CASE OF FURMAN v. SLOVENIA AND AUSTRIA
(Application no. 16608/09)
5 February 2015
This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Furman v. Slovenia and Austria,
The European Court of Human Rights (Fifth Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:
Boštjan M. Zupančič,
Vincent A. De Gaetano,
Helena Jäderblom, judges,
and Claudia Westerdiek, Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 13 January 2015,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 16608/09) against the Republic of Slovenia lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Slovenian national, Mr Andrej Furman (“the applicant”), on 23 March 2009.
2. The applicant was represented by Mr P. Čeh, a lawyer practising in Maribor. The Slovenian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Mrs B. Jovin Hrastnik, State Attorney. The Austrian Government were represented by their Agent, Ambassador H. Tichy, Head of the International Law Department at the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs.
3. The applicant alleged, in particular, that he had been unable to enjoy family life with his daughter on account of the lack of diligence on the part of the Slovenian and Austrian authorities in regulating and enforcing contact between them.
4. On 3 July 2012 the application was communicated to the Governments.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
5. The applicant was born in 1955 and lives in Maribor. From 1991 to 1997 he lived with M.P. in an extramarital relationship. On 14 December 1993 the latter gave birth to their daughter, P.
6. In 1997 the applicant and M.P. separated and, with the assistance of the Maribor Social Work Centre (hereinafter “the Centre”), concluded an agreement determining the amount of child maintenance to be paid by the applicant for his daughter. Another agreement was concluded on 23 February 1998 setting up a provisional contact schedule governing the applicant’s contact with P. for the period from 24 February to 13 April 1998.
A. Contact proceedings before the Slovenian authorities and the enforcement of the relevant decisions
7. Having been unable to come to an agreement with M.P. as to a more permanent contact schedule, on 24 February 1998 the applicant asked the Centre to issue an order determining his contact rights. He sought contact with P. every Tuesday afternoon, every second Thursday afternoon, every other weekend, one week during the winter holiday and one month during the summer holiday.
8. It appears that, as of 13 April 1998, M.P. stopped letting the applicant have contact with P.
9. The first hearing in the case was scheduled for 18 June 1998 and subsequently adjourned at the request of M.P., who informed the Centre that she was taking holiday during the period in question.
10. On 14 June 1998 M.P. sent another letter to the Centre informing them that she would be living abroad in the period between 1 July 1998 and 31 August 1999 for the purposes of her doctoral studies. She requested that the contact proceedings be suspended during that period.
11. Further to the applicant’s objection to M.P.’s request for the suspension of the proceedings, the Centre’s social workers paid three visits to M.P.’s address in Maribor in order to establish whether she was still living in Slovenia. However, M.P. was not found at home on either occasion.
12. On 30 July 1998 the Centre sent a request to M.P.’s employer, Maribor University, to provide the address of her foreign residence.
13. On 26 August 1998 the applicant sought an interim order granting him contact with P.
14. On 4 September 1998 the Centre received a reply from Maribor University stating that M.P. was studying in Graz, Austria, but that they were unaware of her address. However, the university offered to serve M.P. with the summons to attend a hearing. The Centre scheduled a hearing for 22 October 1998, but the university was unable to reach M.P. and the hearing was adjourned.
15. On 29 October 1998 the Centre issued an interim order setting up a provisional contact schedule between the applicant and P. According to the order, the applicant was to have contact with P. once a month and for a week during both the winter and summer holidays. The applicant was supposed to pick up his daughter at M.P.’s permanent address in Maribor and bring her back to the same address.
16. Another hearing was scheduled for 10 December 1998 and subsequently adjourned, as the university was again unable to serve M.P. with the summons.
17. On 12 January 1999 Maribor University provided the Centre with the address of the Austrian university where M.P. was studying. The Centre thus sent the interim order of 29 October 1998 and a summons for a hearing scheduled for 11 February 1999 to M.P. at the address of that institution.
18. On 24 February 1999 M.P. appealed against the interim order of 29 October 1998, arguing that the provisional contact schedule could not be implemented, as she and her daughter were temporarily living in Graz, Austria.
19. On 1 March 1999 the Centre rejected M.P.’s appeal as out of time, whereupon she appealed to the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs (hereinafter “the Ministry”).
20. On 28 April and 18 June 1999 the Centre submitted the applicant’s requests for the enforcement of the interim order to the Maribor Administrative Unit. On 24 August 1999 the requests were granted; however, on 16 September 1999 M.P. appealed, claiming that the decision had not been correctly served on her. She also objected to the contents of the interim order.
21. On 27 September 1999 the Ministry upheld M.P.’s appeal against the interim order, quashed the order and remitted the issue of the provisional contact schedule for a fresh examination by the Centre. The Ministry found that the service of the interim order and the summons to the hearing of 11 February 1999 had not been effected in accordance with the rules of administrative procedure. The Ministry pointed out that in the event that a party was absent or lived abroad, he or she had to be invited to appoint a representative authorised to receive his or her official mail. As to the merits of the matter, the Ministry found that the facts of the case had not been duly established, owing to the difficulty of communicating with M.P.
22. On 7 October 1999 the Centre sent the Ministry’s decision, along with a request to M.P. to appoint a representative authorised to receive her official mail, to the Slovenian Embassy in Austria. The Embassy requested M.P. to collect the decision and the letter; however, she refused to do so. Subsequently, on 1 March 2000, M.P. was served with the documents at her workplace in Graz.
23. Meanwhile, on 5 January 2000 the Ministry also upheld M.P.’s appeal against the decision on the enforcement of the interim order. The case was remitted to the Maribor Administrative Unit and the enforcement proceedings were subsequently stayed as a result of the quashing of the interim order.
24. On 15 March 2000 M.P. informed the Centre of the address of her representative authorised to receive her official mail.
25. On 6 June 2000 M.P. submitted a proposal regarding the contact schedule between the applicant and P., and on 12 June 2000 the applicant made a counter-proposal. On 30 June 2000 the Centre invited M.P. to provide certain information regarding her daughter’s residence, living conditions and education. On 19 July 2000 M.P. sent a reply to the Centre, without, however, providing the requested information on P. On 21 July 2000 the Centre again invited M.P. to provide the information, to which she responded on 14 August 2000, but again failed to provide answers to the Centre’s questions.
26. On 29 September 2000 the Centre held a hearing in the applicant’s presence. M.P., however, did not attend, although a summons had been correctly served on her authorised representative. The applicant reiterated his request for the setting up of a contact schedule between him and P.
27. On 5 October 2000 the Centre issued an order granting the applicant contact with P. every Tuesday afternoon, every first weekend of the month and a few weeks during the winter and summer holiday periods. According to the order, an appeal against the contact schedule would not have a suspensive effect.
28. On 22 November 2000 M.P. appealed against the order before the Ministry.
29. On 4 and 28 December 2001 and on 23 January 2002 the applicant requested that the contact schedule be enforced.
30. On 13 March 2002 the Maribor administrative unit rejected the applicant’s request for enforcement, stating that the order of 5 October 2000 was unenforceable as the Centre had failed to specify the place at which the applicant was to pick up and drop off his daughter. Subsequently, on 10 June 2002 the Centre informed the applicant that the order could not be supplemented with the required information, as M.P.’s appeal against it was pending before the Ministry.
31. On 19 July 2002 the Ministry upheld M.P.’s appeal against the order of 5 October 2000, confirming the reasoning of the administrative unit that the order was unenforceable. Moreover, the facts of the case had still not been properly established. The case was remitted to the Centre with the instruction to acquire information on M.P.’s and P.’s place of residence, P.’s schooling and her afternoon activities.
32. On 30 September 2002 the Centre invited M.P. to provide them with the information requested by the Ministry in their decision of 19 July 2002. She did not reply.
33. On 27 February 2003 the Centre contacted the Ministry for Foreign Affairs with a view to finding the address of M.P. and P. On 7 May 2003 the Centre was informed that the Slovenian Embassy in Austria had been unable to obtain such information.
34. On 16 May 2003 the Centre addressed a request for assistance in obtaining the information on M.P.’s and P.’s address to the Ministry. As no reply was received, the Centre requested assistance again on 28 May 2004.
35. Further to legislative changes by which on 1 May 2004 the courts acquired jurisdiction to decide on issues relating to rights of contact, in June 2004 the applicant instituted proceedings before the Maribor District Court. At the District Court’s request, the applicant supplemented his application on 3 August 2004.
