CASE OF PAVLOVIĆ AND OTHERS v. CROATIA
(Application no. 13274/11)
2 April 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 Pavlović and Others v. Croatia,
The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:
Mirjana Lazarova Trajkovska,
Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque,
Ksenija Turković, judges,
and André Wampach, Deputy Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 10 March 2015,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 13274/11) against the Republic of Croatia lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by three Croatian nationals, Ms Davorka Pavlović, Ms Dubravka Družinec and Ms Višnja Lacko (“the applicants”), on 3 February 2011.
2. The applicants were represented by Ms K. Kantura, a lawyer practising in Zabok. The Croatian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Ms Š. Stažnik.
3. The applicants alleged that they had been erroneously deprived of the reimbursement of costs in civil proceedings, contrary to Article 6 § 1 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
4. On 16 September 2013 the complaints were communicated to the Government, and the remainder of the application was declared inadmissible.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
5. The applicants were born in 1959, 1950 and 1952 respectively, and live in Brestovec Orehovički and Krapina respectively.
6. In 1990 I. Ku., the applicants’ predecessor, brought a civil action in the Zagreb Municipal Court (Općinski sud u Zagrebu) against M.K., seeking his eviction from a flat and reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings.
7. In 2001, following the death of I. Ku, the applicants, as his heirs, took over the proceedings as plaintiffs, while M. K. also died in the course of proceedings and I. Kr. replaced him as defendant.
8. During the proceedings, I. Kr. brought a counterclaim against the applicants, seeking either a specially protected tenancy of the flat at issue or compensation for investments in the flat he had made in the amount of 95,000 Croatian kunas (HRK). The applicants also, in addition to I. Ku.’s civil action, requested the Zagreb Municipal Court to order I. Kr. to remove everything he had installed in the flat.
9. At the closing hearing before the Zagreb Municipal Court on 12 June 2007 the applicants reiterated all their arguments and requested reimbursement of the costs of proceedings. At the same hearing, the applicants submitted a written itemised claim for costs in the amount of HRK 14,786.40. At the same time, the defendant’s representative reiterated his arguments and requested reimbursement of the costs in the amount which he promised to specify later.
10. On the same day the Zagreb Municipal Court allowed the applicants’ action in part, ordering the eviction of I. Kr. from the flat, whereas it dismissed the remainder of their civil action, as well as I. Kr.’s counterclaim for compensation of the investments in the flat. As regards the costs of the proceedings, the Zagreb Municipal Court noted:
“With regard to the costs of the proceedings, each party shall bear their own costs, as provided under section 154 § 2 of the Civil Procedure Act, since the plaintiff succeeded with part of [their] action while [they] were dismissed as regards the remainder, and the counterclaim was fully dismissed.”
11. On 10 October 2008, in a supplementary judgment, the Zagreb Municipal Court dismissed I. Kr.’s civil action for a specially protected tenancy.
12. Meanwhile, the parties challenged the first-instance judgment of the Zagreb Municipal Court of 12 June 2007 before the Zagreb County Court (Županijski sud u Zagrebu). The applicants argued that the first-instance court had incorrectly assessed the situation concerning their right to reimbursement of the costs of proceedings.
13. On 2 February 2010 the Zagreb County Court (Županijski sud u Zagrebu) dismissed the appeals and upheld the first-instance judgment. As regards the applicants’ arguments concerning the costs of proceedings, the Zagreb County Court noted:
“... it is to be noted that [the applicants] correctly consider that they should be reimbursed the costs of the proceedings, since the part of their claim by which they sought the eviction [of I. Kr.] from the flat was successful. However, it is to be noted that the case file shows that they failed to comply with the requirement under section 164 § 3 of the Civil Procedure Act, which provides that a party must set out his or her request for reimbursement of costs at the latest at the end of the closing hearing which precedes the decision on costs. At the hearing held on 12 June 2007, by which the proceedings terminated, [the applicants’] representative sought reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings based on an itemised claim which he was supposed to submit. However, there is no such itemised claim in the case file, and the reimbursement of costs was not sought earlier, while certain procedural actions were being taken. This is the reason why the costs of the proceedings could not be reimbursed to [the applicants].”
