The applicant in the case of S.H. v. Malta (37241/21, 20.12.2022) is a journalist from Bangladesh who applied for asylum in Malta on the ground that since he had reported on the 2018 election irregularities in his country, he would be at risk of ill-treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention if returned. The ECtHR found a violation of his right to an effective remedy (Article 13) because of serious procedural shortcomings in the processing of his application by the Maltese authorities. It also considered that returning him to Bangladesh without a fresh assessment of his claim would breach Article 3 of the Convention.
In finding a violation of the applicant’s right to an effective remedy, the ECtHR had regard to all the circumstances surrounding the proceedings at domestic level. These included in particular the lack of legal assistance and the applicant’s detention at crucial stages of the proceedings which, in the ECtHR’s view, explained much of the difficulties the applicant had encountered in correctly presenting his case and led to his application being dismissed at every stage of the proceedings.
Thus, the ECHR made an assessment of the proceedings and their outcome considered as a whole, from the point of view of the effectiveness of the procedural remedies used. In this context, and without formally acknowledging the existence of a general right of asylum seekers to legal assistance or representation, it nonetheless considered the absence of such assistance in the circumstances of this case as having had a significant impact on the (in)ability of the applicant to make his case before the competent authorities (§§ 82, 84 and 85). The ECtHR also had regard to substantive aspects of the proceedings, such as the reasons given by the domestic authorities for their decisions, which it found insufficient (§ 86), superficial (§ 90) or incongruent (§ 94).
Interestingly, it would appear that much of the procedural shortcomings noted by the ECtHR would not have taken place, had the Procedures Directive (2013/32/UE), notably its Articles 19 et seq., been properly complied with at domestic level. This case is therefore another illustration of the complementarity between the Convention and EU law, in that breaches of EU law provisions which correspond to Convention safeguards can be indirectly disclosed and remedied in Strasbourg, in an ex post assessment at the very end of the domestic proceedings.
But this case also illustrates the fact that it might not always be enough to simply apply EU law in order for domestic judges to automatically meet the Convention requirements. Under the Procedures Directive the right to an effective remedy and to free legal assistance and representation indeed only kicks in in appeals procedures (Art. 20 and 46). Prior to those, there is only a right to free legal and procedural information (Art. 19). Moreover, the said Directive would not appear to spell out any requirements in terms of the substantive quality and coherence of the reasoning of domestic decisions, which the ECtHR had regard to in the present case.