertatum, text available: https://www.orbilat.com/Languages/Latin/Texts/06_Medieval_period/Legal_Documents/Magna_Carta.html (23 January 2024). 

*Novak, B. (ed.) (2019) Komentar Družinskega zakonika. Ljubljana: Uradni list. 

*Šturm, L. (no date) Komentar Ustave Republike Slovenije – Splošne določbe / 2. člen / Pravna država / Ustavnosodna presoja – Splošno ustavno načelo sorazmernosti, https://e-kurs.si/ komentar/splosno-ustavno-nacelo-sorazmernosti/ (23.12.2020). 

*Taskovska, D. (2000) Proportionality as a General Principle of Law (Its Articulation in Legal Theory and Comparative Public Law), PhD dissertation, Ljubljana. 

*VSC sklep Cp 506/2016, 29 September 2016. 

*VSL sklep I Cp 1582/2019, 16 October 2019. 

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