(Application no. 26077/03)
18 January 2011
This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.
In the case of Sýkora v. Slovakia,
The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:
Lech Garlicki, President,
Vincent A. de Gaetano, judges,
and Fatoş Aracı, Deputy Section Registrar,
Having deliberated in private on 14 December 2010,
Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:
1. The case originated in an application (no. 26077/03) 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 Pavol Sýkora (“the applicant”), on 8 August 2003.
2. The applicant was represented by Mr M. Stopka, a lawyer practising in Čadca. The Government of the Slovak Republic (“the Government”) were represented by Ms A. Poláčková, their Agent, who was succeeded in that function by Ms M. Pirošíková.
3. On 15 March 2006 the President of the Fourth Section decided to give notice of the application to the Government. In accordance with Protocol No. 14, the application was allocated to a Committee of three Judges.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
4. The applicant was born in 1953 and lives in Krásno Nad Kysucou.
1. Civil proceedings
5. On 3 May 1996 the applicant, who was represented by a lawyer, brought an action against 35 individuals before the Čadca District Court. He sought a judicial ruling declaring that certain immovable property belonged to the estate of his late grandfather.
6. Between June 1996 and July 1998 the District Court gathered information concerning identification and value of the property in question and identification of the defendants, it also appointed official representatives of missing defendants and requested observations from the defendants.
7. Between June 1996 and October 1997 the District Court requested the applicant three times to submit a certificate of the quality of the disputed land. In July 1996 the applicant responded that according to the existing legal regulation it was not possible to submit it. At the court's following request of July 1997 the applicant requested twice for extension of time to submit the relevant information. After the court's last request of October 1997 the applicant submitted a different valuation of the property which the Court accepted.
8. Between 19 October 1998 and 22 April 2005 the District Court held five hearings, heard witnesses, sought to establish who were the actual defendants and secured documentary evidence.
9. At the last hearing on 16 May 2005 the District Court handed down a judgment dismissing the action. The District Court held that the applicant had no legal standing to lodge a claim for a judicial ruling declaring that the real estate belonged to the estate of his late grandfather since he was not one of the heirs. Therefore the applicant could not be considered as having a “pressing legal interest” in obtaining the declaratory ruling sought in respect of his late grandfather's patrimony.
10. The District Court was unable to have the judgment served on seven defendants since some of them had died, had not taken over the court's correspondence, had moved or their address was unknown.
11. On 5 September 2005 the applicant appealed.
12. On 4 October 2005 the District Court delivered a decision correcting a mistake in one of the defendant's identification. Subsequently the District Court repeatedly attempted to have the decision served on the defendants. The last defendant received the judgment and the correcting decision on 6 April 2006.
13. On 3 May 2006 the District Court transmitted the case file to the court of appeal which on 2 April 2008 upheld the first-instance judgment. The judgment became final on 28 October 2008.
2. Constitutional complaint
14. In February 2003 the applicant lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Court. Relying on Articles 48 § 2 and 127 of the Constitution, he complained that the length of the proceedings in his action of 1996 had been excessive.
15. In a judgment of 2 July 2003 the Constitutional Court found that there had been no violation of the applicant's constitutional right to a “hearing without undue delay”. The Constitutional Court observed that the subject-matter of the proceedings was of a certain factual complexity in that it had been difficult to determine who were the actual defendants to the action. It was also noted that the circle of defendants had been changing in the course of the proceedings. The District Court had to invite the applicant nine times to provide updated information in this respect and it was necessary to examine court files in other matters which were relevant to the applicant's action. In this context the applicant's conduct in the proceedings was found “not to be active and cooperative”. Although the conduct of the District Court had not always been completely continuous, no unjustified delays were established on its part.
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 1 OF THE CONVENTION
16. 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...”
17. The Government referred to the Constitutional Court's reasoning and conclusion to the effect that the applicant's right to a hearing within a reasonable time had not been violated at the given time. As to the further course of the proceedings following the Constitutional Court's judgment the applicant failed to lodge a fresh constitutional complaint had he believed that further undue delays occurred. Finally, referring to the case of Becová v. Slovakia (dec.), no. 23788/06, 18 September 2007, the Government argued that the applicant had not complained before the Constitutional Court of delays before the court of appeal.
18. The applicant disagreed. He argued that the proceedings were neither factually nor legally complex. He pointed to the fact that the District Court had not dealt with substantive legal issues and in May 2005 dismissed the action on the ground of lack of legal standing. It was due to the unreasonable length of the proceedings that in their course the defendants had died and the number of the sued individuals had raised. He further contested the Government's contention that the District Court's conduct had been continuous and effective.
19. The Court observes that the proceedings at the time of the Constitutional Court's decision had lasted seven years and two months at one level of jurisdiction.
20. It further notes that the District Court spent a significant period of time establishing the circle of defendants since some of them were missing or had died. Even considering the procedural complexity of the case, lying in the necessity to determine who were the actual defendants to the action and the conduct of the applicant, the Court cannot accept that the circumstances of the case justified the duration of the proceedings of more than seven years at one level of jurisdiction.
21. In particular, the conduct of the District Court cannot be considered effective when during a period of more than one year it requested the applicant three times a certificate on the quality of the land in question. Finally, it was satisfied with the value of the property calculated differently. Given the length of the proceedings at the relevant time as well as the finding of the Constitutional Court that the District Court's conduct had not always been continuous the Court considers the length of the proceedings during the assessed period to be contrary to the requirements of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
22. Since the applicant was unable to obtain redress before the Constitutional Court, the Court concludes that, as to the period of the proceedings following the Constitutional Court's decision, he was not required, for the purposes of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, to have again recourse to the remedy under Article 127 of the Constitution (see the recapitulation of the relevant principles in Becová v. Slovakia, cited above). The Government's objections must therefore be dismissed.
23. It follows that this complaint is not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention. It further notes that it 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. Having examined all the material submitted to it, the Court considers that the Government have not put forward any fact or argument capable of persuading it to reach a different conclusion in the present case. The Court notes that on 16 May 2005 the District Court dismissed the applicant's action on the ground of lack of legal standing. The judgment was upheld by the court of appeal and became final on 28 October 2008.
27. Taking into account the reasons given by the District Court to dismiss the action, the Court considers the duration of the proceedings of twelve years and six months at two levels of jurisdiction as clearly inadequate.
28. There has accordingly been a breach of Article 6 § 1.
II. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION
29. 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.”
30. In the application form submitted on 3 October 2003 the applicant claimed, provisionally, an equivalent of EUR 6,639 as just satisfaction.
31. On 27 June 2006, after the application had been communicated to the respondent Government and the parties informed that the admissibility and merits of the case would be examined at the same time, the Court invited the applicant to submit his claims for just satisfaction by 7 August 2006. The relevant part of the Registry's letter reads as follows:
“... With regard to the just satisfaction claims, I would draw your attention to Rule 60 and would remind you that failure to submit within the time allowed quantified claims, together with the required supporting documents, entails the consequence that the Chamber will either make no award of just satisfaction or else reject the claim in part. This applies even if the applicant has indicated his wishes concerning just satisfaction at an earlier stage of the proceedings...”
FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT UNANIMOUSLY
1. Declares the application admissible;
2. Holds that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
Done in English, and notified in writing on 18 January 2011, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.
Fatoş Aracı Lech
Deputy Registrar President
SÝKORA v. SLOVAKIA JUDGMENT
SÝKORA v. SLOVAKIA JUDGMENT