CEDAW Committee finds violations of CEDAW concerning domestic violence, child visitation rights and child support (Angela González Carreño v. Spain)

In 1999, Angela González Carreño left her husband, F.R.C., because he had subjected her to domestic violence over several years. She reported the violence to the authorities. A trial separation was ordered between Angela and F.R.C. Angela was given custody and guardianship of Andrea, their daughter, and F.R.C was ordered to pay child support. A limited regime of supervised visits between F.R.C. and Andrea was ordered.

The violence against Angela continued, some of which Andrea witnessed, and included repeated death threats. During his visits with Andrea, F.R.C. questioned Andrea about her Angela’s private life, spoke ill of Angela and made accusations about her. As a result, Andrea became afraid of her father and did not want to spend time with him outside the visitation regime. He then accused Angela of manipulating Andrea. Despite many complaints, F.R.C. was only convicted once on a charge of harassment and then fined only 45 euros.

Angela repeatedly sought protective orders before local courts to keep F.R.C. away from her and Andrea, a regime of supervised visits and child support payments. The courts issued protective orders for Angela, but F.R.C. violated them without legal consequence to him. Only one order included Andrea, but the court left this order unenforced following an appeal by F.R.C., since it considered the order hampered the visit regime and could harm relations between F.R.C and Andrea.

In January 2001, the Court of First Instance No. 1 of Navalcarnero drew up a provisional schedule of supervised visits monitored by social services. In September 2001, a psychological evaluation report proposed that visits between F.R.C. and Andrea should be normalised gradually.

In November 2001, the court entered the order of marital separation. The order did not take the domestic violence into account or identify it as the cause of the separation. The order maintained the supervised visit regime for one month, gradually expanding it in line with F.R.C.’s behaviour. It did not address F.R.C.’s continued non-payment of child support.

In May 2002, Court No. 1 of Navalcarnero authorised unsupervised visits between F.R.C. and Andrea, despite many violent incidents by F.R.C. during the period of supervised visits. Angela appealed the decision without success.

In April 2003, F.R.C. murdered Andrea and committed suicide. In June 2003, Investigative Court No. 3 of Navalcarnero declared F.R.C.’s criminal liability for Andrea’s death extinguished on account of his suicide.

In April 2004, Angela filed with the Ministry of Justice a claim for compensation for miscarriage of justice. Angela claimed that the authorities were negligent and failed in their obligation to protect the life of Andrea, despite being repeatedly informed of the danger she faced. The Ministry denied the claim, concluding that the authorities acted properly regarding the visitation regime. It noted that Angela could pursue her claim for compensation only if the Supreme Court found judicial error. An appeal, filed by Angela, was denied. In June 2007, Angela lodged an administrative appeal before the High Court, alleging improper functioning of the administration of justice. This and subsequent appeals, including to the Constitutional Court, were also denied.

Angela’s subsequently submitted a communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee). She claimed to be a victim of a violation by Spain of articles 2(a)-2(f), 5(a) and 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Among other things, she asserted that:

  • the authorities failed to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish the known violence experienced by Angela and Andrea and the murder of Andrea
  • the authorities failed to provide an effective judicial response to Andrea’s murder and appropriate redress for the damages Angela suffered through the State Party’s negligence
  • the State Party had inadequate protections against domestic violence at the relevant time and that victims continued to experience discrimination
  • stereotyping by the authorities meant that, inter alia, they: did not investigate Andrea’s situation as a direct and indirect victim of violence; prioritised F.R.C.’s wishes over Andrea’s rights and best interests; and questioned Angela’s creditability
  • the authorities discriminated against Angela in the decisions on her separation and divorce, including by not taking the violence into account and ensuring F.R.C. paid child support.

State Party’s observations on admissibility

The State Party contested the admissibility of the communication on several grounds. First, it claimed that the Committee should declare the communication inadmissible because Angela had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, specifically by alleging judicial error before the Supreme Court. Second, it claimed that Angela’s complaint was not sufficiently substantiated. Specifically, it asserted that F.R.C., and not Spanish authorities, committed the acts of which Angela complained and, further, that its authorities did not act negligently. Third, it claimed that the Committee was unable to consider a communication concerning events that occurred prior to the entry into force of the Optional Protocol for the State Party and which were not continuing.

Committee’s decision on admissibility

The CEDAW Committee declared the communication admissible under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Optional Protocol or Protocol).

