The applicant is the borough council of a town in the region of Murcia. It was represented before the court by Mr Enrique Martínez Miracle, a lawyer practising in Murcia.
The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
Mula Borough Council said that it had been the owner of the castle situated in the town from time immemorial. There was evidence in the form of instruments disposing of municipal rights or interests in the castle dating back to 1855 and since 1918 Mula Borough Council had been registered in the cadastral register as the owner of the castle.
During the Spanish Civil War in 1936 the archives of the Mula Land Registry were destroyed in a fire. After the civil war, in 1942, María Concepción Pidal y Cicho de Guzmán, a member of the influential family of the Marquis of Pidal, had her name entered in the new register as the owner of “a very old castle and its external walls, all in an appalling state of ruin and destruction”, on the ground that she had inherited the property in 1932 from her mother.
In 1992 the heirs of the Marquise of Pidal brought an action before the Mula district judge no. 2 against Mula Borough Council for a declaration that they had title to the castle. In a judgment of 8 March 1993 the district judge found in their favour and declared that the property in the castle was vested in them.
Mula Borough Council appealed to the Murcia Audiencia provincial, which, in a decision of 3 June 1994 delivered after an adversarial hearing, overturned the judgment of the district judge. It accepted the Borough Council’s plea that it had acquired title by adverse possession since at least 1918 and dismissed the claimants’ action. The heirs of the Marquise of Pidal appealed on points of law to the Supreme Court which, by a judgment of 2 December 1998, overturned the decision of the Audiencia provincial, and upheld the judgment of the district judge.
Relying on Article 24 of the Constitution (right to a fair trial), Mula Borough Council lodged an amparo appeal with the Constitutional Court. The appeal was dismissed on 10 May 1999, as being manifestly ill-founded.
Relying on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the applicant authority complained that it had not had a fair hearing in the Supreme Court. It complained that the judge rapporteur had been replaced without cause and that the Supreme Court had failed to rule on certain points it had raised regarding the admissibility of evidence produced by the claimants in the action for a declaration of title to the castle. In addition, it maintained that the Supreme Court had relied on unsubstantiated factual information.
Relying on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, the applicant authority complained that it had not had a fair hearing in the Supreme Court.
The Court considers it first necessary to examine whether the applicant authority is entitled to submit an application under Article 34 of the Convention. That provision provides that the Court may receive applications from any person, non-governmental organisation or group of individuals.
The applicant authority submitted that while local authorities exercised public functions, they also exercised private functions and, when so doing, acted as mere non-governmental organisations. When they were acting as public bodies, they enjoyed special prerogatives and their acts were governed by administrative law and, as a result, were amenable to review in the administrative courts. That rule did not apply when they were exercising private functions, for which they were on an equal footing with any other private body and, consequently, subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts with no prerogatives. Among the functions that came within the sphere of private law was the defence of property rights, a domain in which local authorities had no privileges and were subject to the jurisdiction of the civil courts under the same conditions as any other citizen. The applicant authority said that local authorities had existed before the State. It added that the castle in issue had belonged to Mula Borough Council from time immemorial. It was for that reason that the applicant authority had to be regarded as a group of individuals or a non-governmental organisation within the meaning of Article 34 of the Convention.
The Court reiterates that under the settled case-law of the Convention institutions, local-government organisations are public-law bodies which perform official duties assigned to them by the Constitution and by substantive law. They are therefore quite clearly governmental organisations (see Rothenthurm Commune v. Switzerland, application no. 13252/87, Commission decision of 14 December 1988, Decisions and Reports, (DR) 59, p. 251). In that connection, the Court reiterates that in international law the expression “governmental organisations” cannot be held to refer only to the Government or the central organs of the State. Where powers are distributed along decentralised lines, it refers to any national authority which exercises public functions. The applicant authority cannot be regarded as a person or group of individuals within the meaning of Article 34 of the Convention either. Such a construction would not be consistent with the distinction drawn in that provision between non-governmental organisations, on the one hand, and persons or groups of individuals on the other. The fact that local authorities have capacity to defend their property rights in the courts in the same way as private individuals or non-governmental organisations does not mean that they can be assimilated to private individuals or non-governmental organisations for the purposes of Article 34 of the Convention.
It follows that Mula Borough Council was not entitled to lodge an application under Article 34 of the Convention. The application is consequently incompatible ratione personae with the provisions of the Convention and must be dismissed in accordance with Article 35 § 4 of the Convention (see, among other authorities, Hatzitakis, and Thermaikos and Mikra Borough Councils v. Greece (dec.), nos. 48391/99 and 48392/99, 18 May 2000, unpublished).
For these reasons, the Court unanimously,
Declares the application inadmissible.
Vincent Berger Georg Ress
AYUNTAMIENTO DE MULA v. SPAIN DECISION
AYUNTAMIENTO DE MULA v. SPAIN DECISION