AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF
by Lidiya PODRUGINA and Anatoliy YEDINOV
The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting on 17 February 2009 as a Chamber composed of:
Christos Rozakis, President,
George Nicolaou, judges,
and Søren Nielsen, Registrar,
Having regard to the above application lodged on 13 August 2007,
Having regard to the decision to apply Article 29 § 3 of the Convention and examine the admissibility and merits of the case together.
Having regard to the decision to grant priority to the above application under Rule 41 of the Rules of Court.
Having regard to the observations submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicants,
Having deliberated, decides as follows:
The applicants, Ms Lidiya Aleksandrovna Podrugina and Mr Anatoliy Aleksandrovich Yedinov, are Russian nationals who were born in 1937 and 1933 respectively and live in the town of Petrozavodsk in the Kareliya Republic. They were represented before the Court by Mr S. Dickmann, a lawyer practising in Moscow. The respondent Government were represented by Ms V. Milinchuk, the former Representative of the Russian Federation at the European Court of Human Rights.
A. The circumstances of the case
The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
1. Proceedings in 1998 and 2002
The applicants sought judicial recognition of the fact that they had been prisoners of war during World War II. Such a declaration was a precondition for claiming a statutory monthly allowance from the State. The State was represented by a local Social Assistance Centre in those proceedings.
By judgment of 1 July 1998, the Petrozavodsk Town Court of the Kareliya Republic granted the applicants’ claim. The court found that at the time the applicants had been forced to work and had not been allowed to leave the territory of the village.
On an unspecified date, the President of the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic lodged a request for supervisory review of the above judgment. On 22 May 2002 the Presidium of the Supreme Court granted his request, quashed the judgment and rejected the applicants’ claims. The Presidium court found that in the absence of documentary evidence, including archive sources, or other evidence the above circumstances were insufficient for concluding that the village had served as a concentration camp. The court concluded that the applicants could not be considered as prisoners of war. The applicants were not present at the supervisory review hearing.
From July 1998 to 1 July 2002 the applicants received the allowance, varying from 500 to 1,000 Russian roubles per month. After the annulment of the judgment in their favour, they were not required to reimburse the monies received during that period.
2. New proceedings in 2005 and 2006-2007
On 1 January 2005 the Pensions Authority (the “Authority”), a specialised State agency, took over responsibility for making allowance payments.
In 2005 the applicants brought new proceedings before the Town Court asking for a judicial confirmation of the fact that between 1941 and 1944 they had been living in a village occupied by the Finnish Army and thus indeed been prisoners of war. The State was represented by the Social Assistance Centre in those proceedings.
By judgments of 24 February and 16 March 2005, the Town Court granted the second and first applicants’ claims respectively. In Mr Yedinov’s case, the court heard two persons who had resided at the time in the same village, and had regard to an expert opinion.
No appeal was lodged and the above judgments became final. On the basis of those judgments, on unspecified dates the applicants applied to the Pensions Authority for a statutory allowance, which they subsequently received until March and January 2007 respectively.
In July 2006 the Pensions Authority applied for supervisory review of the judgments of 24 February and 16 March 2005, contending that it had not been aware of them in good time and thus could not request their supervisory review within the statutory period of one year. The Authority contended that the above judgments concerned the same matter that had already been determined in the 2002 proceedings.
(a) First applicant (Ms Podrugina)
By a decision of 26 September 2006, the Town Court extended the time limit for lodging of the Authority’s request for supervisory review. The court accepted the Authority’s argument that it had learnt about the 2002 proceedings on 25 April 2006, when the Social Assistance Centre had provided it with the lists of persons no longer entitled to an allowance. The Social Assistance Centre and not the Authority had been involved in the 2002 proceedings.
On 29 November 2006 the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic quashed the judgment of 16 March 2005 and discontinued the proceedings. The court found that the matter had already been examined in 1998 and had been finally determined by the judgment of 22 May 2002. Apparently, the first applicant was not present at the supervisory-instance hearing and obtained a copy of its ruling on an unspecified date. According to the Government, a copy of the supervisory review ruling was dispatched to her on 5 December 2006.
The applicant was not required to reimburse the monies received in 2005 and 2006.
