Last week, on 14 June 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (“Court”) in the case of Biržietis v. Lithuania decided that overall ban on beards in prisons violates human rights of inmates.

The applicant is Lithuanian national, Mr Rimantas Biržietis who lodged a case in Court against Republic of Lithuania arguing that a prohibition on his growing a beard while in prison had violated his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“Convention”).

Government of Republic of Lithuania argued that the prohibition on growing beards, established in the internal rules of prison, was in accordance with the general principles set down in the higher legal acts – such as the need to maintain discipline and hygiene among prisoners, as well as to ensure their security and proper supervision. The prohibition was intended to maintain discipline and prevent disorder among prisoners, as well as to ensure their supervision, hygiene and a tidy appearance.

Background

In 2007 applicant was serving a prison sentence at the Marijampolė Correctional Facility. The prison regulations included a prohibition on prisoners growing beards.
On two occasions he submitted a request to the Prison Department to allow him to grow a beard for health reasons – he had been diagnosed with tongue cancer and had undergone radiation treatment, and therefore shaving irritated his skin. The applicant was examined by the correctional facility’s medical personnel which found no traces of irritation. Based on the results of the examination Prison Department denied the applicant’s request.

On 5 December 2007 the applicant submitted a complaint to the Vilnius Regional Administrative Court arguing that there in no law prohibiting beards in prison, so the Marijampolė Correctional Facility did not have the right to establish such a prohibition in its internal regulations. He also contended that the prohibition, which had been applied to him regardless of his health problems, had caused him great mental suffering and had breached his rights.

Vilnius Regional Administrative Court upheld the applicant’s complaint. The court acknowledged that prisons were in principle justified in having rules on prisoners’ beards in so far as it was necessary for hygiene-related reasons. However, it dismissed the Prison Department’s argument that the prohibition on beards was necessary for the purpose of the swift identification of prisoners, and held that such a restriction was contrary to the requirement to reintegrate prisoners into society. Accordingly, the court concluded that the prohibition on the applicant having a beard was against the law and was neither necessary nor proportionate.

However, on 24 March 2009 the Supreme Administrative Court overturned the first-instance judgment. Firstly, the court noted that the applicant had not proven that he had been unable to shave regularly because of health reasons. The court also noted that desire to grow a beard could not be considered as such a right or freedom. Therefore, unless it was related to other rights, such as, for example, religious freedom, the growing of a beard could be restricted by internal prison rules. Lastly, the Supreme Administrative Court considered that a prohibition on growing beards could be justified by the prison authorities’ need to swiftly identify prisoners, and thus it was necessary and proportionate.

 

Decision

Court noted that in parties’ arguments there is no dispute between the applicant and government of Lithuania that the prohibition on the applicant having a beard while in prison constituted an interference with his right to respect for his private life, protected by Article 8 of the Convention – the dispute is whether that interference was justified. By six votes to one Court found that “in any event, it was not necessary in a democratic society” and there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

Judge Krzysztof Wojtyczek expressed dissent opinion being dissatisfied that Court mainly based its decision on governments inability to justify limitation of rights and did not evaluated whether prohibition to grow beards in prison is unjustified per se, so limiting Courts decision only to this particular case.

The applicant also claimed 10,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage, however Court unanimously hold that the finding of a violation constitutes in itself sufficient just satisfaction and rejected claim for monetary satisfaction.

Read full decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Biržietis v. Lithuania (PDF).

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