14. On 14 April 2010 the applicants challenged the judgment of the Zagreb County Court by lodging a constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court (Ustavni sud Republike Hrvatske). They pointed out that the Zagreb County Court had manifestly incorrectly assessed their request for reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings, overlooking the fact that they had indeed submitted in writing an itemised claim for costs, and had therefore arbitrarily dismissed their complaints in that respect.
15. On 23 September 2010 the Constitutional Court declared the applicants’ constitutional complaint inadmissible, on the grounds that the contested judgment had not concerned the merits of their civil rights or obligations, and as such was not susceptible to constitutional review. This decision was served on the applicants on 18 October 2010.
II. RELEVANT DOMESTIC LAW
16. The relevant provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia (Ustav Republike Hrvatske, Official Gazette nos. 56/1990, 135/1997, 8/1998 (consolidated text), 113/2000, 124/2000 (consolidated text), 28/2001 and 41/2001 (consolidated text), and 55/2001 (corrigendum), 76/2010, 85/2010, 05/2014) read as follows:
“In the determination of his rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court established by law.”
“The right of ownership shall be guaranteed ...“
17. The relevant part of section 62 of the Constitutional Court Act (Ustavni zakon o Ustavnom sudu Republike Hrvatske, Official Gazette nos. 99/1999, 29/2002, 49/2002) reads:
“Anyone may lodge a constitutional complaint with the Constitutional Court if he or she deems that a decision (pojedinačni akt) of a State body, a body of local and regional self-government, or a legal person with public authority, which has decided on his or her rights and obligations, or about a suspicion or accusation of a criminal act, has violated his or her human rights or fundamental freedoms, or his or her right to local and regional self-government guaranteed by the Constitution (hereinafter “constitutional right”) ...”
18. According to the information provided by the Government, on the basis of a letter of the Constitutional Court of 29 December 2014, that court on 15 July 2004 published on its Internet site examples and practical instructions for the appellants on how to fill in the constitutional complaints, as well as list of decisions of various domestic authorities which are not liable to be reviewed on the basis of individual constitutional complaints. This document runs on seventy-six pages and the information on its publishing was disseminated through media and in particular an Internet news portal (www.Index.hr). On 8 July 2014 the document at issue was separated into several separate documents (examples of the constitutional complaints; practical instructions on how to fill in a constitutional complaint; list of decisions of various domestic authorities which are not liable to be reviewed on the basis of individual constitutional complaints) and updated with the case-law developments of the Constitutional Court.
19. Whereas the document of 2004 does not list the civil courts’ decisions on the costs and expenses of the proceedings as decisions which are not liable to be reviewed on the basis of individual constitutional complaints, further updates to that document, allegedly carried out in July 2014 and provided in separate documents, indicate such information.
20. The Government also referred in particular to the decisions of the Constitutional Court nos. U-III-402/2002 of 12 September 2003; U-III 4020/2003 of 30 June 2004; and U-III-1821/2004 of 10 September 2004, by which that court declined to examine the complaints related to the costs and expenses of the proceedings.
21. According to the information provided by the applicants, referring to the publicly available information on the properties of the documents, the separate list of decisions of various domestic authorities which are not liable to be reviewed on the basis of individual constitutional complaints was created on 9 July 2014 and modified on 13 August 2014. It was made publicly available on an unspecified date after 9 July 2014.
B. Civil Procedure Act
22. The Civil Procedure Act (Official Gazette nos. 53/1991, 91/1992, 58/1993, 112/1999, 88/2001, 117/2003, 88/2005, 2/2007 and 84/2008), as in force at the relevant time, provided as follows:
“(1) A party who loses a case completely shall reimburse the costs of the opposing party and his or her intervener.