Ratione temporis

In declaring the communication admissible ratione temporis, the Committee acknowledged that some of the abuses and complaints occurred prior to the Protocol’s entry into force for the State Party. However, it determined that key facts and decisions leading up to the murder of Andrea, including judicial decisions authorising the regime of unsupervised visits and refusing Angela’s appeal, occurred after the relevant entry into force date. It explained that it would take the prior abuses and complaints into account only insofar as they explained the context of events occurring after the Protocol’s entry into force for Spain.

Exhaustion of domestic remedies

The Committee determined that Angela had exerted reasonable efforts to exhaust domestic remedies. In this connection, it noted that Angela had filed several appeals, including before the Constitutional Court, all of which were rejected by national authorities. The Committee also noted the State Party’s failure to identify other remedies that it believed could respond effectively to Angela’s complaint about the establishment of unsupervised visits between F.R.C and Andrea and the lack of redress for Andrea’s death.

Sufficiently substantiated

In the Committee’s expert view, Angela had sufficiently substantiated her complaints, for the purposes of admissibility.

State Party’s observations on merits

The State Party asserted that it had not violated CEDAW. Among other things, it claimed that: F.R.C.’s behaviour was unforeseeable and nothing could lead it to predict a danger to the life or physical or mental health of Andrea; its authorities had not acted negligently; and the acts of which Angela complained were committed by F.R.C. It further claimed that Angela had wrongly asserted that Spain had no protections against gender-based violence at the time and provided the Committee with a list of actions undertaken to eradicate discrimination against women.

Committee’s decision on the merits

The CEDAW Committee determined that the State Party had violated articles 2(a)-2(f), 5(a) and 16(1)(d) of CEDAW, read with article 1 and its General Recommendation No. 19.

Gender-based violence against women

In reaching its determination, the Committee recalled its General Recommendation No. 19, in which it defined gender-based violence as a form of discrimination, within the meaning of article 1 of CEDAW. It also reiterated that States Parties have a due diligence obligation to take all appropriate measures to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparations for gender-based violence perpetrated by non-state actors. According to the Committee, public officials must respect the due diligence obligation, if women are to enjoy substantive equality and protections against violence in practice. This obligation, the Committee explained, includes investigating the existence of failures, negligence or omissions on the part of public authorities that may have deprived victims of protection against such violence.

Turning to the facts, the Committee concluded that the violence committed by F.R.C. against Angela and the murder of Andrea was foreseeable. It noted, for instance, that F.R.C.: committed numerous acts of violence against Angela, which Andrea often witnessed; was not held legally liable for ignoring court protective orders; and had been diagnosed with an “obsessive-compulsive disorder with aspects of pathological jealousy and a tendency to distort reality which could degenerate into a disorder similar to paranoia”. It also noted a social services report regarding the need for continuous monitoring of visits between F.R.C. and Andrea. According to the Committee, the State Party’s due diligence obligations were not meet, since no reasonable steps were taken to protect Angela and Andrea against the violence and, in Andrea’s case, murder. Moreover, the State Party had not investigated whether its authorities failed to protect, or were negligent in protecting, Angela and Andrea against violence.

Unsupervised visits

In reaching its determination, the Committee affirmed that child custody and visitation decisions should be based on the best interests of the child, not on stereotypes, with domestic violence being a relevant consideration. In addition, it stressed that stereotypes affect women’s right to an impartial judicial process and the judiciary must not apply inflexible standards based on preconceived notions about what constitutes domestic violence.

Turning to the facts, the Committee concluded that the decision to grant F.R.C. unsupervised visits with Andrea: was based on stereotypes about domestic violence that prioritised his (male) interests and minimised his abusive behaviour, over the safety of Andrea and Angela; did not take into account the long-term pattern of domestic violence; and did not specify necessary safeguards.

Lack of reparation

The Committee determined that Angela’s efforts to obtain redress for the serious and irreparable harm she had suffered had been futile, resulting in further violations of her rights under CEDAW.

Recommendations 

The Committee recommended that the State Party provide Angela reparations and investigate whether failures in its structures and practices led to Angela and Andrea being denied appropriate protection. Other recommendations included: ensuring domestic violence is taken into account in custody and visitation matters and that the best interests of the child prevail in related decisions; ensuring that its authorities exercise due diligence and respond appropriately to domestic violence; and providing mandatory training for judges and administrative personnel on the legal framework concerning domestic violence and gender stereotyping.

Communication No. 47/20 12, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/58/D/47/2012 (2014)

Decision

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