Failure to properly investigate sexual harassment in the workplace

In the case of C. v. Romania (application no. 47358/20, 30.08.2022) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace following a criminal complaint lodged by the applicant, a cleaning lady in a railway station, against the railway station manager, and the State’s alleged failure to deal with the matter.

The Court noted that the railway company was owned by the State and thus represented a public authority. However, little seemed to have been done by the railway company in response to the allegations of sexual harassment by one of its employees. Despite the existence of an internal policy prohibiting any behaviour that breached a person’s dignity and encouraging the reporting of such behaviour to the management, the head of passenger safety had refused to look into C.’s case and had advised her to go to the police if she felt it necessary.

However, the Court noted that the main focus of C.’s complaint was the response given by the prosecutors and courts to her complaints of sexual harassment. It therefore examined whether, in the criminal proceedings concerning the allegations, the State had sufficiently protected C.’s right to respect for her private life, in particular her personal integrity. The Court observed that C. had lodged a criminal complaint against C.P. for sexual harassment, that the investigation had started promptly and that both the prosecutor’s office and the District Court had acknowledged that C.P. had behaved in the way alleged by C. but considered that that had not constituted the criminal offence of sexual harassment. The decisions adopted in the case found either that C.P. had not been criminally liable for the alleged criminal offence or that C. had not felt humiliated by his behaviour, an element required by domestic law in order for such behaviour to be classed as sexual harassment.

However, nothing in the domestic decisions showed how the authorities had reached their conclusion. For instance, no assessment of the relationship of power and subordination between C. and C.P., or the threats allegedly made by him against her, had been undertaken. Moreover, they had not looked into whether C.P.’s actions had had any possible psychological consequences on C. or whether any reasons existed for C. to make false accusations against C.P., as had been hinted at by some of the witness statements.

In addition, the Court noted with concern that the prosecutor’s office’s decision had contained a detailed account of the insinuations made by C.P. in his statements about C.’s private life and the alleged motives for her actions and accusations – in the Court’s eyes, constituting secondary victimisation – whereas, they might have been no more than a smokescreen. 

Therefore, without expressing an opinion as to whether C.P. was guilty of sexual harassment, the Court found that the investigation of the case had contained significant flaws amounting to a breach of the State’s duty under Article 8 of the Convention.

Reference from the official website of the European Court of Human Rights