Charity or Justice? How A Teleological Interpretation of the ECHR Supports Judicial Intervention in Article 3 Destitution Cases

AuthorEmma Young
PositionFinal Year LLB (ling. franc.) Candidate at Trinity College Dublin
(2021) 20 COLR 101
Emma Young*
‘[O]vercoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection
of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.’1
- Nelson Mandela
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (Convention) was drafted in 1950 to
ensure the atrocities perpetrated by governments against their own people would never again
be repeated.2 In the following decades, Europe has changed drastically to become the cradle of
the modern welfare state, with many countries embracing advanced models of progressive
taxation and social welfare. However, despite significant economic and social development,
extreme poverty still remains a factor within Member States of the Council of Europe.3 In its
case law, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (the Court) has so far remained
reluctant to pronounce upon the human rights implications of such poverty.
In this article, the approach of the Court to cases of destitution falling within the remit of article
3 ECHR will be analysed. It has been established by the Court that state-sanctioned poverty
can in certain circumstances constitute ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’ under article 3.4
However, it has failed to provide a coherent set of principles with which to guide judicial
application and the scope of state responsibility remains limited. In this article, it is contended
that the Court’s existing approach to destitution is unsatisfactory and that state responsibility
for destitution should be extended to those not falling within an ‘inherently vulnerable’ group.
* Final Year LLB (ling. franc.) Candidate at Trinity College Dublin. I am grateful to Niamh Martyn and the
Editorial Board for their helpful comments in respect of an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank
my parents and the late Alex Streuli for their unwavering support - ar dheis go raibh a anam.
1 Simon Jeffery,Mandela Calls for Action on “Unnatural” Poverty’ The Guardian (London, 3 February 2005)
<> accessed 03 April 2021.
2 Bernadette Rainey, Elizabeth Wicks and Clare Ovey, Jacobs, White and Ovey: The European Convention on
Human Rights (7th edn, Oxford University Press 2017) 3.
3 ‘Child Poverty and Social Exclusion in Europe: A Matter of Children’s Rights’ (Save the Children, 2014)
europe-low-res.pdf> accessed 18 March 2021.
4 Francine van Volsem v Belgium App no 14641/89 (ECtHR, 9 May 1990).

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