36. The Maribor District Court scheduled a hearing for 6 October 2004; however, M.P. was unable to attend and only the applicant appeared in court. He complained that M.P. was in the habit of evading the proceedings and that, as a result, he had not seen P. for six years.
37. On 5 January 2005 M.P. informed the Maribor District Court that she and P. had not resided at their Slovenian address for a number of years and that she had kept that address only for the purpose of receiving mail. However, she failed to provide her address in Austria. M.P. proposed that the Slovenian courts relinquish their jurisdiction in the matter in favour of the Austrian courts.
38. On 13 July 2005 the applicant sent a letter to the Graz Youth and Family Office asking them for help in re-establishing contact with P. He explained that M.P. had been preventing him from having contact with his daughter and had evaded the proceedings conducted by the Centre and the Maribor District Court. He also attached a letter he had written to P., with photos of him and his family. The applicant’s letter was handed over to M.P. by a social worker on 6 October 2005.
39. The Maribor District Court scheduled another hearing for 14 November 2005, but since M.P. had not been served with a summons to attend, the hearing was adjourned. Scheduling further hearings, on 2 November 2005 the Maribor District Court asked the Graz District Court for Civil Matters to serve a summons on M.P. in accordance with Council Regulation (EC) No. 1348/2000 of 29 May 2000 on the service in member States of judicial and extrajudicial documents in civil or commercial matters. The court also attempted to serve the document on M.P. through the Slovenian Embassy in Austria. However, its attempt was unsuccessful; both the embassy and, on 12 January 2006, the Graz District Court for Civil Matters notified the Maribor District Court that M.P. did not appear to be living at the indicated address. The Maribor District Court continued sending mail to M.P.’s address in Maribor.
40. On 13 December 2005 the Maribor District Court again asked the Graz District Court for Civil Matters to serve a summons on M.P. in Austria. The mail was delivered to her at the Graz District Court for Civil Matters on 7 March 2006, after the Graz court had obtained information on M.P.’s address from the Registration Office and two unsuccessful attempts had been made to serve the summons at her home address.
41. Meanwhile, on 9 December 2005 the Maribor District Court requested the Graz District Court for Civil Matters to obtain a report on P.’s situation from the Graz Youth and Family Office. It appears that the request was sent to the Austrian court on 23 March 2006 and received by the District Court for Civil Matters on 29 March 2006. The latter submitted it to the Youth and Family Office on 30 March 2006. The social worker in charge of the case requested three times to meet with M.P. and P. in order to prepare the report, but without success. It appears that M.P. did not attend the first two meetings for work-related reasons. On the last occasion M.P. replied that she and her daughter would be spending the next few months abroad. On 7 July 2006 the Graz Youth and Family Office reported back that M.P. had refused to cooperate. A further request for a report was submitted on 28 September 2006. On 20 October 2006 the Youth and Family Office notified the District Court for Civil Matters that M.P. could not be reached because she was abroad at the time. On 15 November 2006 the latter court sent a reply to the Maribor District Court, which received it on 4 December 2006.
42. On 7 February 2007 the Maribor District Court held a hearing and on the same day issued an order setting out a contact schedule. M.P. did not attend the hearing; however, she informed the court that P. did not wish to have contact with the applicant. The court ruled that the applicant could visit P. every two weeks by picking her up at M.P.’s home. The court found that there were no objective reasons for P. to refuse contact with her father and that she had been influenced by M.P.’s negative attitude towards the applicant. It also criticised M.P.’s conduct and her “uncooperative attitude”.
43. M.P. appealed against the contact order.
44. On 5 July 2007, on the applicant’s proposal, the Maribor District Court issued an enforceable interim order allowing him contact with P. every two weeks, whereby once a month he was to visit her at her address in Austria and the other time P. was to visit him in Slovenia. Following an objection on the part of M.P. in which she stated that she was unwilling to take P. to Slovenia, on 21 January 2008 the Maribor District Court modified the interim order so that visits could take place only in Graz. M.P. was ordered to comply with the terms of the order, subject to a fine of 200 euros (EUR) for each breach.
45. On 1 September 2007 the applicant saw P. for the first time in more than nine years. They had contact again on 6 October 2007. On the latter occasion, P. left after less than an hour, after which she refused to see the applicant again, although he attempted to see her on at least two more occasions.
46. On 15 May 2008 the Maribor Higher Court dismissed an appeal lodged by M.P. against the contact order of 7 February 2007. Consequently, the order became final.
47. Meanwhile from April to June 2008, the applicant requested five times that a fine be imposed on M.P. for failure to comply with the interim contact order (3 April 2008, 15 April 2008, 23 April 2008, 16 May 2008 and 11 June 2008).
48. On 12 June 2008 the applicant requested for the sixth time that a fine be imposed on M.P. On 11 September 2008, the Maribor District Court explained to the parties that the contact proceedings had been concluded by a final decision and the Maribor Local Court was competent to decide on the enforcement of the contact order. The District Court referred the applicant’s further request for enforcement of 3 October 2008 to the Local Court. Subsequently, the applicant lodged another three requests for enforcement on 29 December 2008, 25 March 2009 and 27 March 2009.
49. Meanwhile, on 10 February 2009, the applicant lodged a supervisory appeal under the Right to Trial without Undue Delay Act (hereinafter “the 2006 Act”) with a view to accelerating the enforcement proceedings.
50. On 3 March 2009, the Maribor Local Court imposed a fine in the amount of EUR 600 on M.P. for not complying with the contact order. On 4 March 2009 the President of the Maribor Local Court, in the context of the proceedings in respect of the 2006 Act, informed the applicant of the decision taken the day before. On 1 April 2009 the applicant replied that none of his other requests had yet been resolved.
51. M.P. having appealed against the fine, on 28 July 2009 the Maribor Higher Court set aside the impugned order, stating that a deadline should have first been set for M.P. to comply with the contact order. On 23 April 2010 the Maribor Local Court invited the applicant to supplement his request for enforcement. On the basis of that request, a new enforcement order was issued on 2 November 2010, ordering M.P. to allow contact between the applicant and P., subject to a fine in the amount of EUR 500. M.P. appealed against the order.
52. On 4 September 2012 the Maribor Local Court quashed all the enforcement acts executed until that date and dismissed the applicant’s request for enforcement, finding that since the contact between the applicant and P. was to take place in Austria, the Austrian courts had jurisdiction to decide on the enforcement.
B. Suspension of the applicant’s contact rights by the Austrian authorities
53. On 30 September 2008 P. lodged a request with the Graz-West District Court seeking suspension of the applicant’s contact rights.
54. On 11 November 2008 P. gave a statement before the District Court, alleging that throughout the period in which she had been living in Austria the applicant had not wished to have any contact with her and had made no attempts to see her. She further maintained that he had not obtained a court order setting out a contact schedule until 2007. Two visits had been carried out. However, since he had been criticising M.P., she had refused to have any further contact with him, and she had repeatedly told him so. P. also said that she had no relationship with her father and that she was afraid that he would take her to Slovenia.
55. The applicant made a statement before the Maribor District Court on the basis of a letter rogatory submitted by the Austrian authorities. On 27 March 2009 the Graz-West District Court suspended his contact rights. It found that P. had consistently expressed her wish not to have contact with the applicant and concluded that contact against her wishes would not be in her interest. The court also found that M.P. had not obstructed contact and that the applicant had stated in the proceedings that he would respect P.’s wish not to have contact with him.
56. On 31 August 2009 the Graz Regional Civil Court dismissed an appeal lodged by the applicant, finding that there was no indication that P. had been manipulated by M.P. or was not expressing her wishes freely.
C. Proceedings concerning monthly child maintenance conducted before the Austrian authorities
57. On 21 June 2008 M.P. asked the Graz-West District Court to increase the monthly child maintenance from EUR 137 to EUR 250 on the grounds that P.’s needs, as well as the general cost of living, had increased since 1997 when she and the applicant had concluded the maintenance agreement.
58. On 12 February 2009 the court, taking into account the financial situation of both parents, allowed M.P.’s request.
59. An appeal lodged by the applicant was dismissed by the Graz District Court for Civil Matters on 7 August 2009.
60. During the proceedings, the applicant sent a number of letters to the courts in Graz complaining that the court documents were in German, which he did not understand, and requesting that the issue be decided by the Slovenian authorities.
