GRAND CHAMBER

DECISION

AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF

Application no. 39794/98 
by Peter GRATZINGER and Eva GRATZINGEROVA 
against the Czech Republic

The European Court of Human Rights, sitting on 10 July 2002 as a Grand Chamber composed of

Mr L. Wildhaber, President
 Mr C.L. Rozakis
 Mr J.-P. Costa
 Mr G. Ress
 Sir Nicolas Bratza
 Mr L. Loucaides
 Mr P. Kūris
 Mr I. Cabral Barreto
 Mrs F. Tulkens
 Mrs V. Strážnická
 Mr K. Jungwiert
 Mr M. Fischbach
 Mr B. Zupančič
 Mr J. Hedigan
 Mrs H.S. Greve
 Mr K. Traja
 Mr S. Pavlovschi, judges,  
and Mr P.J. Mahoney, Registrar,

Having regard to the above application lodged with the European Commission of Human Rights on 16 January 1998,

Having regard to Article 5 § 2 of Protocol No. 11 to the Convention, by which the competence to examine the application was transferred to the Court,

Having regard to the decision of 28 November 2001, by which the Chamber of the Third Section, to which the case had originally been assigned, relinquished its jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber (Article 30 of the Convention),

Having regard to the observations submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicants,

Having regard to the parties’ oral submissions at the hearing on 29 May 2002,

Having deliberated on 29 May and 10 July 2002, decides as follows:

THE FACTS

1.  The applicants, Mr Peter Gratzinger and Mrs Eva Gratzingerova, are United States nationals, both of whom were born in 1949 and live in San Rafael (California, United States of America). At the hearing on 29 May 2002 they were represented by Ms D. Satrapová, of the Czech Bar, assisted by Mr D. Novotný and Ms L. Urbanová, advisers. The respondent Government were represented by their Agent, Mr V. Schorm, assisted by Ms E. Vachovcová, adviser.

A.  The circumstances of the case

2.  The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.

3.  In 1978 the applicants acquired property – a family home, a plot of building land and a garden – under a contract of sale. In July 1982 they went to Switzerland on holiday and did not return. They initially settled in Italy and subsequently moved to the United States of America, where they acquired American nationality in April 1989, thereby automatically losing their Czechoslovak nationality by virtue of the 1928 Treaty of Naturalisation between the former Czechoslovak Republic and the United States of America1.

4.  In a judgment of 8 March 1983 the Liberec District Court (okresní soud) convicted the applicants in absentia of deserting the Republic (opuštění republiky), sentencing them both to two years’ imprisonment and ordering the confiscation of all their property. In October 1983 the State sold the property it had confiscated from the applicants to a Mr and Mrs C. According to the applicants, the sale contravened the legal provisions in force at the material time as the purchase price was lower than the amount determined in an expert valuation. In their view, the purchasers, who were communist officials, were given preferential treatment by the former regime.

5.  On 12 September 1990 the same court declared that, pursuant to section 2 of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act (Law no. 119/1990), the applicants’ convictions and all ancillary decisions had been automatically quashed with retrospective effect.

6.  In a judgment of 12 July 1994 the Constitutional Court (Ústavní soud) abrogated the condition of permanent residence within the territory of the Czech Republic, laid down in sections 3(1) and 3(4) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act (Law no. 87/1991), for persons claiming restitution2. It also set a new deadline, 1 May 1995, for the lodging of restitution claims by the persons concerned.

7.  On 1 November 1994 the applicants made a request to Mr and Mrs C. under section 4(2) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act for an agreement on the return of the property. On 9 November 1994 Mr and Mrs C. informed them that they would not accede to their request.

8.  On 10 January 1995 the applicants brought a civil action in the Liberec District Court for recovery of the property.

9.  In a judgment of 30 September 1996 the District Court dismissed the applicants’ action, noting that they had not satisfied one of the requirements laid down in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act, namely Czech nationality, and were therefore not entitled to apply to recover the property. The court also noted that it had not been established that Mr and Mrs C. had acquired the property by means of an unlawful advantage.

10.  The applicants appealed against that judgment, arguing in particular that they had been rehabilitated by the courts and that their property rights had therefore been restored, since the relevant decision had stated that the decision to confiscate their property had been quashed with retrospective effect.

11.  In a judgment of 13 February 1997 the Ústí nad Labem Regional Court (krajský soud) dismissed the applicants’ appeal and upheld the judgment delivered at first instance, noting in particular that the requirement of Czech nationality laid down in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act was not contrary to Article 11 § 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Listina základních práv a svobod). The court did not consider it necessary to stay the appeal proceedings and refer the case to the Constitutional Court for a review of the constitutionality of the requirement.

