Fighting the Criminalisation of Homelessness in Hungary
On 15th October, the new provisions of the Act on Petty Offences entered into force, which renders living in a public space illegal anywhere in Hungary. It means that the homelessness is punishable by community service work or by confinement, depending on the decision of the court. People can be penalised if they “use the public space habitually” (meaning that the person lives, or carries out his/her everyday activities there), and they do not leave the public space after the police orders them to do so, or if they do not accept to be taken to an over-crowded homeless shelter, or if it is already the third time this happens to that person.
The Streetlawyer Association (Utcajogász Egyesület) is committed to fight against this regulation, which results in the criminalization of homeless people and people without adequate housing.
So far less than ten people have been known to be prosecuted in offence proceedings until the day of publishing the article; and the attorneys of Streetlawyer Association provided legal representation in two cases until today.
In the first case (on 19th October) the “perpetrator” was a 61-year-old woman, Anita, who lost her residence after the death of her partner, half a year ago. At the end , the court opted for “warning”, which means that in a following case the punishment may be confinement. (After two warnings, the court must make a decision of either confinement or community service work.) The decision was made in spite of the fact that Anita did not exhaust the legal requirements of the regulation. She emphasized that she is committed to find a house to live and does not plan or want to stay on public places. The Streetlawyer Assocation appealed against the decision of the court.
The right of a fair trial and the right to defense have also been violated during the procedure. The court did not allow Anita to be personally present in the courtroom, even though she stayed in the same building as the ongoing court proceeding. She had to participate in the procedure through a telecommunication tool, which made difficult for her to understand and answer the questions of the judge, as well as to communicate with the attorneys. In practice, it meant that she only could follow the proceedings on a screen, while her attorneys could consult her only through phone calls. Besides this, the court did not hear the witness of the defense, as she would have brought “mitigating circumstances”.
In the second case (on 21st October) the court suspended the procedure due to the medical situation of Zoltán, the subject to the procedure. It has to be emphasized that the procedural circumstances were the same as in the previous case (regarding the presence of the detainee), with the small difference that one of the Streetlawyer Association attorneys was permitted to stay with him in the same room that he was following the procedure from.
Streetlawyer Association thinks that the applicable law is in conflict with international law conventions recognized by Hungary as well as with the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Hungary. Therefore the attorneys requested the court to suspend the procedures and refer the Act to the Constitutional Court before the decision, which could revise the laws to be applied in these cases . The court, however, rejected this proposal.
After exhausting the Hungarian legal opportunities, Streetlawyer Association is ready to bring the cases in front of the European Court of Human Rights. The Streetlawyers continue to be ready to provide assistance and legal representation in future cases, and to consult with attorneys providing defence to other people affected by this law.
The Streetlawyer Assocation (Utcajogász Egyesület) is a group of volunteer lawyers who work for the rights of homeless people. They offer free legal assistance service in Budapest, Hungary and provide legal counsel and legal representation for people without homes or in need of adequate housing. More info about the Association at http://utcajogasz.hu/english/