II. RELEVANT DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL LAW AND PRACTICE
A. The Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction
61. The relevant provisions of the Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (hereinafter “the Hague Convention”) state as follows:
“The objects of the present Convention are -
(a) to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed to or retained in any Contracting State; and
(b) to ensure that rights of custody and of access under the law of one Contracting State are effectively respected in the other Contracting States.”
“Any person, institution or other body claiming that a child has been removed or retained in breach of custody rights may apply either to the Central Authority of the child’s habitual residence or to the Central Authority of any other Contracting State for assistance in securing the return of the child.
“An application to make arrangements for organising or securing the effective exercise of rights of access may be presented to the Central Authorities of the Contracting States in the same way as an application for the return of a child.
The Central Authorities are bound by the obligations of co-operation which are set forth in Article 7 to promote the peaceful enjoyment of access rights and the fulfilment of any conditions to which the exercise of those rights may be subject. The Central Authorities shall take steps to remove, as far as possible, all obstacles to the exercise of such rights.
The Central Authorities, either directly or through intermediaries, may initiate or assist in the institution of proceedings with a view to organising or protecting these rights and securing respect for the conditions to which the exercise of these rights may be subject.”
This Convention shall not preclude any person, institution or body who claims that there has been a breach of custody or access rights within the meaning of Article 3 or 21 from applying directly to the judicial or administrative authorities of a Contracting State, whether or not under the provisions of this Convention.
62. The Explanatory Report on the Hague Convention prepared by Elisa Pérez-Vera and published by the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) in 1982 states, with regard to Article 29, that the aim of the convention is to provide additional means for helping persons whose custody or contact rights have been breached. Those persons have a choice either to apply directly to the Central Authorities, as provided for in the Hague Convention, or to institute relevant proceedings before the authorities of the State where the child is located. In such a case, where the applicants have recourse to a direct action before the competent authorities, they can choose to submit their application “whether or not under the provisions” of the Hague Convention. In the latter case, according to the explanatory report, the authorities are not obliged to apply the provisions of the convention unless they have been incorporated in their domestic law.
B. Council Regulation (EC) No. 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003
63. The relevant provisions of Council Regulation (EC) No. 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 concerning jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in matrimonial matters and the matters of parental responsibility, repealing Regulation (EC) No. 1347/2000 (hereinafter “the Brussels IIa Regulation”), regulate the enforceability of certain judgments concerning rights of access or the return of the child and read as follows:
Article 40 (Scope)
“1. This Section shall apply to:
(a) rights of access;
(b) the return of a child entailed by a judgment given pursuant to Article 11(8).
Article 41 (Rights of access)
“1. The rights of access referred to in Article 40(1)(a) granted in an enforceable judgment given in a Member State shall be recognised and enforceable in another Member State without the need for a declaration of enforceability and without any possibility of opposing its recognition if the judgment has been certified in the Member State of origin in accordance with paragraph 2.
Even if national law does not provide for enforceability by operation of law of a judgment granting access rights, the court of origin may declare that the judgment shall be enforceable, notwithstanding any appeal.
2. The judge of origin shall issue the certificate referred to in paragraph 1 using the standard form in Annex III (certificate concerning rights of access) only if:
(a) where the judgment was given in default, the person defaulting was served with the document which instituted the proceedings or with an equivalent document in sufficient time and in such a way as to enable that person to arrange for his or her defense, or, the person has been served with the document but not in compliance with these conditions, it is nevertheless established that he or she accepted the decision unequivocally;
(b) all parties concerned were given an opportunity to be heard;
(c) the child was given an opportunity to be heard, unless a hearing was considered inappropriate having regard to his or her age or degree of maturity.
The certificate shall be completed in the language of the judgment.
3. Where the rights of access involve a cross-border situation at the time of the delivery of the judgment, the certificate shall be issued ex officio when the judgment becomes enforceable, even if only provisionally. If the situation subsequently acquires a cross-border character, the certificate shall be issued at the request of one of the parties.”
C. Slovenian domestic law and practice
1. Family law applicable at the material time
64. A summary of the relevant applicable domestic law may be found in paragraphs 63-71 of the Court’s judgment in Eberhard and M. v. Slovenia (nos. 8673/05 and 9733/05, 1 December 2009).
2. Rules on the service of official documents to absent parties and parties living abroad
(a) Relevant rules of administrative procedure
65. Until 1 May 2004 issues relating to contact between children and their non-custodial parents were decided by social work centres in accordance with the rules of administrative procedure. In this regard, the General Administrative Procedure Act of 1956 was repealed on 1 April 2000 and replaced by a new General Administrative Procedure Act (hereinafter “the GAP Act”); however, the relevant provisions have not changed in substance during the period of the events at issue in the present case.
66. Under section 89 of the GAP Act, a party who is abroad can either be represented by a lawyer on whom the documents are served on his or her behalf, or appoint a special representative authorised to receive his or her official mail. If the party or his or her lawyer are abroad and there is no one in the country authorised to receive official mail, the competent administrative authority must request, following the service of the first official document, that the party authorise a person to receive his or her official mail. In the event that the party fails to do so within a specified time-limit, a special representative will be appointed to them ex officio by the administrative authority.
67. The service of documents on persons and legal entities situated abroad is, by virtue of section 92 of the GAP Act, carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unless otherwise provided for by international treaties. While the authorities can serve abstracts from the records of births, certificates, receipts and other documents issued at the request of the party directly on Slovenian nationals living abroad, all the other documents must be served through the country’s consular and diplomatic missions.
(b) Relevant rules of civil procedure
68. Further to the legislative changes whereby on 1 May 2004 the courts acquired jurisdiction to decide on contact between children and their non-custodial parents, those issues are in principle decided in non-contentious civil proceedings. The Civil Procedure Act (hereinafter “the CP Act”) is applied mutatis mutandis with regard to the service of documents on the parties.
69. Like the rules of administrative procedure, section 146 of the CP Act provides that following the first service of documents, the court will order the respondent party who does not have a lawyer in Slovenia to appoint a representative authorised to receive his or her mail in Slovenia. If the party fails to appoint such a person, the court will appoint a temporary representative authorised to receive mail on the party’s behalf.
70. By virtue of section 135 of the CP Act, the service of documents on parties living abroad is in principle carried out through diplomatic channels. Nevertheless, if a writ is to be served on a Slovenian citizen, documents can be served through a consular or diplomatic representative of the Republic of Slovenia dealing with consular matters in the foreign country concerned. However, such a procedure is valid only in so far as the party on whom documents are to be served is willing to accept the writ served in that manner.
3. Enforcement proceedings in matters concerning custody of children and contact arrangements
71. In accordance with the Enforcement and Securing of Civil Claims Act (hereinafter “the ESCC Act”), in proceedings concerning matters of custody or contacts with children, the court issues an enforcement order setting a time-limit within which the parent concerned must comply with his or her obligation. At the same time it stipulates a fine in the event that that parent fails to comply with his or her obligation within the specified time-limit (section 238f in conjunction with 226 of the ESCC Act).
72. In exceptional and particularly justified cases, where necessary in order to ensure the protection of the child’s best interests and where enforcement by means of a fine has been unsuccessful, the court may allow enforcement to be carried out by removing the child from the parent who does not comply with his or her obligation in order to enable the other parent to exercise his or her custody or contact rights (sections 238e and 238f (2) of the ESCC Act). However, if the enforcement officer establishes that the child is opposed to contact with a parent, enforcement may be suspended. Moreover, the court may also suspend the enforcement if proceedings have been instituted to amend the decision on contact rights and if it is established that the enforcement would not serve the best interests of the child.
4. Remedies in respect of complaints of excessive length of proceedings
(a) Administrative procedure
73. The 1997 Administrative Dispute Act applicable at the material time provided, in section 26, that an individual whose application was not decided within two months - or within a shorter period, if provided for by the law - could submit his or her application before the appellate administrative authority. If the appellate authority failed to rule on such an application or on the applicant’s appeal against the first-instance decision within two months - or within a shorter period, if provided for by the law - the applicant could submit a new request to that effect. If the application or appeal was not resolved within seven days from the date of the renewed request, the applicant was entitled to bring an administrative action before the Administrative Court for failure to adopt a decision within the prescribed time-limit (administrative silence).
