CASE OF MAGÁT v. SLOVAKIA
(Application no. 44646/15)
25 July 2017
This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Magát v. Slovakia,
The European Court of Human Rights (Third Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:
Pere Pastor Vilanova,
Alena Poláčková, judges,
and Fatoş Aracı, Deputy Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 4 July 2017,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 44646/15) against the Slovak Republic lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Slovak national, Mr Anton Magát (“the applicant”), on 3 September 2015.
2. The Government of the Slovak Republic (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Ms M. Pirošíková.
3. On 8 March 2016 the complaint concerning the length of the proceedings was communicated to the Government and the remainder of the application was declared inadmissible pursuant to Rule 54 § 3 of the Rules of Court.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
4. The applicant was born in 1957 and lives in Zákopčie.
5. On 28 February 2011 the applicant was sued by his son in proceedings on child maintenance before the Čadca District Court (file no. 10 C 38/2011).
6. During those proceedings he made an incomplete submission on 21 April 2011, which he supplemented the month after alleging that he had been waiting for a response from the Centre for Legal Aid in respect of his request for a legal aid lawyer. He also lodged two complaints with the president of the District Court about the excessive length of proceedings, namely on 9 February 2012 and 29 February 2012, which were unsuccessful. Having been dissatisfied with their outcome, he turned to the appellate court for review of his complaints to no avail.
7. The District Court, on the other hand, took the following steps. It asked several public authorities, such as for example Social Security Authority and the Job Centre, to provide it with information relevant to the case. Between May 2012 and April 2014, it was dealing with an appointment of a guardian to the applicant, who at the material time was undergoing an ambulatory psychiatric treatment. Such an appointment was eventually revoked in September 2014 on the grounds that the Centre for Legal Aid had appointed a lawyer for the applicant in June 2014. The District Court also joined the present case file to another set of proceedings for several months. In January 2014, the District Court judge responsible for hearing the applicant’s case changed. The District Court further scheduled several hearings, which were either adjourned or cancelled.
8. On 13 May 2015 the Constitutional Court rejected the applicant’s complaint about a violation of his right to a hearing within a reasonable time in the proceedings held before the District Court as manifestly ill-founded. It concluded that the District Court proceeded with the matter actively and properly, apart from a few minor exceptions, such as the joining of a case file to another set of proceedings, changing of the judge and a procedural error made during one of the hearings. In particular, the Constitutional Court took into account the fact that the applicant had complained of excessive delays with the president of the District Court and challenged them further on appeal on each occasion.
9. Subsequently, the District Court took several steps as follows. It asked for further information from inter alia the applicant’s employer. It also scheduled a hearing for 12 August 2015, which was adjourned to 31 August 2015. It then postponed the latter hearing to an unspecified date, since it had to deal with a procedural request from the plaintiff, which was also challenged on appeal. In the absence of any further information from the parties, it appears that the proceedings are still pending and no judgment on the merits has been delivered by the District Court.
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 1 OF THE CONVENTION
10. The applicant complained that the length of the proceedings had been incompatible with the “reasonable time” requirement, laid down in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, which reads as follows:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ..., everyone is entitled to a ... hearing within a reasonable time by a ... tribunal...”
11. The Government contested that argument. They relied on the Constitutional Court’s conclusion reached in its decision of 13 May 2015, arguing that the proceedings had only lasted four years and three months at the time of the Constitutional Court’s decision on the applicant’s complaint. They further recalled that the District Court as well as the appellate court had to deal with the applicant’s complaints about the delays in the proceedings lodged with the president of that court twice. They also stated that the applicant was the defendant and thus the proceedings were not particularly significant for him, whereas they were for the plaintiff. Also, in respect of some minor shortcomings identified by the Constitutional Court, the Government referred to the Court’s decision in Horňák v. Slovakia (no. 43527/04, 24 November 2009), in which it declared the application inadmissible, even though some shorter periods of delay occurred in those proceedings. The Government emphasised the Court’s conclusion that those delays did not render the duration of those proceedings at the time of the Constitutional Court’s decisions contrary to the requirement of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention. In this connection, they proposed to declare the application manifestly ill-founded.