(b) Second applicant (Mr Yedinov)
By a decision of 15 August 2006, the Town Court refused to extend the time-limit for bringing supervisory review proceedings. The court found that the Authority should have been aware of the judgment of 24 February 2005 since it had been making regular payments to the applicant on that basis; a copy of that judgment had been in the applicant’s pension file since March 2005. Hence, the Authority could have challenged the judgment by way of supervisory review within the one-year time-limit.
On 22 September 2006 the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic quashed the decision of 15 August 2006 and remitted the matter to the Town Court. It held that the Authority had learnt about the relevant fact, namely the existence of two contradictory judgments (dated 22 May 2002 and 24 February 2005), only in April 2006.
On 17 October 2006 the Town Court extended the time-limit for lodging of the Authority’s’ request for supervisory review. The applicant did not appeal.
On 14 February 2007 the Presidium of the Supreme Court quashed the judgment of 24 February 2005 and discontinued the proceedings. The court found that the matter had already been examined in 1998 and had been finally determined by the judgment of 22 May 2002.
The applicant was not required to reimburse the monies received in 2005 and 2006.
B. Relevant domestic law and practice
Article 134 § 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure provides that a judge should refuse to deal with a claim if there is a final judgment between the same parties on the same subject-matter and on the same legal grounds (по тем же основаниям). In such a situation, a claimant cannot bring new proceedings against the same respondent in relation to the same subject-matter and on the same legal grounds.
Under Article 376 of the Code, judicial decisions that have become legally binding, with the exception of judicial decisions by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, may be appealed against to a court exercising supervisory review, by parties to the case and by other persons whose rights or legal interests have been adversely affected by the judicial decisions concerned (§ 1). Judicial decisions may be appealed against to a court exercising supervisory review within one year after they became legally binding (§ 2). By its ruling of 5 February 2007, the Constitutional Court interpreted Article 376 § 1 as allowing the above-mentioned persons to apply for supervisory review only after having exhausted all available ordinary appeals.
The applicants complained under Articles 6 and 13 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 that the judgments of 22 May 2002, 29 November 2006 and 14 February 2007 had deprived them of their status as prisoners of war and thereby precluded them from receiving the allowance related to that status.
The applicants complained under Articles 6 and 13 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 that the judgments of 22 May 2002, 29 November 2006 and 14 February 2007 had deprived them of their status as prisoners of war and thereby precluded them from receiving the allowance related to that status. The Court will examine this complaint under Article 6 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The relevant parts of these provisions read as follows:
Article 6 § 1
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ..., everyone is entitled to a fair ... hearing ... by [a] ... tribunal...”
Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law...”
A. Submissions by the parties
The Government submitted that the applicants’ complaints in relation to the supervisory review proceedings had been lodged out of time. The Government produced copies of the letters by which the applicants had been notified of the supervisory review hearings and the decisions taken. They further argued that the recourse to the supervisory review procedure had been in compliance with the applicable legislation. The supervisory review requests had been lodged by a party to the proceedings (Article 376 of the CCP). They also submitted that the Authority had had valid reasons for missing the time-limit for lodging an appeal against the judgments of 24 February and 16 March 2005: (i) although the Authority had not been involved in the 2005 proceedings, it had been made responsible for making allowance payments on the basis of the above judgments and (ii) the Authority had only learnt about the “violation” on 25 April 2006. Thus, their recourse to supervisory review should be assimilated to an ordinary appeal. It had been justified in the circumstances of the case in view of the need to correct a fundamental error which had resulted in a violation of the principle of legal certainty and, by implication, of the res judicata effect of the judgment of 22 May 2002. It had been incumbent on the applicants to inform the courts examining their 2005 cases of the existence of the above judgment. The Government emphasised the fact that the applicants had not been required to repay the amounts already received after the 2005 judgments had been annulled by way of supervisory review.
The applicants maintained their complaint.
B. The Court’s assessment
1. Article 6 of the Convention
In so far as both applicants complained of the quashing of the judgment of 1 July 1998 by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic on 22 May 2002, their complaint was submitted out of time (see Sardin v. Russia (dec.), no. 69582/01, ECHR 2004 II).
As regards the second applicant, the Court observes that his first correspondence with the Court, enclosing the application form dated 10 August 2007, was dispatched on 13 August 2007. The latter date should be taken as the date of lodging of his complaint in relation to the supervisory review ruling of 14 February 2007. Thus, the applicant complied with the six-month rule.