(2) If a party succeeds in the proceedings in part, the court may, having regard to the success achieved, order that each party shall bear its own costs or that one party shall reimburse the other party and the intervener the corresponding part of the costs ...”
“(1) The court shall decide on the reimbursement of costs on the basis of a request by either party ...
(2) The party is obliged to itemise costs in respect of which he or she seeks reimbursement.
(3) The party is obliged to set out its request for reimbursement at the latest at the end of the closing hearing which precedes the decision on costs ...”
23. The relevant part of the Civil Procedure Act with further amendments (Official Gazette nos. 53/1991, 91/1992, 58/1993, 112/1999, 88/2001, 117/2003, 88/2005, 2/2007, 84/2008, 123/2008, 57/2011, 148/2011, 25/2013 and 89/2014) provides as follows:
“(1) When the European Court of Human Rights has found a violation of a human right or fundamental freedom guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms or additional protocols thereto ratified by the Republic of Croatia, a party may, within thirty days of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights becoming final, apply to the court in the Republic of Croatia which adjudicated in the first instance in the proceedings in which the decision violating the human right or fundamental freedom was rendered, to set aside the decision by which the human right or fundamental freedom was violated.
(2) Proceedings referred to in paragraph 1 of this section shall be conducted by applying, mutatis mutandis, the provisions on the reopening of proceedings.
(3) In reopened proceedings the courts are required to respect the legal opinions expressed in the final judgment of the European Court of Human Rights finding a violation of a fundamental human right or freedom.”
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 1 OF THE CONVENTION
24. The applicants complained that they had been erroneously and arbitrarily deprived of the reimbursement of costs in the civil proceedings, contrary to Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ... everyone is entitled to a fair ... hearing ... by [a] ... tribunal ...”
1. The parties’ submissions
25. The Government submitted that the final decision in the applicants’ case had been the second-instance judgment of the Rijeka County Court of 2 February 2010 (see paragraph 13 above), and not the Constitutional Court’s decision of 23 September 2010 (see paragraph 15 above), since the applicants, being represented by a lawyer, should have known that according to the Constitutional Court’s practice a constitutional complaint was not a remedy to be used in respect of the costs of proceedings. According to the Government, this had been clear since 3 October 2003, when the Constitutional Court published its decision no. U-III-402/2002 of 12 September 2003 in the Official Gazette. The Government thus considered, citing the Court’s case-law in De Parias Merry v. Spain (dec.), no. 40177/98, ECHR 1999-II, that the applicants, by relying on the Constitutional Court’s decision as the final domestic decision and by lodging their application with the Court on 3 February 2011, had failed to comply with the six-month time-limit.
26. The applicants contended that the judgments of the lower courts which they had challenged before the Constitutional Court undoubtedly concerned their civil rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the Convention. They pointed out that no provision of the relevant domestic law excluded their right to lodge a constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court concerning breaches of their right to a fair trial by the appellate courts. Thus, it could not be said that the judgment of the Zagreb County Court was not liable to a review before the Constitutional Court. In the applicants’ view, this had been so given that the practice of the courts had been evolving and it had always been possible for the Constitutional Court to take their complaint into examination. The applicants considered that by refusing to do so the Constitutional Court had acted contrary to the Constitution and the Convention and had allowed a manifest breach of the right to a fair trial to persist. The applicants also pointed out that, given these circumstances, they would have risked their complaint being declared inadmissible by the Court if they had not first allowed the Constitutional Court to deal with the alleged breaches of their rights.