In respect of the follow-up period, which is after the Constitutional Court’s decision, they submitted that the applicant should have turned to the Constitutional Court again had he considered that delays were occurring in the proceedings. Since he failed to lodge such a complaint, this part of the application should be declared inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies.
12. The applicant disagreed. In particular, he submitted that the District Court should not have appointed him a guardian without having an expert opinion about his mental health. He further stated that he had the attorney representing him in the proceedings.
13. Having regard to the parties arguments, in particular to the Government’s proposal to declare this complaint manifestly ill-founded and inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies, the Court notes that both those arguments are intertwined. In order to assess whether the applicant should have sought a repeated protection before the Constitutional Court, the Court needs to first examine the Constitutional Court’s conclusions reached in its decision of 13 May 2015.
14. At the time of the Constitutional Court’s decision, the length of the proceedings was almost four years and three months for one level of jurisdiction without a single decision on the merits having been taken.
15. The Court notes that the matter before the District Court concerned the child maintenance for which the applicant had been sued by his son. Such a subject matter carried no particular complexity. The District Court had to collect some relevant information from other offices in respect of the merit’s assessment. In May 2012 the District Court learned from an expert opinion made in the context of another set of proceedings, that the applicant was undergoing psychiatric treatment. Therefore, it appointed him a guardian in April 2014, which it eventually revoked in September 2014 on the grounds that he had a legal aid lawyer appointed in the meantime, that is in June 2014.
While the Court appreciates the fact that all the aforesaid steps taken by the District Court might have been relevant for its decision-making, it is of the view that they could not have justified overall duration of the proceedings in question. Also, the Court cannot agree with the Government that the District Court proceeded with that matter properly in the proceedings. It is due to the fact that those proceedings had already started in February 2011 and to the Court’s knowledge the District Court has not delivered any decision on the merits to date. In this connection, the Court further notices that the District Court caused some delays during the contested time, which were recognised by the Constitutional Court as well (see paragraph 8 above). For example, it joined the case file to another set of proceedings for almost five months. It also changed a judge in the applicant’s case, which contributed to the overall duration.
16. The Government also tried to reproach the applicant for lodging complaints about the delays with the president of the District Court. In this regard, the Court points out that it is the applicant’s procedural right to complain to that president in accordance with the domestic law (see, for example, Ištván and Ištvánová v. Slovakia, no. 30189/07, § 28, 12 June 2012), which he had used twice and only after one year from the commencement of those proceedings (see paragraph 6 above). That, in itself cannot be said to have caused such excessive delays attributable to the applicant, in particular where the domestic law allowed him to avail himself of such a procedural avenue.
17. As for the Government’s comparative argument concerning the case of Horňák (cited above), the Court considers it irrelevant, since the decisive elements for the Court’s decisions were different in that case, in particular with regard to the actual length of the impugned proceedings before the Constitutional Court.
18. In view of above and the absence of any decision on the merits, the Court disagrees with the conclusions reached by the Constitutional Court on 13 May 2015. Therefore, it cannot but conclude that the applicant’s complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention, as claimed by the Government. Therefore, their argument is to be dismissed.
19. As for the submission of the respondent Government concerning the repeated recourse to the remedy under Article 127 of the Constitution, the Court reiterates that an applicant is normally not required to resort repeatedly to a remedy in respect of the length of proceedings where the effects produced by the decision of the competent authority in response to that applicant’s first use of that remedy do not satisfy the criteria applied by the Court. Such is the case, for example, where the domestic authority, unlike the Court, concluded that the length of the proceedings in issue was not excessive; or where a low amount of just satisfaction was granted, due consideration being given in this connection, if appropriate, to whether or not the proceedings were subsequently accelerated in accordance with the domestic authority’s order; or where the remedy in issue was incapable of providing redress in respect of the overall length of the proceedings complained of (see, for example, Sukobljević v. Croatia, no. 5129/03, § 52, 2 November 2006, Sika v. Slovakia, no. 2132/02, § 31, 13 June 2006; Šidlová v. Slovakia, no. 50224/99, §§ 49 and 50, 26 September 2006, Tomláková v. Slovakia, no. 17709/04, §§ 34-35, 5 December 2006; and Becová v. Slovakia (dec.), no. 23788/06, 18 September 2007). This above list is not exhaustive.