By contrast, the Court observes that the first applicant (Ms Podrugina) was notified of the date of the supervisory review hearing in her case, namely 29 November 2006, but apparently chose not to attend it. She was then notified of the supervisory review ruling given on the above date by a letter dispatched to her on 5 December 2006. Nothing in her submissions suggests that she did not become aware of the supervisory ruling soon thereafter. However, like the second applicant, she lodged her application with the Court on 13 August 2007, that is, more than six months after the impugned quashing had taken place or after she had learnt of it. It follows that the first applicant’s complaint in relation to the supervisory review proceedings in 2006 was lodged out of time and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 1 and 4 of the Convention.
What remains, therefore, is to examine whether the second applicant’s (Mr Yedinov’s) complaint in relation to the supervisory ruling of 14 February 2007 discloses an appearance of a violation of the Convention.
The Court reiterates in that connection that the right to a fair hearing before a tribunal as guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention must be interpreted in the light of the Preamble to the Convention, which, in its relevant part, declares the rule of law to be part of the common heritage of the Contracting States. One of the fundamental aspects of the rule of law is the principle of legal certainty, which requires, among other things, that where the courts have finally determined an issue, their ruling should, in principle, not be called into question (see Brumărescu v. Romania [GC], no. 28342/95, § 61, ECHR 1999 VII).
This principle insists that no party is entitled to seek reopening of the proceedings merely for the purpose of a rehearing and a fresh decision of the case. Higher courts’ power to quash or alter binding and enforceable judicial decisions should be exercised for correction of fundamental defects. The mere possibility of two views on the subject is not a ground for re examination. Departures from that principle are justified only when made necessary by circumstances of a substantial and compelling character (see Kot v. Russia, no. 20887/03, § 24, 18 January 2007).
Court has found a violation of an applicant’s “right to a
court” guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention in
many cases in which a judicial decision that had become final and
binding was subsequently quashed by a higher court with a view to
carrying out a fresh examination (see Dovguchits v. Russia, no.
2999/03, §§ 26-31, 7 June 2007; Kudrina v. Russia,
no. 27790/03, §§ 15-20, 21 June 2007; Sidorenko v.
Russia, no. 3519/05, §§ 12-19, 26 July 2007; and
Kot, cited above,
Having regard to its case-law, the Court has to assess in the present case whether the quashing of the final judgment in the second applicant’s favour by way of supervisory review was justified by the circumstances and whether a fair balance was struck between the interests of the applicant and the need to ensure the proper administration of justice, which includes the importance of observing the principle of legal certainty and the res judicata effect of the final judgment (cf. Kurinnyy v. Russia, no. 36495/02, §§ 13, 27-28, 12 June 2008).
The Court accords particular attention to the reason relied upon by the national court to justify the quashing. It observes that the judgment of 24 February 2005 was set aside on the ground that there had already been a valid final judgment between the same parties and on the same matter, namely the judgment of 22 May 2002 by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic. The applicant did not deny that the above judgments concerned the same subject-matter and were based on the same legal grounds.
The Court considers that the circumstance referred to was by its nature and significance such as to justify the quashing of the final judgment and that this was not inconsistent with the principle of legal certainty (see Pshenichnyy v. Russia, no. 30422/03, § 26, 14 February 2008, and Protsenko v. Russia, no. 13151/04, §§ 30-34, 31 July 2008).
The Court observes that the Pensions Authority was not a party to the proceedings which ended with the judgment of 24 February 2005. However, as is clear from the text of Article 376 of the Code of Civil Procedure, a request for supervisory review could be lodged by the parties to the proceedings or other persons if their rights or legitimate interests had been violated by the final judgments. The Court is satisfied that the Authority could be considered as having a clear interest in the case and in seeking a reopening of the proceedings. The second applicant did not put forward any other argument suggesting that the supervisory-review procedure as applied in his case was unlawful or otherwise in breach of the Convention.
Having regard to the above, the Court finds that the quashing of the final judgment of 24 February 2005 by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Kareliya Republic by way of supervisory review did not deprive the second applicant of his “right to a court” under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
It follows that this complaint is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.
2. Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
As regards Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the Court observes that the second applicant was not, and could not be, required under Russian law to repay the amounts already received under the judgment of 24 February 2005. Furthermore, having regard to the findings under Article 6 of the Convention, the Court considers that the applicant’s complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is also manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention (see also Kurinnyy, cited above, §§ 37 and 38).
For these reasons, the Court unanimously
Declares the application inadmissible.
Nielsen Christos Rozakis