human rights Cases

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Case Summary of Torreggiani and Others v Italy 43517/09 (ECHR, 08 January 2013)

The topic Area

The case of Torreggiani and Others v Italy1 deals primarily with the Article 3 prohibition on torture or inhuman and degrading treatment,2 within the context of prison overcrowding.

Issue(s) in the case

The issue in this case was whether the space allocated to each applicant in their cell was small enough to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment (and thus a violation of their Article 3 rights) and to a lesser extent whether the fact that their conditions had since been remedied (at least in some instances) means that there was no longer a case for the Italian Government to answer.

The facts of the case

The applicants in this case were imprisoned in two Italian prisons - in Piacenza and Busto Arsizio.3 They all alleged that they were kept in cells with two other inmates, the cells being 9 sq. m in size, thus leaving each applicant with only 3 sq. m of personal space. In addition, the applicants complained of lack of warm water which in some cases prevented bathing for a long time and in Piacenza, the applicants complained of insufficient light as well, caused by the bars on their cell windows. The lack of space was caused by systemic overcrowding in the Italian prison system, which was so serious that a national state of emergency was issued by the Italian Prime Minister in 2010.4 For this reason the judgement was to be a pilot judgement - since it affected a great many prisoners in Italian prisons and there were hundreds of pending applications before the ECtHR on the same topic.5 To be specific, Piacenza prison was designed to hold 178 inmates; this was increased to 376 by way of the 'tolerable capacity' criteria, however at the time of complaint the prison held 411-415 in mates.6 The Italian Government argued that the cells were in fact 11 sq m, but provided no proof of this assertion; further the Italian Government argued that since it had improved the conditions of the inmates there was no case to answer.

Decision in the case

The Court found that the applicants were indeed allotted only 3 sq. m. of personal space (since the Italian Government did not produce evidence to counter that assertion) and that, this being the case, the applicants were subjected to a breach of their Article 3 rights. This was substantiated by reference both to the court's previous case law and recommendations made by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. For instance, in Sulejmanovic v Italy7 a violation of Article 3 was found because a prisoner was made to share a 16.2 sq. m. cell with 5 other inmates, leaving each with only 2.7 sq. m of personal space. In that case, it was reminded that the Committee for the Prevention of Torture lists 7 sq. m. as 'desirable' but the court noted that it has itself used a 3 sq. m. benchmark in the past, with the conditions in Sulejmanovic falling even below that.8 More recently, both the Committee for Prevention of Torture and the court have settled on the figure of 4sq. m. as an acceptable value - this is evident in the Ananyev and Others v Russia case.9 The court held, therefore, that 3sq. m. of personal space, especially in conjunction with other factors such as lack of warm water and light, amounted to a breach of the applicants' Article 3 rights. This was the case even though there had been no sign of an intention by the state to 'humiliate or debase' the inmates - however the conditions, especially considering the length of detention, was deemed to exceed what was unavoidable within the context of lawful imprisonment.

The court further rejected the government's argument that the applicant's submissions ought to be rejected on the grounds of improved conditions, citing its case law to the effect that subsequent improvement does not deprive applicants of their 'victim' status.10 Moreover, the government's claims that the applicants could have used internal appeal options was also rejected as those procedures were found to not be efficient, accessible and sufficient enough.11

Due to the fact that the issue of overcrowding in Italian prisons represented a systemic issue with hundreds of similar applications pending, the ECtHR applied the Pilot Judgement procedure (this procedure is aimed at dealing with large numbers of repetitive cases stemming from the same structural issues in a state by only ruling on one test case and using it to produce requirements which the state ought to meet in order to avoid the need to hear all similar cases).12 The court gave Italy one year to develop effective domestic remedies in order to adequately and sufficiently deal with the prison overcrowding issue. Lastly, the court ruled that Italy should pay the apllicants 99,600 Euros for non-pecuniary damages and 1,500 euros to Mr El Haili, Mr Ghisoni, Mr Sela and Mr Hajjoubi for expenses and costs, under Article 41 of the convention (just satisfaction).

