FOURTH SECTION

DECISION

AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF

Application no. 53054/99 
by Lilia IVANOVA 
against Finland

The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting on 28 May 2002 as a Chamber composed of

Sir Nicolas Bratza, President
 Mr M. Pellonpää
 Mr A. Pastor Ridruejo
 Mrs E. Palm
 Mr M. Fischbach
 Mr J. Casadevall
 Mr S. Pavlovschi, judges
and Mr M. O’Boyle, Section Registrar,

Having regard to the above application lodged on 25 August 1999,

Having regard to the factual information provided by the respondent Government and the comments in reply submitted by the applicant,

Having regard to the observations on the admissibility and merits submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicant,

Having deliberated, decides as follows:

THE FACTS

The applicant is a Russian national, born in 1945 and living in St. Petersburg. She is represented before the Court by Mrs Natalia Golovina, a lawyer practising in the same city. The respondent Government are represented by their Agents, Mr Holger Rotkirch, Director-General for Legal Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Mr Arto Kosonen, Director in the same Ministry.

A.  The circumstances of the case

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

The applicant resided in Finland from 1994 until 19 June 1995, when she left for the Dominican Republic as her visa was about to expire. On 28 June 1995 she had her car – a Russian-registered Opel Senator produced in 1992 – placed in a bonded customs warehouse in the harbour of Helsinki (Helsingin sataman vapaavarasto, Helsingfors hamns frilager). On her return in December 1995 the car was no longer to be found in the warehouse and she was informed that it had already been released.

The applicant’s petitions to the then Helsinki District Customs (piiritullikamari, distriktstullkammaren) and the harbour authorities of December 1997 and May 1998 were fruitless. By registered letter of 26 August 1998 addressed to “the Helsinki City Court” she then filed an action against “The Customs Warehouse of the western harbour of Helsinki”. With reference to the negligent release of her car to persons whom she had not authorised to pick it up, she claimed, inter alia, FIM 500,000 (about EUR 84,000) in compensation for the total value of the car, apparently including various optional equipment. Those working at the warehouse had, so the applicant asserted, failed to inspect carefully the identity documents presented by the strangers allegedly acting in her stead. The letter, entirely in Russian, bore the title Исковое заявление (“statement of claim”).

The applicant received no response from the Helsinki District Court (käräjäoikeus, tingsrätt) which forwarded the letter to the District Customs. The District Customs registered the letter on 9 September 1998. In a letter of 17 April 2000 it informed the applicant that the customs authorities were not responsible for the operation and maintenance of bonded warehouses. This was a matter for the Helsinki harbour authorities, i.e. the City of Helsinki. It was the duty of the warehouse keeper to ensure that the vehicle was returned to its rightful owner. According to the information obtained by the District Customs, the warehouse keeper had verified that the passport shown by the person wishing to pick it up had belonged to the applicant. The car had then been transferred to the Vaalimaa checkpoint at the Finnish-Russian border, where it had been handed over to that person following a second verification of the passport. The District Customs advised the applicant to contact the bonded warehouse in order to find out whether her car had been handed over to the wrong person.

B.  Relevant domestic law

According to section 1 of the Language Act (kielilaki, språklagen 148/1922), the languages to be used before Finnish courts and other State authorities are the national languages Finnish and Swedish. A Sami permanently residing in Finland may nonetheless use that language in accordance with the Act on the Use of the Sami Language Before Public Authorities (laki saamin kielen käyttämisestä viranomaisissa, lagen om användning av samiska hos myndigheter 516/1991).

According to chapter 5, section 1, of the Code of Judicial Procedure (oikeudenkäymiskaari, rättegångsbalken 1052/1991), a civil case shall be initiated by a written application for a summons, submitted to the registry of a district court. The case shall become pending and its preparation shall begin upon the arrival of the application to the registry.

An application for a summons shall indicate the particularised claim of the plaintiff; the detailed circumstances on which the claim is based; as far as possible, the evidence that the plaintiff intends to present and what he/she intends to prove with each piece of evidence; the claim for the compensation of legal costs, if the plaintiff deems this necessary; and the basis for the jurisdiction of the court, unless jurisdiction can be inferred from the application for a summons or the documents enclosed with it.

