Full case report

L.H. v Latvia

Reference Application No.52019/07
Court European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section)

Judge Päivi Hirvelä P, Ziemele, Nicolaou, Bianku, De Gaetano, Mahoney & Vehabović JJ

Date of Judgment 29 Apr 2014


Summary

Article 8- respect for private life- collection of personal medical data


Facts

The case concerned a State agency’s collection of medical data about the applicant, L.H., a Latvian national, born in 1975. At the relevant time, the Inspectorate of Quality Control for Medical Care and Fitness for Work (“the MADEKKI”) was the institution responsible for monitoring the quality of medical care provided in medical institutions.

The applicant gave birth in 1997. A Caesarian section was used, in the course of which, a tubal ligation was performed without the applicant’s consent, resulting in sterilisation. Following an unsuccessful attempt to achieve an out-of-court settlement, the applicant brought civil proceedings against the hospital in February 2005 and, in December 2006, was awarded compensation for the unlawful sterilisation.

In the meantime, in February 2004, on request by the hospital’s director, the MADEKKI initiated an administrative inquiry concerning the gynaecological and childbirth assistance provided to the applicant from 1996 to 2003. The MADEKKI received medical files from three medical institutions. In May 2004, it issued a report containing sensitive medical details about the applicant and sent the summary of its conclusions to the hospital director.

The applicant lodged a claim before the administrative courts, complaining that the MADEKKI inquiry had been unlawful, in particular since its essential purpose had been to help the hospital gather evidence for the impending litigation, which was outside the MADEKKI’s remit. The applicant’s claim was rejected by the Administrative District Court in a decision eventually upheld by the Senate of the Supreme Court in February 2007. The Senate of the Supreme Court based its reasoning on the applicable domestic legal framework, namely the Medical Treatment Law, the Personal Data Protection Law and the statute of the MADEKKI.

It concluded the MADEKKI was authorised to collect and process the applicant’s sensitive data in order to monitor the quality of medical care and that the Personal Data Protection Law permitted the processing of sensitive personal data without written consent from the data subject for the purposes of medical treatment or the provision or administration of health care services.

The applicant appealed to the ECtHR, complaining that the MADEKKI, by collecting her personal medical data, had violated her rights under Article 8 of the Convention. The Government of Latvia argued that the MADEKKI assessment had been ordered to determine whether the doctor who had performed the tubal ligation had committed any crime and that had any violations of the applicable legislation been found, it would have helped to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. Thus the purpose of collecting the applicant’s personal data had been to protect public health and the rights and freedoms of others.


Issue

There being no dispute between the parties that (i) the applicant’s medical data formed part of her private life and (ii) that the collection of such data by the MADEKKI constituted an interference with her right to respect for her private life, was the interference justified under Article 8 § 2 as being in accordance with the law.


Held

By unanimity, there had been a violation of Article 8.

A norm could not be regarded as being “in accordance with the law” within the meaning of Article 8 § 2 unless it indicated with sufficient clarity the scope of the discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise.

The Court accepted that the MADEKKI was authorised to collect information and documents from medical institutions relating to questions within its field of competence. The Senate of the Supreme Court had not explained, however, which of its functions the MADEKKI had been carrying out or what public interest it had been pursuing when it issued a report on the legality of the applicant’s treatment. Accordingly the Senate of the Supreme Court had not and could not have examined the proportionality of the interference with the applicant’s right to respect for her private life against any public interest, particularly since it came to the conclusion that such weighing had already been done by the legislator. This had taken place against the background of domestic law, under which the MADEKKI was under no legal obligation to take decisions concerning the processing of medical data in such a way as to take the data subject’s view into account, or even to inform the data subject that it would be processing the data prior to doing so.

Furthermore, the applicable law did not limit in any way the scope of private data that could be collected by the MADEKKI. In the present case, the MADEKKI had collected the applicant’s medical data concerning a period spanning seven years. The relevance and sufficiency of the reasons for collecting information about the applicant that was not directly related to the procedure carried out at the hospital had not been examined at any stage of the domestic procedure.

The Court could not accept the Government’s submission that the MADEKKI had collected information concerning the applicant’s medical history in order to determine whether the doctor who had performed the tubal litigation had to be held criminally liable. Firstly, seven years after the event the prosecution had certainly become time-barred. Secondly, neither the director of the hospital nor the MADEKKI had the legal authority to determine, even on a preliminary basis, the criminal liability of private individuals.

In light of the above considerations, the Court could not find that the applicable Latvian law was formulated with sufficient precision and afforded adequate legal protection against arbitrariness. Neither did it indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise.

The Court awarded the applicant EUR 11,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damages and EUR 2,768 in costs and expenses.


Comment

The Court reiterated that the protection of personal data, not least medical data, is of fundamental importance to a person’s enjoyment of the right to respect for his or her private life as guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention. Respecting the confidentiality of health data is a vital principle in the legal systems of all the Contracting Parties to the Convention. It is crucial not only to respect the sense of privacy of a patient but also to preserve confidence in the medical profession and in the health services in general (see Z v Finland [1997] ECHR 10 and Varapnickaitė-Mažylienė v. Lithuania, no. 20376/05, 17 January 2012).


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