2. The Court’s assessment
(a) General principles
27. The Court reiterates that the requirements contained in Article 35 § 1 concerning the exhaustion of domestic remedies and the six-month period are closely interrelated, since not only are they combined in the same Article, but they are also expressed in a single sentence whose grammatical construction implies such a correlation (see Hatjianastasiou v. Greece, no. 12945/87, Commission decision of 4 April 1990; Berdzenishvili v. Russia (dec.), no. 31697/03, ECHR 2004-II; and Gregačević v. Croatia, no. 58331/09, § 35, 10 July 2012). The purpose of the six-month rule is to promote legal certainty and to ensure that cases raising issues under the Convention are dealt with within a reasonable time. Furthermore, it ought also to protect the authorities and other persons concerned from being under any uncertainty for a prolonged period of time. Finally, it should ensure the possibility of ascertaining the facts of the case before the chance to do so fades away, making a fair examination of the question at issue next to impossible (see Kelly v. the United Kingdom, no. 10626/83, Commission decision of 7 May 1985, Decisions and Reports (DR) 42, p. 205; Baybora and Others v. Cyprus (dec.), no. 77116/01, 22 October 2002; and Dolenec v. Croatia, no. 25282/06, § 192, 26 November 2009).
28. As a rule, the six-month period runs from the date of the final decision in the process of exhaustion of domestic remedies. Article 35 § 1 cannot be interpreted in a manner which would require an applicant to inform the Court of his complaint before his position in connection with the matter has been finally settled at the domestic level (see Orlić v. Croatia, no. 48833/07, § 45, 21 June 2011).
29. In particular, the Court has recently summarised the principles related to the rule of exhaustion of domestic remedies in the case of Vučković and Others v. Serbia (see Vučković and Others v. Serbia [GC], no. 17153/11, 25 March 2014) where it noted the following:
“69. It is a fundamental feature of the machinery of protection established by the Convention that it is subsidiary to the national systems safeguarding human rights. This Court is concerned with the supervision of the implementation by Contracting States of their obligations under the Convention. It should not take on the role of Contracting States, whose responsibility it is to ensure that the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined therein are respected and protected on a domestic level. The rule of exhaustion of domestic remedies is based on the assumption - reflected in Article 13 of the Convention, with which it has close affinity - that there is an effective remedy available in respect of the alleged violation. The rule is therefore an indispensable part of the functioning of this system of protection.
70. States are dispensed from answering before an international body for their acts before they have had an opportunity to put matters right through their own legal system, and those who wish to invoke the supervisory jurisdiction of the Court as concerns complaints against a State are thus obliged to use first the remedies provided by the national legal system (see, among many authorities, Akdivar and Others v. Turkey, 16 September 1996, § 65, Reports 1996-IV). It should be emphasised that the Court is not a court of first instance; it does not have the capacity, nor is it appropriate to its function as an international court, to adjudicate on large numbers of cases which require the finding of basic facts or the calculation of monetary compensation - both of which should, as a matter of principle and effective practice, be the domain of domestic jurisdictions (see Demopoulos and Others v. Turkey (dec.) [GC], nos. 46113/99, 3843/02, 13751/02, 13466/03, 10200/04, 14163/04, 19993/04 and 21819/04, § 69, ECHR 2010, where the Court in addition quoted the comprehensive statement of principles set out in §§ 66 to 69 of the Akdivar and Others judgment, which in so far as relevant are reiterated here below).
71. The obligation to exhaust domestic remedies therefore requires an applicant to make normal use of remedies which are available and sufficient in respect of his or her Convention grievances. The existence of the remedies in question must be sufficiently certain not only in theory but in practice, failing which they will lack the requisite accessibility and effectiveness (see Akdivar and Others, cited above, § 66).
72. Article 35 § 1 also requires that the complaints intended to be made subsequently in Strasbourg should have been made to the appropriate domestic body, at least in substance (see, for instance, Castells v. Spain, 23 April 1992, § 32, Series A no. 236; Gäfgen v. Germany [GC], no. 22978/05, §§ 144 and 146, ECHR 2010; and Fressoz and Roire v. France [GC], no. 29183/95, § 37, ECHR 1999-I) and in compliance with the formal requirements and time-limits laid down in domestic law and, further, that any procedural means that might prevent a breach of the Convention should have been used (Akdivar and Others, cited above, § 66). Where an applicant has failed to comply with these requirements, his or her application should in principle be declared inadmissible for failure to exhaust domestic remedies (see, for example, Cardot v. France, 19 March 1991, § 34, Series A no. 200, and Thiermann and Others v. Norway (dec.), no. 18712/03, 8 March 2007).