(b) Judicial procedure
74. The Right to Trial without Undue Delay Act (hereinafter “the 2006 Act”) became operational on 1 January 2007. It applies to parties to court proceedings, participants in non-contentious proceedings and injured parties in criminal proceedings. Under the 2006 Act, a claimant may use a supervisory appeal and request a deadline in order to expedite the proceedings. In addition to those acceleratory remedies, the 2006 Act also provides for the opportunity to obtain redress by means of a compensatory remedy, namely by bringing a claim for compensation. With regard to the compensatory remedy, the 2006 Act provides that two cumulative conditions must be satisfied in order for a party to be able to lodge a claim for compensation. Firstly, during the proceedings the applicant must have successfully availed himself of a supervisory appeal or have lodged a request for a deadline, regardless of the outcome. Secondly, the proceedings must have been terminated.
5. Compensation for damage arising from unlawful acts of the State
75. Article 26 of the Constitution provides that a person who has suffered damage due to an unlawful act of a public official has the right to compensation. Pursuant to section 179 of the Civil Code, a civil action for damages can be brought by anyone who has sustained non-pecuniary damage as a result of, inter alia, an infringement of his or her personality rights, which include the right to respect for one’s family life. In addition, an injunction may be sought under section 134 of the Civil Code for the cessation of acts infringing the claimant’s personality rights, including the right to respect for his or her private and family life.
76. As regards the decisions adopted by the domestic courts concerning alleged violations of the right to respect for family life, in judgment no. II Ips 773/2009 the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal on points of law lodged by the claimant against the decision not to award him damages for the allegedly unlawful failure of the competent social work centre to issue, at his request, a contact order regulating contact with his daughter. The Supreme Court was of the view that, since the claimant’s parental rights had not been withdrawn and no formal decision had ever been issued prohibiting him from having contact with his daughter, he had not been prevented from asserting his contact rights merely on account of the alleged omission of the competent authority. Moreover, the claimant had failed to use the acceleratory remedies available to him in the administrative contact proceedings.
77. In judgments nos. II Cp 1349/2011 and II Cp 2168/2011, the Ljubljana Higher Court confirmed, at least in part, the decisions of the lower courts awarding non-pecuniary damages to the claimants, who in those cases were children who had suffered mental distress caused by a violation of their right to respect for family life. The courts found that a number of procedural and substantive errors had been made in the proceedings determining custody of the claimants. While those errors were examined under the general rules of civil law (article 179 of the Civil Code), the delays had been considered under the 2006 Act and pursuant to the criteria developed by the Court with regard to the reasonable time requirement.
6. Age of majority
78. Under section 117 of the Marriage and Family Relations Act, parental rights cease when a child reaches the age of eighteen years (age of majority), as well as when a minor child enters into marriage, and in other cases in which the law provides that a child acquires full legal capacity before the age of majority.
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 8 OF THE CONVENTION
79. The applicant complained, under Articles 8 and 13 of the Convention and Articles 4 and Article 5 of Protocol No. 7 to the Convention, that the Slovenian and Austrian authorities had prevented him from enjoying family life with his daughter. According to the applicant, the delays in the proceedings conducted by the Slovenian authorities and the subsequent failure to implement the contact order had been related, in part, to the uncooperative attitude of the Austrian authorities which, moreover, had failed to respect the finality of the contact order issued by the Slovenian courts and the child maintenance arrangement made in Slovenia.
80. Both Governments contested those arguments.
81. The Court considers that the applicant’s complaints fall to be examined solely under Article 8 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
A. Complaints against Slovenia
(a) Victim status of the applicant’s children
82. The applicant lodged his application also on behalf of his daughter P. and his three children from other relationships, who, according to him, had been unable to enjoy family life with their half-sister.
83. The Slovenian Government made no comment in that regard.
84. The Court has already held that the question of admissibility on the ground of victim status falls within the Court’s jurisdiction and, as such, the Court is not estopped from raising it of its own motion (see R.P. and Others v. the United Kingdom, no. 38245/08, § 47, 9 October 2012). As regards P.’s victim status, the Court notes that at the time the present application was lodged before the Court, there existed a conflict of interest between the applicant’s right to contact and P.’s right to respect for her private life, the latter having sought the suspension of her father’s contact rights (see paragraphs 53-56 above). Even assuming that the conflict between them did not prevent the applicant from acting on P.’s behalf at the initial stage of the proceedings, P. reached the age of majority (eighteen years) under domestic law on 14 December 2011, on which date the applicant’s parental rights ceased. In the absence of a signed confirmation by P. that she wished to maintain her application, the Court finds that she cannot be considered a victim under the Convention (see Raw and Others v. France, no. 10131/11, § 53, 7 March 2013, and Lautsi and Others v. Italy [GC], no. 30814/06, § 1, ECHR 2011 (extracts)).
85. Moreover, it is noted that, with the exception of their names, the applicant did not provide any data about his other three children on whose behalf he also complained before the Court. Nor did he say whether he enjoyed family life together with them. The Court further notes in that regard that the domestic contact and enforcement proceedings in question did not concern those children and that the applicant never requested contact with P. on their behalf. That being so, the Court concludes that they do not have the status of victims in these proceedings.
(b) The Government’s objection of non-exhaustion of domestic remedies
(i) The parties’ submissions
86. The Government argued that the applicant had failed to exhaust available domestic remedies in respect of his complaints made before the Court. Firstly, he could have lodged an appeal against the rejection of his request for enforcement of the contact order issued in the administrative contact proceedings (see paragraph 30 above).
87. Secondly, the Government pointed out that the applicant had failed to exhaust the remedies available in respect of delays in the proceedings. In this connection, they submitted that in the administrative contact proceedings, the applicant could have applied to the appellate authority (the Ministry) if his request to set up a contact schedule had not been decided in the first instance within two months. Moreover, if the Ministry had failed to make a ruling on the matter or to decide on the applicant’s appeal within two months, he could also have brought an action before the Administrative Court for failure to adopt a decision within the prescribed time-limit (administrative silence). As regards the judicial contact proceedings, the Government submitted that as of 1 January 2007, the applicant could have lodged acceleratory remedies (supervisory appeal and, depending on the decision on the appeal, also a request for a deadline) under the 2006 Act. However, the applicant had not lodged a supervisory appeal in the judicial enforcement proceedings until 11 February 2009. Also, according to the Government, it was still open to the applicant to bring a claim for just satisfaction in respect of the length of the judicial enforcement proceedings. His application was therefore premature.
88. The Government also asserted that the applicant could have brought a civil action for damages against the State for any non-pecuniary damage he had sustained as a result of the alleged violation of his right to respect for family life. In support of their assertions, they submitted eleven domestic decisions in which a wide range of rights, including the right to respect for family life, had been recognised as “personality rights” capable of causing mental distress warranting compensation.
89. Lastly, the Government argued that in so far as the applicant’s complaints concerned the judicial enforcement proceedings, those proceedings had not even been concluded in the first instance when he lodged his application before the Court.
90. The applicant replied that he had been applying to different institutions, such as the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry, to help him to gain access to his daughter. Given that the national authorities had failed to enforce the contact order issued by them, he had seen no other possibility than to apply to the Court. Moreover, in his view, the domestic authorities had for fifteen years continuously violated his right to respect for family life. The applicant claimed that a civil action for damages would only have added to that period another ten years of additional litigation. Lastly, he pointed out that the Court had frequently stressed the need to apply the exhaustion rule with some degree of flexibility and without excessive formalism.
(ii) The Court’s assessment
91. The general principles on the exhaustion of domestic remedies are set out in Sejdovic v. Italy ([GC], no. 56581/00, §§ 43-46, ECHR 2006-II). The Court will apply those principles to a number of legal avenues the applicant allegedly failed to use with regard to his complaints of delays in issuing a contact order and failure to enforce it. In this connection, the Court agrees with the applicant that the rule of exhaustion of domestic remedies is neither absolute nor capable of being applied automatically: in reviewing whether the rule has been observed, it is essential to bear in mind the particular circumstances of the individual case. This means, among other things, that the Court must take realistic account not only of the existence of formal remedies in the legal system of the Contracting Party concerned, but also of the general context in which they operate, as well as the personal circumstances of the applicant (see, among other authorities, Akdivar and Others v. Turkey, 16 September 1996, §§ 66 and 68-69, Reports 1996-IV, and, more recently, Kurić and Others v. Slovenia [GC], no. 26828/06, § 286, 26 June 2012).