12.  On 22 April 1997 the applicants lodged a constitutional appeal (ústavní stížnost), alleging a violation of Articles 1, 2, 11, 12 and 14 of the Charter and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They argued that although Article 11 § 2 of the Charter provided for the possibility of restricting ownership of certain types of property to Czech nationals, that provision was not applicable in their case, since their convictions and all ancillary decisions had been quashed with retrospective effect. They accordingly considered that they had never stopped being the owners of the property, relying in that connection on judgment no. I ÚS 117/93 of the Constitutional Court, in which it had been held that the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act merely indicated the procedure for making restitution claims. The applicants also requested the Constitutional Court to abrogate the Czech nationality requirement laid down in sections 3(1) and 19(1) of the Act.

13.  On 22 May 1997 the Constitutional Court stayed the proceedings in the applicants’ constitutional appeal, in accordance with section 78(1) of the Constitutional Court Act (Law no. 182/1993).

14.  On 23 May 1997 the reporting judge dismissed the applicants’ application for the abrogation of section 3(1) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act, noting that the Constitutional Court was already reviewing the constitutionality of the condition that those making restitution claims had to have Czech nationality (in case no. Pl. ÚS 33/96). He nonetheless observed that the applicants were entitled to join the proceedings in that case as an intervening party within the meaning of section 35(2) of the Constitutional Court Act.

15.  On 4 June 1997 the Constitutional Court held a public hearing in plenary session in case no. Pl. ÚS 33/96, with the applicants present as an intervening party, and subsequently dismissed an application by M.D., a citizen of the United States of America, for the abrogation of section 3(1) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act, noting, in particular, that by Article 11 § 2 of the Charter, “the law shall also provide that certain types of property may be owned exclusively by nationals or by legal persons with their registered office in the territory of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic”. It accordingly held that Article 11 § 2 of the Charter was a special provision in relation to the constitutional principle of equality between all nationals in the acquisition and protection of property rights and thus afforded the legislature some latitude in limiting the number of entitled persons for the purposes of legislation on restitution.

16.  On 10 June 1997 the applicants lodged further pleadings with the Constitutional Court concerning their application for the abrogation of section 19(1) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act.

17.  On 13 August 1997 the reporting judge of the Constitutional Court dismissed that application, observing, in particular, that the court had already ruled on the legal effects of decisions quashing ancillary property-confiscation penalties in its judgment of 11 March 1997 (no. Pl. ÚS 4/94), in which it had pointed out that a decision granting judicial rehabilitation did not restore ownership of immovable property that had been confiscated. He noted that section 23(2) of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act provided that the conditions for making restitution claims arising from quashed confiscation decisions, and also the method and scope of compensation, were to be laid down in a special law, namely the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act.

18.  On 2 September 1997 the reporting judge of the Constitutional Court dismissed the applicants’ appeal against the Regional Court’s judgment of 13 February 1997 as manifestly ill-founded.

B.  Relevant domestic law

Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Act no. 2/1993)

19.  Article 11 §§ 1 and 2 provides, inter alia, that everyone has the right to own property. All owners’ property rights are equal in the eyes of the law and enjoy the same legal protection. The right to inherit is guaranteed. The law provides that certain kinds of property essential to the needs of society as a whole, to the development of the national economy and to the public interest may be owned exclusively by the State, municipalities or specified legal entities; the law also provides that certain kinds of property may be owned exclusively by nationals or by legal persons with their registered office in the territory of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

20.  Article 42 § 1 provides that wherever the Charter uses the term “national”, this is to be understood as referring to a citizen of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

Judicial Rehabilitation Act (Law no. 119/1990)

21.  Section 1 states that the purpose of the Act is to provide for the quashing of convictions that are incompatible with the principles of a democratic society respecting the political rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and guaranteed by international treaties, and to ensure the social and economic rehabilitation of persons so convicted.

22.  Section 2 provides that all convictions from 25 February 1948 to 1 January 1990 that contravened those principles and related to events occurring after 5 May 1945 are to be quashed with retrospective effect, together with any ancillary decisions. Courts are to examine of their own motion all matters relating to the rehabilitation of convicted persons.

23.  Section 23(2) provides that the implementing conditions for claims arising from quashed confiscation decisions, and also the method of redress and the scope of such claims, are to be laid down in a special law.

Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act (Law no. 87/1991)

24.  Section 1 provides that the purpose of the Act is to mitigate the effects of certain wrongs (zmírnění následků některých majetkových a jiných křivd) committed between 25 February 1948 and 1 January 1990 (“the period concerned”) which were incompatible with the principles of a democratic society respecting the rights of citizens as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Act also lays down the conditions for lodging claims arising from quashed confiscation decisions, and also the method of redress and the scope of such claims.

25.  Section 2 provides that infringements of property rights which occurred during the period concerned are to be redressed either by restitution of property or by pecuniary compensation (vydání věci nebo poskytnutí  finanční  náhrady).

26.  Section 3(1) provides that all natural persons who are nationals of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic are entitled to claim restitution of any of their property that passed into State ownership in the circumstances referred to in section 6 (“entitled person” – oprávněná osoba). 

27.  Section 4 requires the State and/or any legal entity in possession of confiscated property on the date on which the Act came into force to return the property. Paragraph 2 provides that any natural person who acquired property from the State unlawfully or by means of an unlawful advantage is likewise required to return the property.

28.  Section 8(5) provides that where such property cannot be returned for the reasons listed in paragraphs 1 to 4, the entitled person is to receive pecuniary compensation in accordance with section 13.

29.  Section 13(1) provides, in particular, that an entitled person may not receive pecuniary compensation unless restitution of immovable property is impossible. The third paragraph provides that claims for compensation must be made within one year of the date on which the Act came into force or within one year of the service of a court decision dismissing a claim for restitution.

30.  Section 19(1) provides that any person who has been rehabilitated in accordance with Law no. 119/1990 is entitled to claim restitution provided that he or she satisfies the conditions laid down in section 3(1).

31.  Section 20(1) provides that any legal entity within the meaning of section 4(1) and any natural person within the meaning of section 4(2) must return confiscated property acquired from the State where the State itself obtained it as a result of the conviction of the original owners; the central administrative authorities of the Republic are likewise required to return any confiscated property.

Treaty of Naturalisation, concluded between Czechoslovakia and the United States of America on 16 July 1928 (date of entry into effect: 14 November 1929)

32.  Article I provided, inter alia, that citizens of the United States of America who had been or were to be naturalised in the territory of Czechoslovakia were to be regarded by the United States as having lost their previous citizenship and become Czechoslovakian citizens. Similarly, citizens of Czechoslovakia who had been or were to be naturalised within the territory of the United States of America were to be regarded by Czechoslovakia as having lost their previous citizenship and become United States citizens. The term “citizen” in the treaty was to be understood as referring to a citizen of the United States of America or of Czechoslovakia as defined in the relevant national legislation.

33.  Article II provided that citizens of either State who had been naturalised by virtue of Article I could not be prosecuted or punished on returning to the territory of the country of which they had formerly been citizens.

Constitutional Court Act (Law no. 182/1993, version in force at the material time)

34.  Section 35(2) provided that a constitutional appeal was inadmissible if the Constitutional Court was already considering a similar case; where the appeal had been lodged by an authorised appellant, the appellant was entitled to join the proceedings in the earlier constitutional appeal as an intervening party.

35.  Section 43(1)(f) provided that the reporting judge was to dismiss an appeal if it was inadmissible, without holding a public hearing and without the parties being present, except where the Constitutional Court Act provided otherwise.

36.  Section 78(1), which is still in force and has not been amended, provides, inter alia, that where an application for the abrogation of legislation is joined to a constitutional appeal, the bench of judges is to stay the proceedings and refer the application to the full court for a decision.

C.  Case-law on restitution

Constitutional Court judgment no. 164/1994 of 12 July 1994, which became final on 1 November 1994

37.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court abrogated the condition of permanent residence within the Czech Republic laid down in sections 3(1) and 3(4) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act for persons making restitution claims. It held that the condition was incompatible with, inter alia, Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention. The court also set a new deadline, 1 May 1995, for the lodging of restitution claims by the persons concerned.

Constitutional Court (First Division) judgment no. 117/93 of 2 February 1995

38.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court noted that where a conviction and all ancillary decisions concerning the confiscation of property had been quashed pursuant to the Judicial Rehabilitation Act, the person thus rehabilitated had not lost his or her ownership of the property, since the decisions to confiscate it had been quashed with retrospective effect. The fact that, by virtue of section 23(2) of the Act, the person concerned was required to make a claim in accordance with sections 19 and 20 of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act did not in any way affect his or her status as owner. The Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act merely indicated the procedure for obtaining restitution.

