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Principle of proportionality

The principle of proportionality is derived from German law, and it first affected EU law in the Internationale Handelsgesellschaft case in 1970: “A public authority may not impose obligations on a citizen except to the extent to which they are strictly necessary in the public interest to attain the purpose of the measure.” Since then it has become one of the fundamental principles of the jurisprudence developed by the European Court of Justice.

It is a safeguard against the unlimited use of legislative and administrative powers and considered to be something of a “rule of common sense”, according to which an administrative authority may only act to exactly the extent that is needed to achieve its objectives.

More specifically, the principle of proportionality means that any measure by a public authority that affects a basic human right must be:

  • appropriate in order to achieve the objective, which is intended,
  • necessary in order to achieve the objective, which is intended, i.e. there are no less severe means of achieving the objective, and
  • reasonable, i.e. the person concerned can reasonably be expected to accept the measure in question.

In 1999, the principle of proportionality was incorporated in the EU Amsterdam Treaty. Article 3 of the EU Amsterdam Treaty states: “Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty”, and Protocol (30) on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality annexed to the Treaty on the European Union and to the Treaty establishing the European Community explicitly refers to this: “(Each EU institution) shall also ensure compliance with the principle of proportionality, according to which any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaty.”

As regards the application of this principle in legislation concerning administrative detention and in detention practice, administration detention may be considered lawful only if it is appropriate, necessary and reasonable.

Large parts of the

  • UNHCR Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers and the
  • Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers' Guidelines on Forced Return (including detention pending removal)

are based on the principle of proportionality, in particular when referring to alternatives to detention (UNHCR).

In February 2011, the Global Detention Project published a useful paper entitled, "Immigration Detention and Proportionality"








Page last updated on: 29/04/2011