92. As regards, firstly, the rejection of the applicant’s request for enforcement of the contact order of 5 October 2000, the Court notes that the order was found to be unenforceable for failure to indicate the place of contact between the applicant and P. Moreover, it could not be supplemented with the required information until the Ministry decided on M.P.’s appeal (see paragraph 30 above). As the order was subsequently quashed and the case remitted to the Centre, the Court does not see how and when the applicant could have effectively had it enforced.
93. With regard to the Government’s objection concerning the exhaustion of the remedies available in respect of delays, the Court reiterates that cases concerning the relationship between a parent and his or her child require the decision-making process to be exercised with exceptional diligence, as a lapse of time may lead to the de facto determination of the matter (see Hoppe v. Germany, no. 28422/95, § 54, 5 December 2002, and Süß v. Germany, no. 40324/98, § 100, 10 November 2005), risking that the family ties might never be (re)built. Hence, the Court has held on several occasions that remedies such as those introduced by the 2006 Act, which specifically concern the right to have one’s case examined within a reasonable time, within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, do not address situations in which delays are examined in terms of interference by the State with the applicants’ rights under Article 8 (see Gobec v. Slovenia, no. 7233/04, § 118, 3 October 2013, and the references cited therein). That finding is confirmed by the two domestic cases submitted by the Government (see paragraph 77 above) in which an award of damages was made in respect of violations of the right to respect for family life. In those cases, delays were examined as a separate complaint in accordance with the criteria applicable to the assessment of the reasonableness of the length of proceedings, within the meaning of Article 6 § 1.
94. That being said, the Court does not exclude in principle that, regardless of the stringent procedural obligations binding the domestic authorities in cases concerning parent-child relationships, applicants may be required to avail themselves of remedies designed to accelerate the reunion with their children, considering that plaintiffs or claimants in civil proceedings bear substantial responsibility for their conduct and direction. The Court has already held in this regard that it is the parents’ own rights and obligations which are at stake in the proceedings and their active participation can hardly be dispensed with in the normal course of events; parental participation in the proceedings concerning children is required by Article 8 in order to ensure protection of their interests (see Glaser v. the United Kingdom, no. 32346/96, § 70, 19 September 2000). However, the Government provided no domestic case-law to show how any of the acceleratory remedies proposed by them operated in practice, and specifically in the circumstances such as those complained of in the present case, which required a particularly prompt response on the part of the authorities (see Prodělalová v. the Czech Republic, no. 40094/08, § 52, 20 December 2011, and, mutatis mutandis, Eberhard and M. v. Slovenia, nos. 8673/05 and 9733/05, § 107, 1 December 2009). In the absence of any such examples of case-law, the Court is not convinced that the remedies relied on by the Government can be considered effective for the purposes of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention.
95. Furthermore, as regards the possibility for the applicant to bring a civil action for damages against the State on account of the damage sustained in the contact and enforcement proceedings, the Court would reiterate that the core of the applicant’s argument was that the domestic authorities had over a prolonged period failed to take effective steps to enable him to have contact with his daughter. Thus, the applicant’s complaints did not concern any specific errors of procedure or application of substantive law, but the overall duration of the contact and enforcement proceedings. Having regard to the domestic judgments in which the delays were examined as a separate complaint in accordance with the criteria applicable to the assessment of the reasonableness of the length of proceedings, within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 (see paragraph 77 above), as well as the Supreme Court’s view that the State was not liable for damages if there was, as in the applicant’s case, no withdrawal of parental rights or prohibition of contact (see paragraph 76 above), the Court is unable to agree with the Government’s submission that a civil action for damages could have effectively remedied the applicant’s complaints. Moreover, the Court has already held that a purely compensatory remedy is not sufficient to address the violations resulting from delays in the proceedings which may have an impact on the applicant’s family life (see Macready v. the Czech Republic, nos. 4824/06 and 15512/08, § 48, 22 April 2010, and Bergmann v. the Czech Republic, no. 8857/08, § 45, 27 October 2011).
96. Lastly, in the light of the delays already endured by the applicant in the contact and enforcement proceedings, the Court does not consider that he can be reproached for not awaiting the final outcome of the enforcement proceedings, which were still pending at the time he lodged his application before the Court (see, mutatis mutandis, Guillemin v. France, 21 February 1997, § 50, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1997-I).
97. The Government’s objection of non-exhaustion of domestic remedies must thus be dismissed.
(c) The Government’s objection of non-compliance with the six-month rule
98. The Government submitted that the court order setting up the contact schedule became final on 15 May 2008, thus concluding the judicial contact proceedings. Considering that the applicant had lodged his application before the Court on 23 March 2009, the Government took the view that the application was out of time in so far as it referred to the administrative and judicial contact proceedings. They argued that the enforcement proceedings could be regarded neither as another stage of the contact proceedings nor as a legal remedy in the same matter, pointing out that the two sets of proceedings had differed considerably in their purpose. Moreover, several years could have passed between the issuing of the contact order and the lodging of the request for enforcement.
99. The applicant pointed out that his efforts to re-establish contact with P., which had lasted for fifteen years, had been unsuccessful and his contact rights had been continuously violated owing to the insufficient response of the Slovenian authorities. By failing to enforce their own judgment, they had failed to provide him with the opportunity to regularly visit his daughter.
100. The Court notes that the applicant’s complaints were essentially directed against the alleged lack of activity of the domestic authorities in dealing with his case. They concerned both the administrative and judicial contact proceedings and the subsequent enforcement proceedings, as a result of which in the period from April 1998 to 27 March 2009, when his contact rights had been withdrawn by the Austrian authorities, he had been able to visit his daughter only twice in 2007 (see paragraph 45 above). The applicant’s objective was the same in both the contact and the enforcement proceedings, namely to obtain access to P. and thus to assert his right to respect for family life. Moreover, some of the applicant’s requests for enforcement were lodged even before the contact order became final (see paragraphs 47 and 48 above). In the Court’s opinion, they should therefore be regarded as an extension of the contact proceedings. In this light, and given that, under Article 8, the decision-making process in cases concerning relationships between parents and children is examined as a whole (see Sommerfeld v. Germany [GC], no. 31871/96, § 66, ECHR 2003-VIII (extracts)), the Court cannot accept the Government’s argument that the two sets of proceedings should be considered separately.
101. Accordingly, the objection of non-compliance with the six-month time-limit must be dismissed.
102. The Court notes that the applicant’s complaint under Article 8 is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention. It further notes that it is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.
(a) The parties’ submissions
103. The applicant alleged that, owing to the excessively slow progress of the contact proceedings instituted in February 1998, in which it took the authorities over nine years to issue an enforceable contact order, throughout that period he had not been able to visit his daughter P., who had been living in Austria and whose address had been unknown for years because of the uncooperative attitude of her mother. Moreover, the inadequate response of the enforcement authorities had caused further delays in re-establishing contact with P., who had been manipulated by her mother and who had eventually refused to have any further contact with him. In reply to the Government’s observations, the applicant maintained that the national authorities should have availed themselves of the relevant international instruments, such as the Hague Convention or the Brussels IIa Regulation, which placed a duty on the national authorities to ensure that a child who had been wrongfully removed from any Contracting State be returned and that the rights of custody and access were effectively respected in the other Contracting States.
104. The applicant, citing the case-law of the Court, pointed out that under Article 8 of the Convention the national authorities had been required to take adequate steps to ensure that his right to the return of his child was respected and that he could visit P. regularly. He complained that, since 1998, M.P. had intentionally and continuously evaded the Slovenian authorities, not attending hearings and other meetings at the Centre and obstructing his access to P. According to the applicant, M.P.’s behaviour amounted to child abduction under the Hague Convention and the domestic criminal law, and thus required the authorities to act of their own motion.
105. The Government argued that in making a decision on the applicant’s contact rights, the authorities had followed the fundamental principle of the child’s best interests, attempting to reach a consensual solution between the parents. However, the case had been strongly influenced by the conflict between the applicant and M.P., her departure with P. from Slovenia, and P.’s increasing reluctance to have contact with the applicant.
106. The Government acknowledged that the Centre, which had conducted the contact proceedings from February 1998 to June 2004, had encountered a number of problems in trying to ensure that documents were served on M.P. The difficulties had not ceased until March 2000, when M.P. had authorised a representative to receive her official mail. Moreover, although the Centre had issued two contact orders, they had both been quashed by the Ministry because M.P. had not participated in the proceedings. Furthermore, the applicant had failed to provide any relevant information which would have expedited the proceedings. In this connection, the Government added that the Slovenian Central Authority had received no application from the applicant under the Hague Convention. Nor had the applicant submitted an application to the Central Authority responsible for the implementation of the Brussels IIa Regulation. The Government thus argued that those authorities had not been required to take any action under the respective instruments relied on by the applicant.
