Our visit to the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg, 18 April 2018

European Court of Human Rights

Some history of who we are and why we went:

1.Wendy Silberman:
Having been born and raised on the south-side of Chicago into a liberal, lower middle-class Jewish family in the late 1950’s my childhood was profoundly impacted by societal events:

  • I remember my mother weeping when she heard about President Kennedy’s assassination and the collective grief felt during his funeral procession.
  • The televised response to the passive marches throughout the civil rights movement led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior and subsequent burning of Chicago’s west side during the riots that ensued following his assassination.
  • The protests against the War in Vietnam, followed by the women’s, black panther and gay movements challenging oppressive authority and striving for greater equality

All of those events, coupled with the books given to me at Shul, written by Holocaust survivors or historians, created a hunger within me to strive for social justice and civil/human rights. I became a social worker who subsequently came “across the pond” in 1978 and have worked with some of the most interesting, but systematically oppressed individuals and their families for over 40 years. Over the past 10 years, I have been a visiting lecturer to the University of Birmingham’s Best Interests Assessors Course (I am also an independent BIA) and voraciously read ECHR and Court of Protection rulings to ensure that all of our practices are informed by these judgements. As I turned 60, my “gift” was to visit the hub that represents the bastion of human rights - the ECHR!

2. Ming-yuin Nagel:
Like Wendy, I was born and raised in the USA, the grandchild of immigrants on both sides. My parents (though raised in the States too) were born in China and Australia, respectively, and their biracial union was one that would have been more sternly frowned upon, even by some members of my own family, had it taken place just a few years earlier. In hindsight, I was born into a class and generation that had had much of the hard work already done for it; and my interests manifested in the creative arts. It was only gradually that I realised those fields were perhaps the safest haven for the values of equality, diversity, and social justice with which I had been consistently and lovingly raised.

However, in my 30s and after carrying on the cycle of emigration – in my case to the UK - I found that I needed to turn my vision of becoming a novelist into something more immediately viable. I trained as a social worker and became drawn to working with adults in the areas of learning disability and forensic mental health, where my passion for stories was channelled into empowering others to have their own stories told and voices heard. I like to think that in my line of work as an independent social worker, trainer, and BIA I can honour the legacy of activism and socio-political awareness bestowed upon me by my family; and respect and use the privileges into which I was born. I feel very lucky to be able to continue to promote human rights and exercise integrity despite the alarming climate change (both literal and figurative!) on both sides of the pond. Our visit to the ECHR was bittersweet in this regard, but provided a moving and fascinating insight into some of the issues that continue to resonate for me on both a personal and professional level.

3. Tamsin Waterhouse:
Tamsin Waterhouse is a social worker and lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Her background is in mental health and adult services. Since her youth and even as a young girl she was concerned about the most vulnerable in society; often advocating for those who were unable (or unwilling) to speak for themselves. Born in Zambia her childhood was spent in Africa, Asia and Europe. She has travelled extensively and brings to her work her understanding of different cultures and values. She remains committed to her own learning, the development of others, and to improving mental health and well-being. In her personal life she aims to provide a safe place for friends, family and those whom she comes into contact with.

The three authors
From left to right: Wendy Silberman, Tamsin Waterhouse, Ming-yuin Nagel

Helpful information about visiting the ECHR

You must apply at least 2-3 months prior to your intended visit (we did this 5 months in advance). Please don’t be put off if you are not a solicitor, nor in a group of 25, as their web-site specifies that visits are open to legal professionals and law students, and for groups up to 25 – we were neither. You need to write to the ECHR, using their form, which can be found on the following web-site link: http://appform.echr.coe.int/echrrequest/request.aspx?lang=gb We would advise that you do read their FAQ prior to completing their form and also review their schedule of cases, found by going to this web-site link: https://www.echr.coe.int/Pages/home.aspx?p=hearings/calendar&c=

It took nearly two months to receive a reply from the ECHR, so please give plenty of advance notice. They also inform you that a case can be cancelled up to and including the day of your scheduled visit, but we were lucky. The day we chose to visit also had a group of visiting Judges from Scandinavia and the hearing went ahead.

How the ECHR judicially operates for individual applicants: There is a helpful flow-chart that demonstrates how the ECHR operates:


The ECHR is housed within a relatively new, rounded setting, in a building designed by the British Architect, Richard Rodgers. It is equally interesting both in and outside:

ECHR Building

The case heard in the Grand Chamber on the 18.04.18: Z.A. and others v Russia We heard a fascinating and terribly sad hearing involving four individuals: Z.A and others v Russia; a summary of their case was produced by The Registrar of the Court, Press Release:

“While travelling independently from each other via Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, the applicants were denied entry into Russia by the border authority due to irregularities with their travel documents. As a result, three of the applicants ended up spending between five and eight months in 2015/2016 in the transit zone of the airport; one of the applicants, from Somalia, was in the transit zone for one year and eleven months between 9 April 2015 and 9 March 2017.

Relying on Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) of the European Convention on Human Rights, they allege that their confinement in the transit zone amounted to an unlawful deprivation of liberty. They also complain under Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention about the poor conditions of their detention in the transit zone, where they had to sleep on mattresses in the constantly lit, noisy boarding area of the airport, with no possibility to shower, living on emergency rations provided by UNHCR.”

We believe this case may have significant impact on the rights of individuals who are awaiting their application for refugee status. It was a particularly timely hearing to witness, given the current context of national borders tightening against mass migration. This judgement was appealed to the Grand Chamber by Russia.

Impressions of the Court

The case was heard in English with headphones and translations available, before 17 Judges, including a judge from Russia (we speculated that this may have been to provide information on the law of the home country). There were also 3 substitute judges and a Registrar present. Each side summarised their main arguments. This was followed by an opportunity for the Judges to pose questions that were considered during the recess, when the “representative of the parties” had an opportunity to consider and subsequently respond to the questions posed. The case adjourned for judgement, which we await.

As the eldest of our party of three, what impressed Wendy was how young everyone appeared to be – not just the legal representatives, but the majority of the Judges and members of the audience witnessing this event. She doesn’t know if that is heartening or worrying or a little of both! Additionally, although the whole process involved representation from different countries, the racial and ethnic diversity of those countries (and of the applicants themselves) did not appear to be represented in the Court.

The hearing that we were privileged to witness exceeded our expectations; the arguments put forth were fascinating and we would do those individuals concerned a dis-service by trying to precis their representation. If you want further information about that case, please go to: https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-172107%22]} But if you are fortunate and can spend time visiting the ECHR, also visit the European Parliament Building, as its history and information provide a monumental backdrop to why these European conventions are still required, now more than ever in recent history.