Constitutional Court (Second Division) judgment no. 173/95 of 11 July 1996

39.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court held that court decisions whereby decisions concerning the confiscation of property had been quashed pursuant to the Judicial Rehabilitation Act formed a basis on which anyone thus rehabilitated was entitled to apply to be entered in the land register as the owner. The Constitutional Court further noted that such an entry could not in any way affect the creation, alteration or termination of the right to own the property, but that it created an interest in remainder (nuda proprietas).

Constitutional Court (First Division) judgment no. 130/96 of 3 December 1996

40.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court considered that judicial and administrative authorities dealing with matters of restitution under the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act were required to undertake a meticulous examination of cases in which convictions and confiscation decisions had been quashed pursuant to the Judicial Rehabilitation Act and in which the persons thus rehabilitated had not lost their right to own their property, as the decisions in question had been quashed with retrospective effect.

Constitutional Court (Full Court) judgment no. 4/97 of 11 March 1997 and Constitutional Court (Fourth Division) judgment no. 20/97 of 28 April 1997

41.  In these judgments the Constitutional Court departed from precedent and held that court decisions whereby decisions concerning the confiscation of property had been quashed pursuant to the Judicial Rehabilitation Act did not form a basis on which anyone thus rehabilitated was entitled to be entered in the land register as the owner. It held that such decisions did not restore previous ownership, since section 23(2) of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act provided that the conditions for implementing that Act were laid down in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act.

Constitutional Court (Full Court) judgment no. 33/96 of 4 June 1997

42.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court noted that by Article 11 § 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, “the law shall also provide that certain types of property may be owned exclusively by nationals or by legal persons with their registered office in the territory of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic” (by Article 42 § 1 of the Charter and section 1(2) of Constitutional Act no. 4/1993, the provision means Czech citizens and the territory of the Czech Republic). Article 11 § 2 of the Charter was therefore a special provision in relation to the constitutional principle of equality between all nationals in the acquisition and protection of property rights and thus afforded the legislature some latitude in limiting the number of entitled persons for the purposes of legislation on restitution.

Constitutional Court (First Division) judgment no. 67/97 of 29 October 1997

43.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court maintained that position, noting that the Judicial Rehabilitation Act and the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act operated in tandem. Although section 2(1) in fine of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act provided that the relevant convictions and all ancillary decisions had been quashed with retrospective effect, so that persons thus rehabilitated were in the same position as if they had not lost the right to own their property, it followed from section 23(2) of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act that they were not entitled to recover their property by means of an action to establish title. The appropriate procedure and the scope of restitution were defined in a special law, namely the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act.

Constitutional Court (First Division) judgment no. 346/96 of 30 June 1998

44.  In this judgment the Constitutional Court confirmed its case-law to the effect that pursuant to section 2(1) of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act, convictions and all ancillary decisions had been automatically quashed with retrospective effect. The purpose of the Act had been not only to review the cases of people who had been unlawfully convicted, but also to counteract the harsh use of criminal sanctions and to ensure that such people could be reintegrated into society, obtain adequate compensation and return to their homes. Section 2(1) was a special provision but also took into account the application of other laws on restitution, namely the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act and the Land Ownership Act.

D.  International instruments and case-law

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

45.  Article 26 provides that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In that respect, the law must prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Views of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on communication no. 516/1992 submitted by Alina Šimůnek and Others against the Czech Republic (19 July 1995), communication no. 586/1994 submitted by Josef Frank Adam against the Czech Republic (23 July 1996) and communication no. 747/1997 submitted by Karel Des Fours Walderode against the Czech Republic (2 November 2001)

46.  The communications were submitted by a number of people who had left the former Czech and Slovak Federal Republic between 1968 and 1987, allegedly for political reasons, and whose property had consequently been confiscated by the communist Government. The authors of the communications were a Polish national resident in Canada, an American national resident in Switzerland and a Czech national resident in Switzerland (no. 516/1992), an Australian national resident in Australia (no. 586/1994) and a Czech and Austrian national resident in the Czech Republic (no. 747/1997). The Committee concluded that the requirements of residence within the territory of the Czech Republic (a requirement that had already been abolished by the date on which the Committee adopted its views) and Czech nationality for persons lodging restitution claims were unreasonable and that the denial of restitution or pecuniary compensation to the authors constituted a violation of Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

COMPLAINTS

47.  The applicants complained that they were unable to recover their former property on the ground that they no longer had Czech nationality, in spite of the fact that the decision to confiscate the property had been quashed with retrospective effect. They relied on Article 8 of the Convention, Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and the principle of non-discrimination embodied in Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

48.  Relying on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, they further complained that the reporting judge of the Constitutional Court had dismissed their constitutional appeals as manifestly ill-founded without holding a public hearing in which they could have taken part.