107. The Government further argued that the Maribor District Court, which had acquired jurisdiction in the case in June 2004, had attempted to ensure M.P.’s active participation in the proceedings, which required the service of documents abroad. In this connection, the Government emphasised that the Slovenian Embassy in Austria had not been able to obtain information on addresses of natural persons from the Austrian central population register, since acquiring such information was subject to administrative fees. According to the Government, the embassy had no legal basis on which to justify the payment of such costs. Furthermore, the Maribor District Court had endeavoured to enable contact between the applicant and P. To that end, on 5 July 2007 the court had issued an interim order setting up a provisional contact schedule. However, the court had been unable to make a final ruling without prior insight into P.’s living conditions, which required it to apply - albeit unsuccessfully - to the Austrian authorities for assistance. Eventually, the applicant had visited P. twice, in September and October 2007, but she had then refused any further contact with him.
108. Lastly, as regards the judicial enforcement proceedings, the Government emphasised that they had been instituted on the basis of the applicant’s request of 3 October 2008, but had become devoid of any purpose on 27 March 2009 when the Graz-West District Court withdrew the applicant’s right to contact with P. Moreover, on 10 December 2009 the applicant had sent a letter to P. informing her that he would no longer insist on contacts. In conclusion, the Government pointed out that the applicant was not a lawyer, yet he had attended the contact proceedings without counsel and lodged an incomplete request for enforcement, requesting only the imposition of a pecuniary fine on M.P.
(b) The Court’s assessment
109. The Court reiterates that, while the essential object of Article 8 is to protect the individual against arbitrary interference by the public authorities, it does not merely compel the State to abstain from such interference: in addition to this negative undertaking there may be positive obligations inherent in the effective respect for private life (see, among many authorities, Söderman v. Sweden [GC], no. 5786/08, § 78, ECHR 2013). In both contexts, regard must be had to the fair balance which has to be struck between the competing interests of the individual and of the community as a whole; in both contexts the State enjoys a certain margin of appreciation (see Keegan v. Ireland, judgment of 26 May 1994, Series A no. 290, p. 19, § 49).
110. The Court further notes that whilst Article 8 contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision-making process must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by Article 8 (see T.P. and K.M. v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 28945/95, § 72, ECHR 2001-V (extracts)). In this connection, the Court reiterates that in cases concerning a person’s relationship with his or her child, the procedural requirements implicit in Article 8 establish a duty to exercise exceptional diligence in view of the risk that the passage of time may result in a de facto determination of the matter (see paragraph 93 above). This duty applies not only to proceedings involving the determination of custody and contact rights, but also to proceedings concerning the implementation of those rights (see Ignaccolo-Zenide v. Romania, no. 31679/96, § 102, ECHR 2000-I).
111. As regards, first of all, the scope of the present case, the applicant argued that the Slovenian authorities should have used the available international instruments in order for his abducted daughter to be returned to him. However, at no time during the domestic proceedings did the applicant allege that P. had been wrongfully removed from Slovenia by her mother. In his applications, he sought exclusively to be granted contact with her. In those circumstances, the Court does not consider that the Slovenian authorities were required to take measures aimed at ensuring P.’s return, either on the basis of the international instruments relied on by the applicant or by virtue of the domestic law.
112. However, it was incumbent on the authorities to decide on the applicant’s contact rights and to ensure their effective enforcement. In this regard, it is noted that the applicant made his requests for contact in accordance with the provisions of domestic law and did not refer to any international instrument regulating the matters at issue. It appears that, contrary to the applicant’s assertions, in the absence of an application to the competent Central Authority, the Slovenian authorities were not obliged to apply any measures pursuant to the Hague Convention (see the reference to the Pérez-Vera Explanatory Report in paragraph 62 above). Yet, considering the obligations imposed on the courts by Article 41 of the Brussels IIa Regulation (see paragraph 63 above), the Court is not convinced by the Government’s argument that the Slovenian authorities were not required to apply that regulation. Nonetheless, although the Court finds it regrettable that those mechanisms of cross-border cooperation do not appear to have been taken into consideration in the applicant’s case, it reiterates that it is primarily for the national authorities, notably the courts, to interpret and apply domestic law even when that law refers to international or EU law, the Court’s role being confined to ascertaining whether the effects of such adjudication are compatible with the Convention (see Bosphorus Hava Yolları Turizm ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi v. Ireland [GC], no. 45036/98, § 143, ECHR 2005-VI, and Ullens de Schooten and Rezabek v. Belgium, nos. 3989/07 and 38353/07, § 54, 20 September 2011). In this light, the Court will proceed to examine whether the procedural steps taken by the Slovenian authorities in order to ensure effective respect for the applicant’s contact rights complied with the procedural requirements inherent in Article 8.
113. The Court reiterates that the main issue in the present case lies in the delays in making and implementing contact arrangements between the applicant and his daughter, who resided with her mother in Austria. It is noted, in this connection, that the course of the administrative and judicial contact proceedings was strongly influenced by the difficulty in serving documents on M.P. and the lack of information about P.’s situation, both factors resulting to a considerable extent from M.P.’s obstructive behaviour. While she formally participated in the proceedings (see paragraphs 10, 25, 37 and 42 above), especially by lodging appeals against the decisions granting the applicant contact with P. (see paragraphs 18, 19, 20, 28, 43 and 44 above), M.P. refused for years to provide the Slovenian authorities with her Austrian address (see paragraphs 10, 25, 32 and 37 above) and with the requested information on P.’s residence, education and activities (see paragraphs 25, 32 and 41 above) which was considered necessary in order to determine the scope of the applicant’s contact rights.
114. However, the Court emphasises that M.P.’s lack of cooperation cannot exonerate the respondent State from ensuring compliance with the positive obligations imposed on it by Article 8. In this regard, it appears that there were specific procedural tools available in domestic and international law aimed at facilitating the resolution of cross-border disputes. However, many of them were used only after a considerable delay or not at all.
115. In the administrative contact proceedings, the Centre did not invite M.P. to appoint a representative to receive her official mail until October 1999, one and a half years after the proceedings had commenced and after it had failed several times to serve her with summonses to hearings through her Austrian employer (see paragraphs 12, 14 and 16 above). Nevertheless, although M.P. complied with that request, the proceedings did not progress to a final decision on contact in the following four years.
116. Two contact orders were issued by the Centre in October 1998 and October 2000; however, they were both quashed by the Ministry for failure to properly establish the facts concerning P.’s residence, living conditions and education. It is true that the Centre repeatedly, albeit unsuccessfully, requested that information from M.P. (see paragraphs 25 and 32 above). However, until February 2003 no other measures were envisaged by which the information could be obtained. What is particularly disconcerting is that although M.P.’s and P.’s residence abroad considerably limited the possibility for the Slovenian authorities to obtain the relevant information about P., that cross-border dimension of the case was largely overlooked by the Centre. Neither the Centre nor any other competent authority at any point sought the assistance of the Austrian authorities in the serving of documents on M.P. or obtaining information on P.’s situation. The Centre eventually requested, but did not receive, assistance from the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in locating M.P.’s Austrian address. In this connection, the Court finds it surprising that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - which, by virtue of domestic legislation, was at the material time competent to ensure the service of documents on persons residing abroad - was not able to acquire M.P.’s address. According to the observations of the Austrian Government, such information could have been easily obtained from the Austrian central population register for a low fee (see paragraph 125 below). Even accepting that the Slovenian Embassy in Austria was unable to justify such a payment, it is difficult to see why the fee could not have been charged to the applicant.
117. Moreover, while the Court cannot, in principle, find fault with the efforts of the Slovenian authorities to secure effective participation of both parents in the contact proceedings, it notes that in the present case it became clear early on that, although M.P. was given ample opportunity to be heard, she had no intention of attending the hearings, providing the requested information or, indeed, facilitating the applicant’s access to his daughter. However, in the Court’s opinion those circumstances were not taken into due consideration; on the contrary, two appeals lodged by M.P. against the decisions to issue contact orders allowing the applicant to see P. were granted by the Ministry on grounds arising from her own unwillingness to cooperate with the Centre (see paragraphs 21 and 31 above), which further delayed the already lengthy proceedings. Also, no attempt was made to sanction M.P.’s obstructive behaviour. In this connection, the Court points out that even if the domestic legal order did not allow for the imposition of effective sanctions, each Contracting State must equip itself with an adequate and sufficient legal arsenal to ensure compliance with the positive obligations imposed on it by Article 8 of the Convention (see Maire v. Portugal, no. 48206/99, § 76, ECHR 2003-VII).