73. However, there is, as indicated above, no obligation to have recourse to remedies which are inadequate or ineffective. In addition, according to the “generally recognised rules of international law” there may be special circumstances which absolve the applicant from the obligation to exhaust the domestic remedies at his or her disposal. The rule is also inapplicable where an administrative practice consisting of a repetition of acts incompatible with the Convention and official tolerance by the State authorities has been shown to exist, and is of such a nature as to make proceedings futile or ineffective (see Akdivar and Others, cited above, § 67).
74. To be effective, a remedy must be capable of remedying directly the impugned state of affairs and must offer reasonable prospects of success (see Balogh v. Hungary, no. 47940/99, § 30, 20 July 2004, and Sejdovic v. Italy [GC], no. 56581/00, § 46, ECHR 2006-II). However, the existence of mere doubts as to the prospects of success of a particular remedy which is not obviously futile is not a valid reason for failing to exhaust that avenue of redress (see Akdivar and Others, cited above, § 71, and Scoppola v. Italy (no. 2) [GC], no. 10249/03, § 70, 17 September 2009).
75. In so far as there exists at the national level a remedy enabling the domestic courts to address, at least in substance, the argument of a violation of a given Convention right, it is that remedy which should be exhausted (see Azinas, cited above, § 38). It is not sufficient that the applicant may have unsuccessfully exercised another remedy which could have overturned the impugned measure on other grounds not connected with the complaint of a violation of a Convention right. It is the Convention complaint which must have been aired at national level for there to have been exhaustion of “effective remedies”. It would be contrary to the subsidiary character of the Convention machinery if an applicant, ignoring a possible Convention argument, could rely on some other ground before the national authorities for challenging an impugned measure, but then lodge an application before the Court on the basis of the Convention argument (see Van Oosterwijck, judgment of 6 November 1980, Series A no. 40, pp. 16-17, §§ 33-34, and Azinas, cited above, § 38).”
(b) Application of these principles to the present case
30. The Court reiterates at the outset that decisions concerning the costs of proceedings fall within the ambit of Article 6 of the Convention (see Robins v. the United Kingdom, 23 September 1997, §§ 28 and 29, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1997-V; Nikolay Matveyev v. Russia, no. 10418/04, § 31, 25 November 2010; and Ležaja v. Croatia (dec.), no. 53004/08, § 24, 17 April 2012).
31. The Court observes in the case at issue that after the applicants’ request for reimbursement of the costs of proceedings had been dismissed at first instance by the Zagreb Municipal Court on 12 June 2007 (see paragraph 10 above), the applicants lodged an appeal with the Zagreb County Court, which adopted its judgment on 2 February 2010, dismissing the applicants’ complaints (see paragraph 13 above). The applicants then lodged a constitutional complaint challenging the second-instance judgment of the Zagreb County Court, and on 23 September 2010 the Constitutional Court declared it inadmissible. This decision was served on the applicants on 18 October 2010 (see paragraph 15 above) and the applicants lodged their application with the Court on 3 February 2011, thus within six months.
32. With regard to the Government’s submission that the constitutional complaint was not a remedy to be exhausted for the purpose of calculation of the six-month time period, the Court reiterates that it has constantly held that before bringing complaints against Croatia to the Court, in order to comply with the principle of subsidiarity applicants are in principle required to afford the Croatian Constitutional Court, as the highest Court in Croatia, the opportunity to remedy their situation (see Orlić, cited above, § 46; Čamovski v. Croatia, no. 38280/10, § 27, 23 October 2012; Bajić v. Croatia, no. 41108/10, § 66, 13 November 2012; Remetin v. Croatia, no. 29525/10, § 81, 11 December 2012; Tarbuk v. Croatia, no. 31360/10, § 29, 11 December 2012; Damjanac v. Croatia, no. 52943/10, § 70, 24 October 2013; and Šimecki v. Croatia, no. 15253/10, § 29, 30 April 2014).