THE LAW

A.  Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 14 of the Convention

49.  The applicants complained, firstly, that it was impossible for them to recover their property. They submitted that sections 3(1) and 19(1) of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act, which provided that only Czech nationals could make restitution claims, were incompatible with the Convention. In that connection, they also relied on Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the prohibition of all forms of discrimination.

50.  The Court notes at the outset that its jurisdiction extends only to applying the European Convention on Human Rights and not to applying other international treaties. However, in interpreting the provisions of the Convention, it may find it helpful to be guided by provisions of other international legal instruments. In the instant case the applicants relied on Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Court considers that although it cannot examine their complaint under that provision, an examination under Article 14 of the Convention would be appropriate, since both provisions prohibit discrimination.

51.  However, while Article 26 of the Covenant may be applied independently and also guarantees the equality of all persons before the law, Article 14 of the Convention may only be applied in conjunction with another Article of the Convention or of its Protocols. The Court considers, however, that these differences do not prevent the applicants’ complaints alleging discrimination from being examined under Article 14 of the Convention in conjunction with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

52.  Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 provides:

“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.

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”

53.  Article 14 of the Convention provides:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

54.  It should be noted that in their initial application the applicants also complained under Article 8 of the Convention of an infringement of their right to respect for their home, that complaint being linked to those under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 14 of the Convention. However, on the day of the public hearing they informed the Court that they no longer intended to pursue that complaint.

55.  The Court is therefore not called upon to examine that part of the application.

1.  Submissions of the parties

(a)  The Government

56.  The respondent Government firstly raised an objection that the complaints under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 14 of the Convention were incompatible ratione materiae with the provisions of the Convention.

57.  As to the applicability of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the Government could see no reason for the Court to depart from the hitherto settled case-law of the Convention institutions (see, in particular, Brežný and Brežný v. Slovakia, application no. 21131/93, Commission decision of 4 March 1996, Decisions and Reports 85, p. 65; Malhous v. the Czech Republic (dec.) [GC], no. 33071/96, ECHR 2000-XII; Brumărescu v. Romania [GC], no. 28342/95, ECHR 1999-VII; and Zwierzyński v. Poland, no. 34049/96, ECHR 2001-VI). They asserted that even though, pursuant to the Judicial Rehabilitation Act (Law no. 119/1990), the applicants’ convictions and the decisions to confiscate their property had been quashed with retrospective effect, the applicants had never had a sufficiently tangible legitimate expectation of restitution and had never obtained the rights associated with ownership of the property in issue since they had not been able to use or even dispose of it. The Government submitted that the applicants’ ownership had not been automatically restored by the Judicial Rehabilitation Act, even in the form of an interest in remainder (nuda proprietas), and pointed out that the property in issue was still owned by the natural persons who had acquired it under the communist regime. The applicants had not been re-entered in the land register as the owners, and no authority had ever treated them as such.

58.  The Government further pointed out that section 23(2) of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act provided that a special law would be enacted in order to lay down the “implementing conditions for claims arising from quashed confiscation decisions, and also the method of redress and the scope of such claims”, the special law being the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act. They added that the wording of section 23 of the Judicial Rehabilitation Act was so vague and general that no inferences could be drawn from it as to what rights would result from the subsequent law, what form they would take or what their scope would be. Consequently, they argued, such an intangible claim could not be regarded as a “possession” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The applicants might, at best, have “cherished a hope”, but, seeing that the legislation was unfavourable to them, they had not had a legitimate expectation that that hope might actually be fulfilled by their having their former property returned to them.

59.  The Government accepted that a few isolated judgments of the Constitutional Court might have given the impression that ownership of formerly confiscated property could be entered in the land register without following the procedure laid down in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act. In practice, however, that had not happened, because of the other legal rules that also had to be taken into account. As a result, former owners who had recently been rehabilitated could only have their right of property restored if they satisfied the conditions set out in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act.