118. The Court further notes that the difficulties in locating M.P.’s and P.’s Austrian address continued in the judicial contact proceedings instituted in June 2004, following the transfer of jurisdiction in the applicant’s case to the courts. Nonetheless, it was not until November 2005 that the Maribor District Court requested its Austrian counterpart to serve a summons on M.P. (see paragraph 39 above), whereupon her address was finally located (see paragraph 40 above). Moreover, the Maribor District Court did not request the assistance of the Austrian authorities in obtaining information on P.’s situation until February 2006, when it asked for the first time for a report to be drawn up by the Graz Youth and Family Office. However, M.P. again refused to cooperate, and according to the Austrian Government, the Youth and Family Office had no means of forcing her to do so (see paragraph 126 below). While the Court cannot speculate on whether the use of any other legal avenue would have led to a more successful outcome, it notes that the Maribor District Court could have, but did not, request via letter rogatory that M.P. and P. give a statement in accordance with more formal rules of judicial procedure, in the same manner as a statement was later obtained from the applicant for the purposes of the proceedings conducted in Austria (see paragraph 55 above). Eventually, in February 2007, the Maribor District Court issued a contact order without having obtained a statement from P. or any information on her situation, apart from her mother’s assertion that she was opposed to contact with the applicant.
119. It appears that by September 2007, when they eventually met, P. was indeed reluctant to have contact with the applicant (see paragraph 45 above). Faced with P.’s rejection, the applicant requested several times that the interim contact order and, subsequently, the final contact order be enforced by imposing a fine on M.P. (see paragraphs 47 and 48 above).
120. In this connection, the Court observes that when the enforcement proceedings were concluded on 4 September 2012 (see paragraph 52 above), the applicant’s contact rights had already been suspended on 27 March 2009. The judgment of the Austrian Graz-West District Court was confirmed on 31 August 2009 (see paragraph 56 above), at which point, as argued by the Government, the applicant’s requests for enforcement became devoid of purpose. However, it is noted that the applicant lodged his first request, followed by nine more, on 3 April 2008. In the Court’s opinion, irrespective of whether P.’s opposition to contact could have been overcome in the course of the enforcement proceedings, it cannot be concluded that the proceedings were without purpose from the outset.
121. The Court considers that, given that the lack of contact between the applicant and P. had already lasted for many years, it was of paramount importance to proceed with enforcement as swiftly as possible. However, it appears that most of the applicant’s requests for enforcement, including the first six of them (see paragraphs 47 and 48 above), were never even decided on. The Government provided no explanation for that. Moreover, although the Maribor District Court decided on 21 January 2008 that the visits were to take place in Graz, Austria (see paragraph 44 above), the Slovenian courts did not establish until September 2012 - four and a half years after the first request for enforcement had been lodged - that they lacked jurisdiction to enforce the contact order. Thus, again, the cross-border elements of the case were disregarded for a protracted period. As a result, by the time the decision was reached that the contact order could only be enforced by the Austrian courts, the applicant’s contact rights had long been suspended (see paragraphs 55 and 56 above) and, moreover, P. had reached the age of majority (see paragraph 84 above).
122. In sum, while some of the delay in the proceedings can be attributed to M.P. (see paragraph 113 above), and some of it was caused by awaiting the responses of the Austrian authorities (see paragraphs 39-41 above), the Court finds that it was primarily the disregard of the Slovenian authorities for the cross-border dimension of the case and their general lack of promptness and efficiency that resulted in the delay of nine years between the institution of the contact proceedings and the issuing of the first valid contact order. Moreover, it took the authorities a further four years to decide in the enforcement proceedings, by which time the relationship between the applicant and P. had been irremediably undermined. Struck by the grossly excessive overall duration of the contact and enforcement proceedings, amounting to more than fourteen years in total, the Court finds that the Slovenian authorities did not comply with their duty under Article 8 to deal diligently with the applicant’s requests for a contact order and its enforcement. The Court, therefore, finds that the procedural requirements implicit in this Article were not complied with.
123. Accordingly, there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention on the part of the Slovenian authorities.
B. The complaints against Austria
1. The parties’ submissions
124. The Austrian Government objected that, in so far as the applicant complained about the suspension of his contact rights, he had failed to exhaust available domestic remedies. Namely, at the time when he lodged his application before the Court, the domestic proceedings had not even been concluded at first instance.
125. Furthermore, as regards the assistance of the Austrian authorities in the cross-border service of documents on M.P., the Government stated that the bailiff had proceeded to serve them without delay; however, M.P. could not be found at the indicated address (see paragraph 39 above). Meanwhile, the Maribor District Court had made a further request for service, and the Graz District Court for Civil Matters had obtained information from the Registration Office on M.P.’s address. In this connection, the Government explained that since 2002, anyone, including the applicant or the Slovenian Embassy in Austria, could request information on the postal address and residence of a clearly identifiable person from the central population register, subject to a fee of between EUR 2.10 and 3. Once the Graz District Court had obtained the information on M.P.’s address, two unsuccessful attempts were made to serve her with the summons; however, she had eventually gone to the court of her own motion (see paragraph 40 above).
126. In so far as the Maribor District Court had requested a report to be made on P.’s living situation in Austria, the Government pointed out that the Graz Youth and Family Office had immediately complied with the request, but had been unable to provide the requested information owing to M.P.’s lack of cooperation and her stay abroad. The Government further asserted that the Austrian youth welfare organisations did not have the power to force uncooperative parents to provide them with the requested information. Also, as regards the applicant’s own request for the assistance of the Graz Youth and Family Office in 2005 (see paragraph 38 above), the Government stated that in Austria, contact rights were determined exclusively by the courts.
127. Lastly, the Government emphasised that neither the applicant nor the Slovenian authorities had asked the Austrian courts, directly or via letter rogatory, to determine or implement the applicant’s contact rights. In the absence of a pertinent request by a child or one of the parents, the domestic courts had not been required to take any action.
128. The applicant complained that the Austrian courts had re-examined his contact rights and child maintenance, although those issues had already been determined by the Slovenian authorities.
129. The applicant also alleged that the Austrian authorities had failed to provide the necessary assistance to the Slovenian authorities in establishing M.P.’s address and questioning her. He also maintained that, since in 2005 the Maribor District Court had requested assistance from the Austrian authorities in locating M.P. and P., and since he had addressed a letter to the same effect to the Graz Youth and Family Office, the Austrian authorities had been aware that his daughter had been wrongfully removed from Slovenia. In the applicant’s view, his letter to the Youth and Family Office should have been regarded as an official request to take all the necessary measures to execute the decisions of the Slovenian courts. It should also have prompted the authorities to do everything in their power to facilitate his reunion with P. The applicant emphasised that the Austrian authorities should have realised that P. could be exposed to physical or psychological harm or otherwise placed in an intolerable situation. However, all the legal procedures in Austria had been insufficient to the extent that his rights under Article 8 had been continuously violated.
130. In conclusion, the applicant asserted that the total inactivity of the Austrian authorities had rendered any further remedies available to him under Austrian law devoid of purpose, as they could not have had any practical effect. Therefore, he took the view that his complaints against Austria were admissible.
2. The Court’s assessment
(a) Cross-border legal assistance provided by the Austrian authorities
131. As regards, firstly, the applicant’s complaint that the Austrian authorities failed to take appropriate action with regard to his daughter’s wrongful removal from Slovenia, the Court observes that neither the requests of the Maribor District Court to serve a summons on M.P. (see paragraphs 39 and 40 above) nor the applicant’s letter to the Graz Youth and Family Office (see paragraph 38 above) involved an accusation to the effect that P. had been wrongfully removed from Slovenia. Thus, the Austrian authorities were under no duty to ensure P.’s return.