Impact of the judgement

The immediate impact of the judgement in Torreggiani was that the Italian state enacted legislation in order to solve its overcrowding issues; it did this by, for instance , amending its early release laws, shortening some sentences and relying more heavily on methods such as house arrest and electronic bracelets.13 Moreover, the Italian Government reformed the laws on allowing inmates to complain to a judicial (rather than an administrative) authority about their conditions and further introduced compensation for persons whose ECHR rights have been violated in detention.14 The court has since found the new internal remedies in Italy to be sufficient and has turned down applicants who have not exhausted them.15

The Torreggiani judgements fits comfortably within the line of case law in this area; as mentioned above, it builds on and is consistent with the decisions in Sulejmanovic and in Ananyaev. Since Torreggiani there have been a couple of cases of interest, such as Neshkov and Others v Bulgaria16 in which, having found systemic failures in the Bulgarian penitentiary system and related legislation similar to the ones in Italy (and similar breaches of Article 3), the court required Bulgaria to develop within 18 months appropriate and effective preventative and compensatory remedies. Further, in Varga and Others v Hungary17 the court found Article 3 breaches due to space and conditions issue very similar to Torreggiani; the court thus, required Hungary to produce a timescale within 6 months for putting in place effective preventative and compensatory remedies to deal with this issue.

Torreggiani, in conjunction with the cases before and after, demonstrates a drive by the court to stamp out systemic Article 3 violations in the prison systems of ECHR member states by way of the pilot judgement procedure and pressing them to adopt adequate legislation, rather than ruling against them in every individual case. However, it should be noted that while the court took a trusting approach in the Italian case, in cases such as Ananyev¸ Neshkov and Varga, the court did not adjourn other hearings in order to maintain pressure on the respective states, suggesting that Torreggiani is an exception at least in that context.


1 Torreggiani and Others v Italy 43517/09 (ECHR, 08 January 2013).

2 Council of Europe, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, 4 November 1950, ETS 5.

3 Torreggiani (n 1).

4 European Court of Human Rights, 'The Court calls on Italy to resolve the structural problem of overcrowding in prisons, which is incompatible with the Convention' (2013) Press Release issued by the Registrar of the Court, ECHR 007 (2013) 08.01.2013.

5 Ibid.

6 Yasha Maccanico, 'Analysis: Italy/ECtHR: 'Pilot' judgement condemns Italy for inhuman and degrading treatment in overcrowded jails' (2013) February, Statewatch, available: accessed 30 October 2015.

7 Sulejmanovic v Italy (application no. 22635/03) 575 16.07.2009.

8 Ibid.

9 Ananyev and Others v Russia, nos. 42525/07 and 60800/08, 10 January 2012.

10 Maccanico (n 1); Torreggiani (n 1).

11 Maccanico (n 1); Torreggiani (n 1).

12 Costas Paraskeva, 'Human Rights Protection Begins and Ends at Home: The 'Pilot Judgment Procedure' Developed by the European Court of Human Rights' (2007) Nottingham Law School, available: accessed 30 October 2015.

13 Ministry of Justice (Italian Republic), 'Progress of the Action Plan Submitted to the Department for the Execution of Judgements of the ECHR' (2014) April 3, available: accessed 30 October 2015. See also Decree Law no. 78/2013 and Law no. 10/2014.

14 European Court of Human Rights Press Unit, 'Pilot Judgments - Factsheet' (2015) available: accessed 30 October 2015.

15 Stella and Others v Italy (application no. 49169/09); Rexhepi and Others v Italy (application no. 47180/10).

16 Neshkov and Others v Bulgaria (applications nos. 36925/10, 21487/12, 72893/12, 73196/12, 77718/12 and 9717/13.

17 Varga and Others v Hungary (application nos. 14097/12, 45135/12, 73712/12, 34001/13, 44055/13, and 64586/13).