33. This principle was applied in various contexts concerning applicants’ fair trial rights, such as with regard to, for instance, the erroneous decision of the Constitutional Court calculating the time-limit for an applicant’s constitutional complaint, where the Government argued that no further remedy existed before the Constitutional Court (see Čamovski, cited above, §§ 29-30); or an applicant’s constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court challenging the decisions of the lower courts in enforcement proceedings, where the Government also argued that the constitutional complaint had not interrupted the running of the six-month time-limit (see Šimecki, cited above, §§ 31-38). Consequently to such practice, in a case where the applicant had failed to challenge the decisions of the domestic courts concerning the costs of the domestic proceedings before the higher judicial authorities, including the Constitutional Court, the Court declared her complaint inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies (see Ležaja, cited above, § 26).
34. Furthermore, in a number of previous cases in which it dealt with the Government’s objection concerning applicants’ compliance with the six-month time-limit due to their use of the constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Court, the Court observed that under section 62 of the Constitutional Court Act anyone who deems that an individual act of a State body determining his or her rights and obligations, or a suspicion or accusation of a criminal act, has violated his or her human rights or fundamental freedoms may lodge a constitutional complaint against that act (see paragraph 17 above). Accordingly, whenever an applicant lodged a constitutional complaint by relying on that provision complaining of a violation that fell within its substantive scope, the Court considered, irrespective of the possible decision of the Constitutional Court, that it did not amount to an unreasonable use of that remedy (see, for example, Dolenec, cited above, § 200; Remetin, cited above, § 83; Gregačević, cited above, § 41; and Šimecki, cited above, § 33).
35. Having said that, the Court once again observes that section 62 of the Constitutional Court Act provides for no limitations on complaints concerning breaches of fair trial rights (see Gregačević, cited above, §§ 40-41; and Šimecki, cited above, § 33). This makes the present case clearly different from the case of De Parias Merry (cited above), on which the Government relied, as in that case the applicant had lodged a constitutional complaint alleging violation of a right which could clearly not form the subject of an individual constitutional complaint under the relevant domestic law (see De Parias Merry, cited above).
36. As regards the Government’s reliance on the practice of the Constitutional Court, the Court does not intend to question the decisions of the Constitutional Court as to the relevant criteria for assessing the admissibility of individual constitutional complaints (see, for example, Dolenec, cited above, § 200, and Šimecki, cited above, § 33), particularly since such practice may differ, and indeed, as the applicants pointed out, evolve (compare Remetin, §§ 64-67 and 83-84) Thus, for instance, a document of the Constitutional Court of June 2004 did not list the civil courts’ decisions on the costs and expenses of the proceedings as decisions which are not liable to be reviewed on the basis of individual constitutional complaints, and it appears that these decision were only later in July 2014 added to such list; whereas the applicants lodged their constitutional complaint on 14 April 2010 (see paragraphs 14 and 18-21 above).
37. In any case, irrespective of that, what is relevant for the Court is to assess whether an applicant, by seeking to protect those rights and freedoms falling under section 62 of the Constitutional Court Act, acted reasonably and in compliance with that provision when making use of his or her constitutional complaint (see Dolenec, cited above, §§ 200-01, and Šimecki, cited above, § 33).
38. In this connection the Court considers that by complying with the requirements of its case-law by affording the Constitutional Court the opportunity to remedy their situation (see paragraph 32 and 33 above), and in view of the wording of section 62 of the Constitutional Court Act (see paragraphs 34 and 35 above), the fact that the applicants lodged a constitutional complaint against the second-instance judgment of the Zagreb County Court cannot in any way be held against them (compare Gregačević, cited above, § 41, and, by contrast, Ležaja, cited above, § 26).