132. As to the applicant’s assertion that the letter to the Youth and Family Office should have been regarded as an official request to take measures aimed at reuniting him with his daughter, it is regrettable that, as it appears, he did not receive any reply. Nevertheless, it is noted that the applicant, while asking for assistance, made only one specific request, which was to hand over his letter to P. Indeed, the Youth and Family Office complied with his request. On the other hand, the applicant clearly stated that contact proceedings were in progress in Slovenia. In those circumstances, the Court cannot conclude that the applicant’s letter should have prompted the Youth and Family Office to take any further action with regard to re-establishing contact between him and P.
133. As regards the legal assistance provided by the Austrian authorities to the Slovenian authorities, the Court notes that it took the Graz District Court for Civil Matters approximately four months to find M.P.’s address and serve on her the documents submitted by the Slovenian court. Considering that the District Court was initially provided with an incorrect address (see paragraph 39 above) and that the first few attempts to serve the documents were unsuccessful (see paragraph 40 above), the Court does not consider that the above-mentioned period can be regarded as excessive.
134. Lastly, the Court observes that the Austrian authorities failed to comply with the requests of the Maribor District Court for a report on P.’s situation to be drawn up by the Graz Youth and Family Office (see paragraph 41 above). The Court has already held with regard to the taking of evidence abroad that the State where evidence is located is under a duty to render any assistance within its competence and means sought by way of a legal assistance request (see, mutatis mutandis, Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, no. 25965/04, § 245, ECHR 2010 (extracts)). This cannot be construed as an obligation of result, but one of means, requiring the State to undertake all reasonable measures to comply with the request for legal assistance. In the present case, the Graz Youth and Family Office made three requests for meetings with M.P. and P. in order to prepare the report; however, it appears that each time M.P. excused herself for work-related reasons, eventually informing the social worker in charge of the case that she and P. would be spending several months abroad. Thus, about three months after having received the request, the Youth and Family Office reported to the Graz District Court for Civil Matters that they were unable to comply with the request. The Maribor District Court subsequently made another request for a report, but was informed, two months later, that M.P. was abroad and could not be reached. While the measures undertaken by the Austrian authorities did not lead to a successful outcome, the Court takes the view that they responded to the requests of the Maribor District Court in an adequate manner and within a reasonable time. In view of the limited extent of the Austrian authorities’ involvement in the case, as well as the fact that they were given no indication by the Slovenian authorities that M.P. was acting in violation of Slovenian law, the Court considers that, once the Austrian authorities had established that M.P. and P. would not be reachable for a prolonged period of time and duly informed the Slovenian authorities about their absence, they were not required to take any further measures of their own motion.
135. It follows that this part of the application is manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention and must be rejected pursuant to Article 35 § 4.
(b) The proceedings conducted by the Austrian courts
136. The Austrian Government argued that, as regards the suspension of the applicant’s contact rights, the applicant had failed to exhaust available domestic remedies. However, the Court does not consider it necessary to decide on this objection, as it finds that the complaints regarding both this set of proceedings as well as the proceedings concerning child maintenance are in any event inadmissible for the reasons set out below.
137. It is noted that the applicant disputed the jurisdiction of the Austrian courts to decide on the above-mentioned issues on the ground that those issues had already been decided by the Slovenian authorities. As regards the question of the finality of the judicial decisions regulating various aspects of the relationships between parents and children, the Court observes that those relationships are of a continuous nature and, accordingly, are subject to numerous changes in the emotional, practical and financial circumstances of the individuals forming them. The changed circumstances, in turn, may call for a reassessment of what is in the best interests of the child. This being the primary consideration in cases involving parent-child relationships, the Court considers that it necessarily limits the res judicata effects of final decisions rendered in this type of cases. In fact, in M.D. and Others v. Malta (no. 64791/10, 17 July 2012), the Court found, inter alia, a violation of Article 8 on the ground that the applicant, whose parental rights had been forfeited as a result of a criminal conviction for cruelty and neglect of her minor children, had no possibility to apply for the restoration of those rights in the light of a possible change in her circumstances (ibid., § 78).
138. In the present case, the contact order made by the Slovenian courts was issued without P.’s participation. Moreover, based on that order, the applicant and P. re-established contact. However, it appears that the process of reacquainting themselves with each other was not successful (see paragraph 45 above). In the Court’s opinion, that development following the issuing of the contact order alone could be regarded by the Austrian authorities as a change of circumstances justifying a new assessment of the applicant’s contact rights. Also, it cannot be overlooked that at the time of the institution of the contact proceedings in Austria, P. had already reached the age of fourteen years and was thus mature enough to be able to formulate her own opinion on the matter at issue. Accordingly, the Court considers that her wishes and feelings had to be given due consideration (see Płaza v. Poland, no. 18830/07, §§ 71 and 86, 25 January 2011). Equally, as regards the issue of child maintenance, the Court considers it reasonable that the changes in P.’s needs and the general cost of living should be reflected in the amount of maintenance paid by the applicant.
139. In so far as the applicant considered that the determination of his contact rights and child maintenance were within the exclusive jurisdiction of Slovenia, he provided no explanation in support of that position and thus failed to substantiate his claim. Therefore, the Court finds that the Austrian authorities cannot be criticised for having re-examined the contact arrangement between the applicant and P. and the applicant’s child maintenance obligation.
140. It follows that this part of the application is also manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention and must be rejected pursuant to Article 35 § 4.
II. OTHER ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE CONVENTION
141. Lastly, the applicant complained against Austria under Article 6 § 3 (a), (d) and (e) of the Convention on the grounds that in the proceedings concerning the suspension of his contact rights and those concerning child maintenance, the Graz courts had communicated with him in German which he did not understand, and that he had not been provided with the free assistance of an interpreter.
142. However, in the light of all the material in its possession, and in so far as the matters complained of are within its competence, the Court finds that they do not disclose any appearance of a violation of the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention or its Protocols. It follows that this part of the application is also manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
III. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
143. Article 41 of the Convention provides:
“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”
144. The applicant claimed 150,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage, alleging that he had for many years endured constant psychological pressure as a result of the continuing failure of the Slovenian authorities to decide on his contact with P. and enable him to regularly meet his daughter. According to the applicant, the emotional distress and suffering had forced him to quit his managerial position for a less demanding job. Moreover, his other children missed their sister, causing the applicant further distress on account of his family’s lack of connection and emotional ties. In support of his claim, the applicant submitted a psychologist’s report.
145. The Slovenian Government disputed the applicant’s claim, emphasising that he had not substantiated his allegation that he had had to quit his job; moreover, they doubted the impartiality of the psychologist’s report.
146. The Court considers that the applicant must have suffered a great deal of anxiety and distress on account of the violation it has found. Ruling on an equitable basis, it awards the applicant EUR 15,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage.
B. Costs and expenses
147. The applicant also claimed EUR 5,100 for the costs and expenses incurred in the domestic proceedings in respect of his legal representation, the translation of documents, transport to Graz and psychotherapy, and EUR 2,764 for those incurred before the Court in respect of his legal representation and the translation of documents.
148. The Government objected that the applicant had submitted no evidence of having actually incurred the costs and expenses claimed in relation to the domestic proceedings. He had not been legally represented and had not claimed reimbursement of translation costs. Other expenses claimed by the applicant were not linked with the proceedings. As to the part of the claim referring to the costs and expenses incurred in the proceedings before the Court, the Government were of the view that it was excessive, given the scope of the services provided by legal counsel. Moreover, the applicant had not provided any supporting documents in respect of the alleged translation expenses.
149. In accordance with the Court’s case-law, an applicant is entitled to the reimbursement of costs and expenses only in so far as it has been shown that these have been actually and necessarily incurred and are reasonable as to quantum. In the present case, regard being had to the documents in its possession and the above criteria, the Court rejects the claim for costs and expenses in the domestic proceedings and considers it reasonable to award the sum of EUR 2,500 for the proceedings before the Court.
C. Default interest
150. The Court considers it appropriate that the default interest rate should be based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank, to which should be added three percentage points.
FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,
1. Declares admissible the complaint under Article 8 of the Convention in respect of Slovenia and the remainder of the application concerning Austria inadmissible;
2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention in respect of Slovenia;
(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicant, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the following amounts at the rate applicable at the date of settlement:
(i) EUR 15,000 (fifteen thousand euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage;
(ii) EUR 2,500 (two thousand five hundred euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicant, in respect of costs and expenses;
(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amounts at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points;
4. Dismisses the remainder of the applicant’s claim for just satisfaction.
Done in English, and notified in writing on 5 February 2015, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Claudia Westerdiek Mark Villiger