In its judgment of 25 July 2018 (C-679/16), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided through a preliminary ruling that persons with severe disabilities may be entitled to personal assistance even if they are studying in another Member State and refusing such assistance is incompatible with the right of free movement of workers under Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
What was this case about?
The plaintiff, who is severely disabled, had applied for personal assistance with everyday activities, such as shopping, cleaning and laundering, in his home town of Espoo, based on the Finnish Disability Services Law. The applicant would be spending three or four days a week in the Estonian capital of Tallin, but return to Espoo on the weekends after starting a three-year law course.
The application was refused by the Finnish authorities on the ground that the planned stay abroad should not be considered as occasional residence, even though his home municipality had not changed.
Questions submitted for a preliminary ruling
The plaintiff appealed against the decision of the Finnish authorities. Thus, the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court referred the following questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling.
First of all, the Supreme Administrative Court wished to clarify whether Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 on the coordination of social security systems applies and asked whether personal assistance for everyday life was to be regarded as a ‘sickness benefit’ within the meaning of Article 3(1)(a) of the Regulation.
In the event that the Coordination Regulation does not apply, the Supreme Administrative Court wished to know whether the refusal to provide personal assistance in another Member State in which the person concerned was studying constitutes a restriction on the right of free movement for EU citizens under Article 21(1) TFEU.
The ECJ judges concluded that a benefit such as the personal assistance at issue in the main proceedings, which, inter alia, involves covering the expenses arising from the everyday activities of the disabled person, and which enable this economically inactive person to study, does not fall under the concept of a ‘sickness benefit’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 on the coordination of social security systems and is therefore excluded from the scope of the Regulation.
According to the ECJ judges, the goal of personal assistance is not to improve the health of the person concerned. Rather, personal assistance serves to help people with disabilities make their own choices in everyday life, work and study, leisure activities, social participation and social interaction.
Furthermore, the judges held that refusing personal assistance solely on the ground that the higher education course which the applicant intended to take took place in a Member State other than Finland is a restriction on the freedom afforded to every EU citizen by Article 21(1) TFEU to move and reside within the territory of the Member States.
Such a restriction can be justified only if it is based on objective considerations of general interest which are independent of the nationality of the persons concerned such as protecting the balance of the national social security system against excessive expenditure. These considerations should also be proportionate to the objective legitimately pursued by national law. However, in the case at hand, there were no grounds justifying a restriction on the free movement of persons.