In addition, the application for a summons shall indicate the name of the court; the names, occupations and domiciles of the parties; the telephone numbers and the postal addresses of the parties, their legal representatives or their attorneys and the witnesses and other persons to be heard; as well as the postal address where the relevant requests, injunctions and notices can be sent. If the plaintiff is unaware of the defendant’s address, he or she shall state what has been done to discover it. The application for a summons shall be signed by the party, or, if he or she has not drawn up the application, by the person who has drawn it up. The person who has drawn up the application shall also indicate his or her occupation and domicile (section 2, as amended by Act no. 595/1993).

If an application for a summons is incomplete, the plaintiff shall be urged to supplement it before a deadline, if this is necessary in order to continue the preparation. At the same time the plaintiff shall be informed of the respect in which the application is incomplete and that the action may be found inadmissible or be dismissed, unless the application is duly supplemented (section 5, as amended by Act no. 595/1993).

The court shall rule the action inadmissible without further ado if the plaintiff fails to supplement his or her application and provided it is so incomplete that it cannot be used as a basis for the proceedings, or if the court, for another reason, cannot examine the action. The court shall refrain from issuing a summons and immediately dismiss the action by a judgment, if the claim of the plaintiff is manifestly ill-founded (section 6).

If the action has not been ruled inadmissible or dismissed in accordance with section 6, the court shall issue a summons without delay (section 8).

According to the Act on Cost-Free Proceedings (laki maksuttomasta oikeudenkäynnistä, lagen om fri rättegång 87/1973, as in force at the relevant time) a Finnish citizen or a foreigner, who is a party inter alia to a civil case, may be granted cost-free proceedings (in full or in part) if he or she cannot without difficulty meet all costs and expenses. No grant shall be made, however, if the case is of minor importance to the party in question. Cost-free proceedings may be granted by the competent court even before the proceedings have commenced in the actual case (sections 1-3). If an application to that end is refused, a separate appeal may be lodged with the court of appeal which shall deal with it speedily. In the alternative, the application may be renewed when the proceedings commence in the actual case (section 23).

According to the Decree on Cost-Free Proceedings (asetus maksuttomasta oikeudenkäynnistä, förordningen om fri rättegång 376/1973), a legal aid applicant, who is not domiciled in Finland, shall support the request for cost-free proceedings with a declaration of his or her financial situation. This declaration shall be accompanied by a certificate issued by the competent authority in the country where the applicant is domiciled. If such a certificate cannot be obtained the request may nonetheless be decided (section 2).

COMPLAINTS

1.  The applicant complains that she has been refused access to a court with a view to claiming damages for the loss of her vehicle due to the negligent release of her car. She has allegedly been discriminated against on account of her being a foreigner.

2.  The applicant further complains that her property rights were violated due to the same negligence.

The applicant invokes Article 6 § 1 and Article 14 of the Convention as well as Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

THE LAW

1.  The applicant complains that she has been refused access to a court with a view to claiming damages for the loss of her vehicle due to the negligent release of her car. She has allegedly been discriminated against on account of her being a foreigner. She invokes Article 6 § 1 and Article 14 of the Convention.

Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, in its relevant parts, reads as follows:

“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ... everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. ...”

Article 14 of the Convention reads as follows:

“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.”

The Government consider that domestic remedies have not yet been exhausted as the applicant may still initiate before the Helsinki District Court an action for damages against the bonded warehouse of the Helsinki harbour. The application for a summons should, however, be written in Finnish or Swedish and fulfil the criteria laid down in Chapter 5 of the Code of Judicial Procedure. Instead of appointing a lawyer unfamiliar with either of the two official languages the applicant could have used an interpreter. Moreover, any person without sufficient financial means, even a foreigner, is entitled to partial or full legal aid in a case under consideration before a Finnish court.

In the alternative, the Government submit that the application is manifestly ill-founded. It is primarily for the national authorities, notably the courts, to resolve problems of interpretation of domestic legislation. The role of the European Court is confined to ascertaining whether the effects of such an interpretation are compatible with the Convention. The right of access to a court is subject to limitations, in particular where the conditions of admissibility of an action are concerned, since by its very nature it calls for regulation by the State which enjoys a certain margin of appreciation in this regard. The rules on the language to be used in submissions to courts are designed to ensure the proper administration of justice and compliance with, in particular, the principle of legal certainty. Finnish law prevents a court from examining documents submitted in a foreign language.