39. In these circumstances, the Court finds that the applicants made proper use of domestic remedies and thus it rejects the Government’s objection. The Court also notes that this complaint 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.
1. The parties’ arguments
40. The applicants contended that the Zagreb County Court had manifestly erroneously and thus arbitrarily dismissed their request for reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings. In particular, that court had failed to examine the case file properly and carefully. It had therefore held that the request for reimbursement of the costs had not been submitted, whereas in fact they had duly submitted such a request as required under the relevant domestic law. Consequently, this erroneous finding of the Zagreb County Court was the sole reason why their request for reimbursement of the costs had been dismissed.
41. The Government submitted that the applicants’ request for reimbursement of the costs of proceedings had been examined at two levels of national jurisdiction, which provided the applicants with all procedural guarantees under Article 6 of the Convention. In particular, the applicants had had access to court; they had been legally represented; they had had the opportunity to raise all their arguments and to contest the submissions of the opposing party; and the domestic courts had given sufficient reasons for their decisions.
2. The Court’s assessment
42. The Court reiterates that while Article 6 of the Convention guarantees the right to a fair hearing, it does not lay down any rules on the admissibility of evidence or the way it should be assessed, which are therefore primarily matters for regulation by national law and the national courts (see, for example, García Ruiz v. Spain [GC], no. 30544/96, § 28, ECHR 1999-I, and Perić v. Croatia, no. 34499/06, § 17, 27 March 2008).
43. According to Article 19 of the Convention, the duty of the Court is to ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken by the Contracting Parties to the Convention. In particular, it is not its function to deal with errors of fact or law allegedly committed by a national court unless and in so far as they may have infringed rights and freedoms protected by the Convention (see, inter alia, Tamminen v. Finland, no. 40847/98, § 38, 15 June 2004).
44. Therefore, the Court will not in principle intervene unless the decisions reached by the domestic courts appear arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable, and provided that the proceedings as a whole were fair as required by Article 6 § 1 (see Khamidov v. Russia, no. 72118/01, § 170, 15 November 2007, and Anđelković v. Serbia, no. 1401/08, § 24, 9 April 2013).
45. The Court has also held that the effect of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention is, inter alia, to place a “tribunal” under a duty to conduct a proper examination of the submissions, arguments and evidence adduced by the parties, without prejudice to its assessment of whether they are relevant to its decision (see Van de Hurk v. the Netherlands, 19 April 1994, § 59, Series A no. 288, and Dulaurans v. France, no. 34553/97, § 33, 21 March 2000). An error of law or fact by the national court which is so evident as to be characterised as a “manifest error” - that is to say, an error that no reasonable court could ever have made - may be such as to disturb the fairness of the proceedings (see Bochan v. Ukraine (no. 2) [GC], no. 22251/08, § 62, 5 February 2015).
46. In the case at issue the Court notes that at the closing hearing before the Zagreb Municipal Court on 12 June 2007, where they claimed reimbursement of the costs of the proceedings, the applicants submitted a written itemised claim of the costs in the amount of HRK 14,786.40. Thus, they complied with the requirements of the relevant domestic law, namely that any request for reimbursement of the costs of proceedings should be itemised and submitted at the latest at the end of the closing hearing preceding the decision on costs (see paragraph 22 above, and section 164 of the Civil Procedure Act).
47. After their request for reimbursement of the costs of proceedings had been dismissed by the Zagreb Municipal Court on the grounds that they had been successful in the proceedings only in part, the applicants challenged that decision before the Zagreb County Court, arguing that the first-instance court had made errors in its assessment of their right to reimbursement of the costs of proceedings (see paragraphs 10 and 12 above).
