Judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the Kauhajoki school shooting case
The European Court of Human Rights issued a judgement concerning Finland on 17 September 2020, finding a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned a shooting incident on the premises of the Seinäjoki municipal education and training consortium in Kauhajoki on 23 September 2008 that claimed the lives of 10 people and the perpetrator. The claimants in the case were relatives of the deceased victims: a teacher and nine students.
The claimants alleged that the State had violated Article 2 of the Convention (right to life) on the grounds that the police either had been or ought to have been aware of the imminent risk posed by the perpetrator, but had failed to take any measures to prevent the incident and thereby protect the lives of the complainants’ relatives.
By a majority vote of 6-1, the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 2 concerning the right to life in respect of its main substance, but not in respect of the procedural requirements of the Article.
The Court of Human Rights held that the circumstances of the case entailed a special duty of vigilance. Even though the perpetrator was not the responsibility of State authorities, the authorities remain responsible for determining and maintaining the requirements governing the lawful possession of firearms. As the use of firearms inherently involves a particularly high risk to life, this risk must be linked to a duty of the authorities to intervene if they become aware of facts that give cause to suspect in practice that these requirements are not being met.
The Court of Human Rights found that even though an individual error of judgement could not suffice to conclude that a State had breached its positive obligations, particularly where the said error is established in hindsight, the core issue in the case could be considered to go beyond such an error.
The crucial question for the Court of Human Rights concerned whether certain measures could reasonably have been required of the national authorities to avoid a risk to human life.
The Court of Human Rights noted that the precautionary measure of seizing the gun had been available to the police, and that the police even considered this but decided against such seizure. This measure would not have significantly interfered with any competing rights under the Convention, nor would it accordingly have involved any particularly difficult or delicate weighing of various rights. The Court of Human Rights held that, based on the information available to the police, the weapon could and should have been seized under national law as a low threshold precautionary measure.
The view of the Court of Human Rights was that seizing the perpetrator’s weapon had been a reasonable precaution under circumstances in which information had come to the knowledge of the competent authority that gave cause to doubt the perpetrator’s fitness to possess a dangerous firearm. The Court of Human Rights accordingly held that the national authorities had failed to discharge the special duty of diligence incumbent upon them on account of the particularly high risk to life that is inherent in the misuse of firearms. On these grounds, the Court of Human Rights held that the Finnish State had violated key positive obligations under Article 2 of the Convention.
With regard to the claims for just satisfaction submitted in the case, the Court of Human Rights divided the claimants into ten separate households and ordered the State to compensate the claimant in the first household in the sum of EUR 31,571.97 in compensation for pecuniary damage, and each household jointly in the sum of EUR 30,000 in compensation for non-pecuniary damage. The Court of Human Rights further ordered the State to reimburse the first household in the sum of EUR 2,086.34 and the other households each in the sum of EUR 6,818.56 in respect of legal costs.
For further details please contact: Krista Oinonen, Agent of Finland at the European Court of Human Rights and Director, Unit for Human Rights Courts and Conventions, tel. +358 29 535 1172.
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