60.  In the eventuality of the Court’s ruling that the application was not inadmissible, the Government stated that the interference with the applicants’ right had been in accordance with the public interest and had not been manifestly disproportionate to the aim pursued by the legislation on restitution, namely to strike a balance between the interests of those who had suffered wrongs in the totalitarian past, those who had acquired such persons’ property, often in good faith, and, lastly, the State, which was in danger of running into debt by rectifying mistakes that had occurred in the past. The Government therefore argued, in the alternative, that although the nationality requirement, together with any other conditions that had to be satisfied before restitution could take place, had meant that the applicants had been deprived of their property, such conditions came within the margin of appreciation afforded to States by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

61.  With regard to Article 14 of the Convention, the Government argued that, as in the Brežný and Brežný v. Slovakia case cited above, it was impossible to envisage that provision being applicable independently of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. However, if the Court found that the application was compatible ratione materiae with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, the Government considered that the nationality requirement in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act was an objective requirement and a reasonable criterion for distinguishing between restitution claimants, because the very concept of restitution embodied the objective of mitigating the effects of certain wrongs committed under the communist regime and returning property to those who could best look after it. As to Law no. 403/1990 on mitigating the effects of certain infringements of property rights, which did not contain a nationality requirement, the Government maintained that it had to be seen as a by-product of efforts to achieve economic transformation and that it had been very limited in scope.

(b)  The applicants

62.  The applicants disputed the Government’s submission that their application was inadmissible. As to whether Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 was applicable, they maintained that once they had been rehabilitated by the courts and the decisions to confiscate their property had been quashed with retrospective effect, their ownership had been restored. In their submission, the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act had been intended merely to lay down the procedure for recovering what was de facto their property, and had given them a legal title on the basis of which the Czech courts had been required to ensure the unhindered enjoyment of their right of property. They argued that the confiscation decisions had been declared null and void and that the State had undertaken, amongst other things, to lay down the conditions for making claims on that basis and to protect the property of rehabilitated persons from the defence of adverse possession. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court had held that the right conferred in such cases amounted to an interest in remainder and that the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act was concerned solely with the transfer of property and not with the question of title.

63.  The applicants considered their position to be similar to that of the applicants in the case of Pressos Compania Naviera S.A. and Others v. Belgium (judgment of 20 November 1995, Series A no. 332), in which the Court had held that claims for compensation that had come into existence as soon as the damage had occurred “constituted an asset” and therefore amounted to a “possession” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (§ 31). They asserted that in its decision on the abrogation of the requirement of permanent residence, the Constitutional Court had held that valid legal claims had arisen from the rehabilitation decisions taken in 1990. In the eventuality of the Court’s holding that they had not been entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of the possessions in issue, the applicants argued that they had at least had a legitimate expectation, which had been even greater than that of the applicants in the case of Pine Valley Developments Ltd and Others v. Ireland (judgment of 29 November 1991, Series A no. 222), in which the Court had held that the legitimate expectation of being able to carry out a proposed development had to be regarded, for the purposes of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, as a “component part of the property in question” (§ 51). In support of that argument, the applicants relied, inter alia, on the general principles of international law embodied in Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, entailing the obligation to pay compensation to non-nationals in cases of expropriation (see Lithgow and Others v. the United Kingdom, 8 July 1986, Series A no. 102, p. 49, § 117).

64.  Consequently, the applicants submitted, the Czech courts’ refusal to secure to them the exercise of their right of property amounted to a deprivation of that right within the meaning of the Convention. The applicants argued that the respondent Government had been unable to justify that interference on any public-interest grounds and that there had not been any exceptional circumstances capable of justifying the failure to award compensation. They again relied on the Lithgow and Others judgment cited above, in which the Court had held: “[T]here may well be good grounds for drawing a distinction between nationals and non-nationals as far as compensation is concerned. To begin with, non-nationals are more vulnerable to domestic legislation: unlike nationals, they will generally have played no part in the election or designation of its authors nor have been consulted on its adoption. Secondly, although a taking of property must always be effected in the public interest, different considerations may apply to nationals and non-nationals and there may well be legitimate reason for requiring nationals to bear a greater burden in the public interest than non-nationals.” (§ 116)

65.  The applicants maintained that their case was to be distinguished from Brežný and Brežný v. Slovakia in that, as they were not nationals of the State that had infringed their rights (unlike the Brežný brothers), their right of property qualified for more extensive protection than that of nationals. Furthermore, their legitimate expectation had been fortified by the position of the Constitutional Court, which had upheld title in a number of similar cases. They consequently did not rely on the right to restitution, which was not guaranteed by the Convention, but sought protection of their right of property over their possessions.

