Hungary, Topház: Names of public guardians of persons with disabilities must be made available on request
Hungarian court orders the Guardianship Authority to disclose to Validity the names and addresses of the public guardians responsible for the 220 victims of torture and ill-treatment in Topház social care institution.
More than 25,000 people with disabilities live in residential social care institutions in Hungary, most of them placed there against their will. These institutions are places of detention under international law where residents are at a heightened risk of ill-treatment and abuse. Validity (formerly MDAC) published a report in 2017 exposing horrible ill-treatment and torture of the residents of the Topház institution. These and violations of numerous other rights were uncovered by Validity during visits to the institution between 15 February 2017 and 18 April 2017. The Hungarian Ombudsman’s investigation later independently confirmed these violations.
The Topház Speciális Otthon – “Topház Special Home” – is a state-run, 220-bed residential institution for children and adults with disabilities in the town of Göd, approximately 30km from the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Residents – both adults and children – were put in metal cage beds, routinely chemically and/or physically restrained, underweight, and physically, mentally and emotionally neglected. At the end of 2017, after Validity initiated legal action against the Government, the Government formally closed the institution, renamed it and transferred its management to the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta.
In our report, Validity raised serious concerns about the right to life of the residents and since then at least 12 residents have died. None of these deaths were properly investigated since social care homes are not considered detention facilities under Hungarian law. This means that it is not mandatory to independently investigate deaths occurring in these facilities. The victims of torture and ill-treatment in Topház have received no rehabilitation and there are no real alternatives to their institutionalisation due to the lack of necessary community-based services in Hungary. Most of them remain in the institution nearly three years later.
Validity faced many challenges accessing victims in this case since the residents are under guardianship and in a closed institution. We were denied permission to speak directly to the residents or to enter the institution. We therefore sought to contact the residents through their guardians. However, the guardianship regime, especially when combined with institutionalisation, creates an impenetrable barrier isolating residents and preventing them from accessing justice. There was no publicly available information on who the guardians are.
With the support of Hungarian lawyer, Kegye Adél, we requested the Guardianship Authority (part of the Pest County Government Office) to release the names and contact details of the official guardians of certain residents of Topház. We submitted the first request in May 2017 and since then we have submitted multiple requests and complaints before the competent authorities, including the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.
After repeated rejections and denials of access, Validity challenged the Guardianship Authority’s continued refusal of our request before the Pest Central District Court. Earlier this month, the Court concluded that Validity had a legitimate interest in obtaining the information and ordered the Guardianship Authority to communicate to us the names and postal addresses of guardians of residents. The Court stopped short of saying that the data must be made public to all and also refused to order the release of the guardians’ telephone numbers or email addresses.
Nevertheless, this is an important step forward in increasing transparency in this opaque system of guardianship and institutionalisation. The names of public guardians of persons with disabilities should rightly be made public. Such transparency is an essential element of any system that seeks to be accountable, independent and credible. Guardians who are responsible for persons with disabilities should be contactable by interested civil society organisations and be accountable in their jobs. And those who perpetuate or endorse torture and ill-treatment cannot be allowed to hide in anonymity any longer. This is especially important when they are responsible for individuals who have no family to look after their interests and are completely dependent on their guardian to be their supporter and independent advocate.
Kegye, Adél, lawyer, stated, “This decision finally opens a door to residents of Topház and other closed institutions who cannot be contacted by monitoring bodies, lawyers and other individuals offering assistance or help. Based on this decision, the identity of the official guardians of residents of a given institution such as former Topház or Gödi Gondviselés Háza in its current denomination, became public information. Once we get the list and contact details of the guardians, we will be able to reach out for them and offer our assistance”.
Ann Campbell, Co-Executive Director at Validity, stated, “The Government has prevented us from even talking to the guardians of the victims in Topház, including those individuals who have died in the institution. Now that the court has recognised our legitimate interest in talking to the guardians, we plan to reach out directly to them to offer our legal support to secure rehabilitation and independent living for those who remain in the institution. We look forward to working together with the guardians to make sure the people in Topház get access to necessary and appropriate services to which they are entitled.”
Read the decision (in Hungarian) here.