The Government further submit that in the applicant’s civil case a submission in the Russian language was not adequate for the purpose of instituting court proceedings within the meaning of the Code of Judicial Procedure. Since on the basis of the applicant’s letter in Russian it was not possible to conclude that it was actually an application for a summons, the case never became pending and the District Court could not apply Chapter 5, section 5 of that Code. The court nevertheless acted in accordance with the principles of good administration and forwarded the applicant’s letter to the competent authority which then advised the applicant how to proceed. The applicant was also given the contact information for the Helsinki harbour and the bonded warehouse. Considering that the matter was being referred to another authority, it might have been appropriate for the District Court to inform the author of the letter of that transfer. Nevertheless, no such obligation exists under national law, nor can it be inferred from the provisions of the Convention.

The applicant contends that the District Court must have understood the contents of her statement of claim, as the matter was referred to the Customs District. She was unable to commission a counsel in Finland, those contacted to this end having requested a high fee to be paid in advance. In the current circumstances any further recourse at national level would be futile.

The Court recalls that it is primarily for the national authorities, notably the courts, to resolve problems of interpretation of domestic legislation (see, inter alia, the Brualla Gómez de la Torre v. Spain judgment of 19 December 1997, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1997-VIII, p. 2955, § 31; and Edificaciones March Gallego S.A. v. Spain judgment of 19 February 1998, Reports 1998-I, p. 290, § 33). The Court’s role is confined to ascertaining whether the effects of such an interpretation are compatible with the Convention. This applies, in particular, to the interpretation by courts of rules of a procedural nature such as time-limits governing the filing of documents or lodging of appeals (see, the Pérez de Rada Cavannilles v. Spain judgment of 28 October 1998, Reports 1998-VIII, p. 3255, § 43). The rules on the language to be used for appeals are undoubtedly designed to ensure the proper administration of justice and compliance with, in particular, the principle of legal certainty. Those concerned must expect those rules to be applied. However, the rules in question, or their application, should not prevent litigants from making use of an available remedy (see, mutatis mutandis, Leoni v. Italy, no. 43269/98, § 23, 26 October 2000, unreported).

The Court recalls furthermore that, although Article 6 § 1 of the Convention does not guarantee a right to free legal aid in all civil cases, the unavailability of legal aid may under certain circumstances give rise to a violation of the right of access to court and to a fair hearing (see, for example, the Airey v. Ireland judgment of 9 October 1979, Series A no. 32). Not every refusal of legal aid constitutes a denial of access to a court as –apart from the applicant’s financial situation – the nature and complexity of the proceedings are factors to be taken into consideration.

In the present case the Court notes that the applicant received no formal decision from the District Court declaring her intended action inadmissible. It is not for this Court to determine whether her action met – or failed to meet – the conditions for becoming pending for the purposes of Chapter 5, section 5 of the Code of Judicial Procedure. At any rate, the Court finds no indication that the Helsinki District Court arbitrarily failed to provide the applicant with the possibility of having her civil claim examined. The applicant remains free to apply for a summons against her intended adversary as long as her submissions are filed in one of the official languages of Finland. Although she has no absolute right to cost-free proceedings, she is nevertheless free to seek a grant to that effect as well as the appointment of a lawyer well-versed in either or both of the official languages. She may also appeal against any refusal to grant her legal aid.

In the aforementioned circumstances the Court does not find that the applicant has been denied access to a court for the purpose of instituting the intended civil proceedings.

Nor does the Court find any indication that the applicant has been discriminated against on the grounds of her nationality.

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.  The applicant further complains that her property rights were violated due to the same negligence as well as Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

Under Article 35 § 1 of the Convention the Court may only deal with the matter after all domestic remedies have been exhausted, according to the generally recognised rules of international law, and within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken.

It is evident from the Court’s above finding with regard to Article 6 of the Convention that the applicant has not yet exhausted the domestic remedies available to her.

It follows that this complaint must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 1 and 4 of the Convention.

For these reasons, the Court unanimously

Declares the application inadmissible.

Michael O’Boyle Nicolas Bratza 
 Registrar President

IVANOVA v. FINLAND DECISION


IVANOVA v. FINLAND DECISION