66.  The applicants also argued that Article 14 of the Convention was applicable. In their submission, if the Czech Republic had decided to enable rehabilitated persons to recover their former possessions, it could not deny that possibility to non-nationals, in the light of the Court’s case-law (see Darby v. Sweden, 23 October 1990, Series A no. 187, p. 13, § 34, and Gaygusuz v. Austria, 16 September 1996, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996-IV, p. 1142, §§ 40-41). Submitting that their position was the same as that of Mr Gaygusuz in the case cited above, the applicants considered that they were in a similar position to Czech nationals as regards the restitution of their property and the enjoyment of their right of property. In their opinion, there was no reasonable justification for denying foreigners the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. Having regard to the nationality requirement in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act and to national legislation on the acquisition of Czech nationality, the applicants submitted that restitution of property was restricted to people who had always been Czech nationals and was not available to a specific group of rehabilitated persons, namely those who had not acquired Czech nationality and those who had acquired it only after the deadline for making restitution claims had passed, for example under the Illegality of the Communist Regime Act (Law no. 193/1999).

67.  The applicants considered that the Court should reach the same conclusion as the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which had found in several of its opinions that the requirement of Czech nationality for persons making restitution claims was unreasonable and that the denial, on the ground of nationality, of restitution or pecuniary compensation amounted to a violation of Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

2.  The Court’s assessment

68.  The Court considers that it must first determine whether Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is applicable in the instant case, as Article 14 of the Convention complements the other substantive provisions of the Convention and its Protocols. It has no independent existence since it has effect solely in relation to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms safeguarded by the Convention; there can be no room for its application unless the facts in issue fall within the ambit of one or more of its provisions (see, among other authorities, Karlheinz Schmidt v. Germany, 18 July 1994, Series A no. 291-B, p. 32, § 22, and Gaygusuz v. Austria, cited above, p. 1141, § 36).

69.  In this connection, the Court points out that the Convention institutions have consistently held that “possessions” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 can be either “existing possessions” (see Van der Mussele v. Belgium, 23 November 1983, Series A no. 70, p. 23, § 48; the Brežný and Brežný v. Slovakia decision cited above; and Malhous, cited above) or assets, including claims, in respect of which an applicant can argue that he has at least a “legitimate expectation” that they will be realised (see, for example, Pressos Compania Naviera S.A. and Others, cited above, p. 21, § 31, and Ouzounis and Others v. Greece, no. 49144/99, 18 April 2002, § 24). On the other hand, the hope that a long-extinguished property right may be revived cannot be regarded as a “possession” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1; nor can a conditional claim which has lapsed as a result of the failure to fulfil the condition.

70.  In the instant case the applicants did not decide to bring a court action for restitution until 1995, after the Constitutional Court had abrogated the requirement of permanent residence laid down in the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act. They were aware that they did not satisfy the Czech nationality requirement, which still applied; in their submission, it was at that moment that they realised that they were being discriminated against.

71.  The action therefore did not concern “existing possessions” and the applicants did not have the status of owners but were merely claimants, like the applicants in the Brežný and Brežný v. Slovakia case cited above. In spite of their judicial rehabilitation in 1990, their former property was still in the possession of natural persons who had acquired it under the communist regime and who had been entered in the land register as the owners. The applicants therefore continued to be deprived of their right of property.

72.  As to whether the applicants had at least a “legitimate expectation” that a current, enforceable claim would be determined in their favour, the Court notes that at the time when they brought their action for restitution, the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act provided that only those rehabilitated by the courts who had Czech nationality were entitled to make restitution claims. Seeing that the applicants were not entitled either to the return of the property or to compensation in lieu and that the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act did not afford them any possibility of regaining their former ownership, the only chance of the applicants’ claim succeeding lay in having the legal provision that imposed the nationality requirement set aside on the ground of unconstitutionality.

73.  However, the belief that the law then in force would be changed to the applicants’ advantage cannot be regarded as a form of legitimate expectation for the purposes of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The Court considers that there is a difference between a mere hope of restitution, however understandable that hope may be, and a legitimate expectation, which must be of a nature more concrete than a mere hope and be based on a legal provision or a legal act such as a judicial decision (see Pressos Compania Naviera S.A. and Others v. Belgium, cited above, p. 21, § 31).

74.  The Court accordingly concludes that the applicants have not shown that they had a claim which was sufficiently established to be enforceable, and they therefore cannot argue that they had a “possession” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. Consequently, neither the judgments of the national courts nor the application of the Extrajudicial Rehabilitation Act in their case amounted to interference with the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions, and the facts of the case do not fall within the ambit of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

75.  It follows that the complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is incompatible ratione materiae with the provisions of the Convention within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 § 4.

76.  Having regard to the fact that Article 14 of the Convention is not autonomous and to the conclusion that Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is not applicable, the Court considers that Article 14 cannot apply in the instant case.