20. From the conclusions in paragraphs 13 to 18 above it follows that, unlike in the case of Becová (cited above), in the case at hand the Constitutional Court’s decision cannot be considered to be compatible with Convention principles (see Sukobljević, cited above, § 45).
21. In view of the above considerations the Court finds that the applicant was not required, for the purposes of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, to resort to the remedy under Article 127 of the Constitution anew. The application, accordingly, cannot be rejected for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies.
22. The period to be taken into consideration began on 28 February 2011. At the time of notification of this case to the Government in March 2016, the proceedings were still pending before the District Court. In the light of the documents in its possession, the Court notes that no judgment on the merits has been delivered yet and the impugned proceedings have not been finalised. They have thus lasted more than six years before one level of jurisdiction.
23. In view of the above consideration, the Court notes that this complaint is not inadmissible on any other grounds. It must therefore be declared admissible.
24. The Court reiterates that the reasonableness of the length of proceedings must be assessed in the light of the circumstances of the case and with reference to the following criteria: the complexity of the case, the conduct of the applicant and the relevant authorities and what was at stake for the applicant in the dispute (see, among many other authorities, Frydlender v. France [GC], no. 30979/96, § 43, ECHR 2000-VII).
25. The Court has frequently found violations of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention in cases raising issues similar to the one in the present case (see Frydlender, cited above).
26. The Court notes that, apart from the arguments already addressed above, the parties did not bring any new line of reasoning concerning the merits of the present case. In view of the particular circumstances of the case and having examined all the material submitted to it, the Court has not found any fact or argument capable of persuading it to reach a different conclusion on the merits of the applicant’s complaint. Having regard to its case-law on the subject, the Court considers that in the instant case the length of the proceedings was excessive and failed to meet the “reasonable time” requirement.
27. There has accordingly been a breach of Article 6 § 1.
II. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
28. 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.”
29. The applicant claimed 27,122.24 euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage. Concerning the former, he referred to damage allegedly sustained in the context of other sets of proceedings.
30. The Government contested that claim.
31. The Court does not discern any causal link between the violation found and the pecuniary damage alleged; it therefore rejects this claim. On the other hand, the Court considers that the applicant must have sustained non-pecuniary damage. Ruling on an equitable basis, it awards him EUR 2,700 under that head.
B. Costs and expenses
32. The applicant also claimed EUR 284.08 for the costs and expenses incurred before the Constitutional Court.
33. The Government pointed to the fact that the applicant failed to substantiate his claim by an invoice or any other supporting document establishing that he had actually paid that amount claimed.
34. According to the Court’s case-law, the applicant is entitled to reimbursement of his 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 letter of 19 July 2016 the applicant was asked to submit quantified claims, together with supporting documents such as the necessary vouchers (bills of costs). Although the applicant stated his claim, he failed to show that he had actually paid or had obligation to pay those costs. In the absence of any documents supporting the applicant’s claim, and bearing in mind the terms of Rule 60 §§ 2 and 3 of its Rules, the Court makes no award in respect of this head (see, for example, Ištván and Ištvánová v. Slovakia, no. 30189/07, § 122, 12 June 2012).
C. Default interest
35. 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 complaint concerning Article 6 § 1 admissible;
2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention;
(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicant, within three months, EUR 2,700 (two thousand seven hundred euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, in respect of pecuniary damage;
(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amount 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 25 July 2017, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Fatoş Aracı Helen Keller
Deputy Registrar President