48. Whereas the Zagreb County Court accepted the applicants’ arguments that the first-instance court had erroneously assessed their success in the proceedings relevant to the reimbursement of the costs, holding that in fact they should be reimbursed for those costs, it held that the sole reason why the costs could not be reimbursed was the applicants’ failure to submit an itemised claim of costs (see paragraph 13 above). It therefore follows that the Zagreb County Court evidently failed to take notice of the applicants’ itemised claim of the costs of 12 June 2007 (see paragraph 46 above).
49. In these circumstances, and in the absence of a proper assessment of the case by the Constitutional Court, the Court cannot but conclude that the only reason for the dismissal of the applicants’ request for reimbursement of the costs of proceedings was a manifest error in the findings of the Zagreb County Court, which overlooked the applicants’ itemised claim of the costs of proceedings submitted at the hearing on 12 June 2007 (see paragraph 9 above, and compare Dulaurans, cited above, § 38). It thereby omitted to conduct a proper and reasonable examination of the applicants’ submissions and consequently failed to ensure the applicants’ right to a fair trial, as required under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
50. There has accordingly been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
II. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 1 OF PROTOCOL No. 1 TO THE CONVENTION
51. The applicants complained that the circumstances of the case gave rise to a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
52. The Government contested that argument.
53. The Court notes that this complaint is linked to the one examined above, and must therefore likewise be declared admissible.
54. Having regard to its finding relating to Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the Court considers that it is not necessary to examine whether, in this case, there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (see, for example, Stankiewicz v. Poland, no. 46917/99, § 80, ECHR 2006-VI).
III. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
55. 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.”
56. The applicants claimed 3,000 euros (EUR) each in respect of non-pecuniary damage. In respect of pecuniary damage, they claimed the costs of the domestic civil proceedings in the total amount of EUR 2,428.
57. The Government considered the applicants’ claim unfounded and unsubstantiated. In the Government’s view, the full amount claimed by the applicants would not in any event be granted at the domestic level.
58. As to the pecuniary damage claimed, the Court, having regard to its findings concerning Article 6 § 1 of the Convention (see paragraph 50 above) and the flaws in the proceedings before the domestic courts, considers that it cannot speculate as to whether or not the applicants would be granted the full amount claimed on account of the costs of the domestic proceedings. Thus, on account of the shortcomings in the domestic proceedings, the Court is unable to assess the applicants’ claim for pecuniary damage. In this respect the Court specifically refers to the opportunity available to the applicants to request reopening of the proceedings in accordance with section 428(a) of the Civil Procedure Act, which would allow for a fresh examination of their claims for costs and expenses of the proceedings (see paragraph 23 above).
59. On the other hand, the Court considers that the applicants must have sustained non-pecuniary damage which is not sufficiently compensated by the finding of a violation. Ruling on an equitable basis, it awards the applicants EUR 3,000 each in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus any tax that may be chargeable on this amount.
B. Costs and expenses
60. The applicants also claimed EUR 833 for costs and expenses in the proceedings before the Constitutional Court and EUR 3,212 for the costs and expenses incurred before the Court.
61. The Government considered the applicants’ claim unfounded and unsubstantiated.
62. According to 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 considers it reasonable to award the sum of EUR 4,000 covering costs under all heads.
C. Default interest
63. 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 the applicants’ complaints concerning their deprivation of the reimbursement of costs in the civil proceedings, under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, admissible;
2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention;
3. Holds that there is no need to examine the complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 separately;
(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicants, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the following amounts, to be converted into Croatian kunas (HRK) at the rate applicable at the date of settlement:
(i) EUR 3,000 (three thousand euros) each, plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of non-pecuniary damage;
(ii) EUR 4,000 (four thousand euros) jointly, plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicants, in respect of costs and expenses of the proceedings;
(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;
5. Dismisses the remainder of the applicants’ claim for just satisfaction.
Done in English, and notified in writing on 2 April 2015, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
André Wampach Elisabeth Steiner
Deputy Registrar President