On 31 March 2022, the CJEU gave its judgment in the case of C-231/21 following preliminary questions from the Supreme Administrative Court in Austria (Verwaltungsgerichthof). The case concerned a Moroccan national who applied for asylum in Austria after travelling through Italy. A take-charge request and removal order to Italy were issued for the applicant and he was transferred to Italy one month after the transfer deadline due to his court ordered committal to a psychiatric department in a hospital. The applicant brought an action to the Austrian courts who subsequently stayed the proceedings and referred questions surrounding the extension of the transfer deadline and the term “imprisonment” under Article 29 of the Dublin Regulation.

The Court firstly analysed the first question which asked if “imprisonment” within the meaning of Article 29(2) could be understood as including a committal declared by a court of the person concerned to a psychiatric ward of a hospital against their will. The Court noted that one language version of a provision cannot serve as the sole basis for interpretation and many language versions used “imprisonment” or “prison sentence” whereas a minority used broader terms which denote detention, custody or being deprived of liberty. It therefore deduced that the majority of language versions use the ordinary meaning signifying a penalty involving a deprivation of liberty imposed in the context of criminal proceedings. The Court continued that in light of the aforementioned ordinary meaning the non-voluntary committal of a person to a hospital psychiatric department authorised by court cannot be classified as “imprisonment” within the meaning of Article 29(2).

The Court furthermore reasoned that Article 29(2) exceptionally authorises the extension of the six-month transfer time limit and that to interpret “imprisonment” broadly including all measures depriving a person of liberty such as those not imposed in the context of criminal proceedings, would be to disregard the exceptional nature emphasised by the Court. It followed that it must be interpreted strictly and this interpretation does not entail the risk that authorities would encounter difficulties or be unable to ensure the effective functioning of the Dublin system. The Court thereby held that Article 29(2) must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “imprisonment” is not applicable to the non-voluntary committal of an asylum seeker to a hospital psychiatric department authorised by a judicial decision on the grounds that due to a mental illness is a danger to themself or society. As this question was answered in the negative the Court determined that there was no need to consider the second question.