77.  It follows that the complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 taken together with Article 14 is incompatible ratione materiae with the provisions of the Convention within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 § 4.

B.  Article 6 § 1 of the Convention

78.  The applicants also complained that the Constitutional Court had infringed their right to a fair and public hearing as guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the relevant part of which provides:

“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ..., everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing ... by [a] ... tribunal...”

1.  Submissions of the parties

(a) The Government

79.  The Government submitted that this complaint was manifestly ill-founded. They pointed out that, by virtue of the Constitutional Court Act (Law no. 182/1993), the reporting judge’s task was to prepare cases for examination by a bench of judges or the full court, unless there were grounds for dismissing the constitutional appeal. To that end, the reporting judge had first to consider whether the application was justified; in the applicants’ case he had held that the application was ill-founded. The Government referred in that connection to the Convention institutions’ case-law to the effect that States were entitled to make such procedural arrangements as they considered appropriate for appeals to their supreme judicial bodies, and to determine the extent of the supervisory powers conferred on those bodies.

(b)  The applicants

80.  The applicants argued that the fact that the reporting judge had dismissed their constitutional appeal without holding a public hearing contravened the principles of a fair trial as guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention. They pointed out that an application identical to their constitutional appeal had subsequently been lodged by members of the Czech parliament and had been examined on the merits.

2.  The Court’s assessment

81.  The Court reiterates that the holding of court hearings in public constitutes a fundamental principle enshrined in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention. This public character protects litigants against the administration of justice in secret with no public scrutiny; it is also one of the means whereby confidence in the courts can be maintained. By rendering the administration of justice transparent, publicity contributes to the achievement of the aim of Article 6 § 1, namely a fair trial, the guarantee of which is one of the fundamental principles of any democratic society, within the meaning of the Convention (see, for example, Diennet v. France, 26 September 1995, Series A no. 325-A, pp. 14-15, § 33, and Malhous v. the Czech Republic [GC], no. 33071/96, 12 July 2001, § 55). The Court’s task is, above all, to ascertain whether the special features of the domestic proceedings viewed as a whole justify a departure from the principle that there should be a public hearing (see, among other authorities, Helmers v. Sweden, 29 October 1991, Series A no. 212-A, p. 15, §§ 31-32).

82.  In the instant case the Court notes that public hearings were held at first instance and on appeal at which the factual and legal issues of the applicants’ case were examined. Admittedly, the proceedings in the Constitutional Court were conducted without a public hearing. However, since those proceedings were limited to an examination of constitutional issues, they entailed an assessment not of points of fact but of points of law. The Court accordingly considers that the fact that no public hearing was held in the proceedings in the Constitutional Court was sufficiently compensated by the public hearings held at the decisive stage of the proceedings, when the merits of the applicants’ restitution claims were determined (see Constantinescu v. Romania, no. 28871/95, § 53, ECHR 2000-VI).

83.  It is true that the applicants’ constitutional appeals were considered by the reporting judge and not by a bench of the Constitutional Court. In this connection, it should be reiterated that the national authorities must also have regard to the demands of efficiency and economy, which would be hampered if hearings were systematically held in proceedings of this kind (see, among other authorities, Schuler-Zgraggen v. Switzerland, 24 June 1993, Series A no. 263, pp. 19-20, § 58 in fine, and Hesse-Anger and Anger v. Germany (dec.), no. 45835/99, ECHR 2001-VI).

84.  With regard to the applicants’ submissions concerning the fairness of the proceedings as guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the Court finds no appearance of a violation of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention or its Protocols. In particular, 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 Schenk v. Switzerland, 12 July 1988, Series A no. 140, p. 29, §§ 45-46, and García Ruiz v. Spain [GC], no. 30544/96, § 28, ECHR 1999-I).

85.  Having regard to those circumstances, the Court considers that the applicants’ submissions do not contain any allegations capable of giving rise to a finding of a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

86.  It follows that this part of the application is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

For these reasons, the Court, by a majority,

Declares the application inadmissible.

Paul Mahoney Luzius Wildhaber 
 Registrar President

1.  The treaty (cf. paras 32-33 below) was signed on 16 July 1928 and came into force on 14 November 1929. It was published in the Official Gazette as no. 169/1929. On 24 September 1997 the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic gave notice that the treaty had ceased to be effective on 20 August 1997.


1.  Judgment no. Pl. ÚS 3/94, published in the Official Gazette as no. 164/1994 (cf. para 37 below).


GRATZINGER v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC DECISION


GRATZINGER v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC DECISION