Manifest deficiency in the execution of a European arrest warrant – judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France

In the landmark case of Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France (25.3.2021, 40324/16 and 12623/17, not final), the ECHR ruled on the execution of two European arrest warrants (EAWs) for the purpose of the service of prison sentences in Romania. It found a violation of Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of ill-treatment) in respect of one of the applicants and no violation in respect of the other. The details of the case are summarized in the press release below.

The judgment is noteworthy as it confirms and clarifies the principles to be applied by the domestic courts of the EU member States in the field of mutual recognition.

First of all, the judgment once more confirms that the Convention requires EU law to be applied in conformity with it. It equally confirms and illustrates the competence of the ECHR to assess that conformity.

The judgment furthermore recapitulates the Court’s doctrine on mutual recognition, as set out in Avotins v. Latvia (23.5.2016, 17502/07), which is the leading case on this topic. It stresses in particular that:

  • The presumption of equivalent protection, as established in Bosphorus v. Ireland (30.6.2005, 45036/98), in principle applies when by virtue of a mutual recognition mechanism domestic courts are left with no discretionary power and legally bound to presume that another member State sufficiently respects fundamental rights. When this presumption applies, the Convention will be breached only if there has been a manifest deficiency in complying with the Convention.
  • In cases concerning the compatibility of the execution of an EAW with Article 3 of the Convention, any discretionary power of the judicial authority of the executing State in this field is limited to the assessment of the facts and has to be exercised within the framework strictly delineated by the case-law of the CJEU. The presumption of equivalent protection therefore applies.
  • The principle of mutual recognition must nonetheless not be applied in an automatic and mechanical way, to the detriment of fundamental rights.
  • Consequently, if a serious and substantiated complaint is raised before domestic courts to the effect that the protection of a Convention right has been manifestly deficient and that this situation cannot be remedied by European Union law, they cannot refrain from examining that complaint on the sole ground that they are applying EU law. In that case they must apply EU law in conformity with the Convention.
  • These principles apply to all mechanisms of mutual recognition.

The judgment also provides some interesting information on how these principles play out in the field of European arrest warrants.

In this respect, it first notes the convergence between the case-law of the two European Courts as regards the assessment of the individual risks of ill-treatment to which persons can be exposed as a consequence of the execution of a EAW. At the same time, it stresses the different methodology applied by each Court: whereas the CJEU applies a two-step examination requiring evidence of systemic or generalised deficiencies in the issuing State before any individual risk resulting from these deficiencies can be identified (see e.g., below on this page, CJEU 17.12.2020, Openbaar Ministerie, joined cases C-354/20 PPU and C-412/20 PPU, para. 53-56), the ECHR focuses immediately on the individual risks incurred by the person concerned.

Thus, the convergence noted by the ECHR relates to the final individual test, not to the respective methodologies applied by the European Courts, which remain different and are therefore not interchangeable. This is illustrated by the fact that in the case of Moldovan, the ECHR found a violation of Article 3 on the ground that the French courts had transferred the applicant in spite of the fact that they had before them sufficient factual elements indicating that he would be exposed to a serious risk of ill-treatment by reason of the detention conditions in the prison in which he would be detained after his transfer. These factual elements only concerned the personal situation of Mr Moldovan, not any systemic or generalized deficiencies. At no point in this judgment did the ECHR inquire about such deficiencies in the Romanian prison system, contrary to the French courts which were bound by EU law to apply the two-step examination. The ECHR nonetheless found a violation of Article 3 on account of the fact that the individual risk incurred by Mr Moldovan had not been correctly assessed by those French courts.

This was the first time the Court rebutted the presumption of equivalent protection, because of a manifest deficiency in applying a mutual recognition mechanism. Thus, regardless of the methodology applied by the domestic courts, what matters from a Convention point of view is the correct application of the Convention standards in any individual case governed by EU law.

Finally, the judgment also illustrates the fact that in the field of mutual recognition the test to be applied in respect of complaints not covered by the presumption of equivalent protection (because of the discretionary power left to the judicial authority of the executing State or the latter’s failure to make a referral for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU) is the higher benchmark of whether the Convention has been breached, not whether there has been a manifest deficiency (§§ 131-132).