AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF
Application no. 61560/00
by Kalevi HAUTAKANGAS
The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting on 17 January 2006 as a Chamber composed of:
Sir Nicolas Bratza, President,
Mr G. Bonello,
Mr M. Pellonpää,
Mr K. Traja,
Mr L. Garlicki,
Mr J. Borrego Borrego,
Ms L. Mijović, judges,
and Mr M. O’Boyle, Section Registrar,
Having regard to the above application lodged on 11 September 2000,
Having regard to the partial decision of 4 May 2004,
Having regard to the observations submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicant,
Having deliberated, decides as follows:
The applicant, Mr Kalevi Hautakangas, is a Finnish national, who was born in 1948 and lives in Mutala. He was represented before the Court by Mr Jukka Ahomäki, a lawyer practising in Järvenpää. The respondent Government were represented by their Agent, Mr Arto Kosonen, Director in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
A. The circumstances of the case
The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
The applicant sustained injuries to his shoulder, arms and wrists in an accident on 9 March 1994 while driving a kick sledge. An insurance company granted the applicant a daily allowance (päiväraha, dagpenning) for 100 % reduction of his working capacity from 11 March 1994 to 8 March 1995.
As the applicant apparently had continued problems, especially with his right wrist, he submitted medical opinions to the insurance company, applying for a continued daily allowance / accident pension for the period from 8 March 1995 onwards. On 14 June 1995 the insurance company rejected his application and denied the compensation claim for loss of income, considering that the applicant’s working capacity was reduced by less than 10 % and that he was able to work at his post as technical director in a company.
The applicant sought medical help in 1996 and participated, inter alia, in a rehabilitation examination. Right elbow nerve damage and signs of damage to the right wrist as well as depression were diagnosed in a medical opinion dated 29 April 1996. The applicant also underwent an isotope survey on 7 January 1997 and submitted to the insurance company a medical opinion dated 7 March 1997 regarding his hands and wrists.
On 22 October 1997 the insurance company upheld its previous decision and decided not to grant the applicant a daily allowance for the period 8 March 1995 onwards.
On 18 November 1997 the insurance company corrected its previous decision of 22 October 1997 so as to grant the applicant an accident pension for 100 % reduction of working capacity from 9 March to 31 March 1995.
The applicant appealed to the Accident Board (tapaturmalautakunta, olycksfallsnämnden) requesting an accident pension (tapaturmaeläke, olycksfallspension) as of 8 March 1995. He relied, inter alia, on a medical opinion in which he was regarded as unfit to work until 31 March 1995; on a medical opinion of 20 April 1995, in which he was regarded as unfit to work for the following year; and on documents from the rehabilitation examination in 1996.
The insurance company submitted in its observations that the applicant was not entitled to compensation after 31 March 1995. It maintained that the accident had caused impact injuries to the applicant’s left shoulder joint, left forearm and both wrists. The applicant claimed that he had sustained injuries in addition to his shoulder, neck, right shoulder joint and right forearm, requesting an accident pension as from 1 April 1995 with interest.
The insurance company further adduced a medical opinion dated 11 December 1997 in which the applicant was regarded as unfit to work due to depression until 30 June 1998. The company maintained that the applicant’s neck strain and depression were not caused by the accident of 9 March 1994 and that the elbow nerve damage, which was caused by the said accident, was so mild that it did not render the applicant incapable to work.
On 16 April 1998 the Accident Board upheld the insurance company’s decision of 18 November 1997. It reasoned its decision as follows:
“Based on the medical evidence submitted [the applicant] has sustained impact injuries to both his wrists, left shoulder area and left forearm area as well as damage to his right elbow nerve as a result of the accident on 9 March 1994. These injuries have not reduced his working capacity by at least 10 % as from 31 March 1995 and [the applicant] is therefore not entitled to an accident pension pursuant to section 18, subsection 2 of the Act on Accident Insurance. [The applicant] must be regarded as capable of working as a managing director/technical director at his post. The Accident Board holds that [the applicant’s] present difficulties with his right hand and arm are to a high degree of probability not caused by the accident on 9 March 1994, given that hardly any tissue damage has been found in the magnetic scan of his right hand or in the ENMG-examination. The left elbow nerve damage, for which the applicant has received compensation from the insurance company, is mild and the Accident Board holds that it is probably sickness-related. The Accident Board further finds that [the applicant’s] depression, which reduces his working capacity, was neither caused by the accident of 9 March 1994, or by the subsequent injuries. Initially no neck strain was found and neither had any damage to [the applicant’s] right shoulder joint been reported in connection with the accident.”
The applicant appealed to the Insurance Court requesting an accident pension as from 31 March 1995 with interest. He submitted to the Insurance Court two medical opinions dated 10 February 1998 and 13 July 1998 supporting his claims and a certificate indicating that the applicant had tried to find employment on 9 January 1998. According to the Insurance Court’s decision it invited observations from both parties and received letters from the applicant dated 15 October 1998. On 10 November 1998 the Insurance Court rejected the appeal and upheld the Accident Board’s decision. The Insurance Court reasoned its decision as follows:
“Reasons mentioned in the Accident Board’s decision. The submitted new evidence does not give rise to different conclusions.”
The applicant sought leave to appeal from the Supreme Court (korkein oikeus, högsta domstolen). The Supreme Court refused the applicant leave to appeal on 30 March 2000.
Following an appeal on 20 June 2000 the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health (sosiaali- ja terveysministeriö, social- och hälsovårdsministeriet) maintained that the insurance company had in some of its observations by mistake mentioned nerve damage in the applicant’s left elbow whereas the nerve damage was in fact in the right elbow. It however noted that the mistake had not affected the outcome of the case as the appellate bodies had had access to the original medical opinions which described the injuries correctly.
B. Relevant domestic law
Section 16 (969/1995) of the Constitution Act (hallitusmuoto, regeringsform, 94/1919), as in force at the relevant time, provided that everyone should have the right to have his case considered appropriately and without undue delay by a lawfully competent court of justice or other public authority as well as the right to have a decision concerning his rights and obligations reviewed by a court of justice or other independent judicial organ. Subsection 2 of the said section provided that the publicity of proceedings and the right to be heard, to receive a decision with stated grounds and to appeal against the decision as well as other guarantees of a fair trial and of good public administration were to be secured by Act of Parliament.
At the relevant time chapter 24, section 15 (1064/1991) of the Code of Judicial Procedure (oikeudenkäymiskaari, rättegångsbalken) provided that a judgment had to be reasoned, indicating the facts and the legal argumentation on which it was based and the grounds which had led the court to hold a disputed issue established or unsubstantiated.
2. Composition of the Accident Board
Section 1 of the Decree on the Accident Board (asetus tapaturmalautakunnasta, förordningen om olycksfallsnämnden; 839/1981) provides that the Accident Board functions as the first appellate body in matters concerning obligatory accident insurance.
Section 53 of the Accident Insurance Act (tapaturmavakuutuslaki, lag om olycksfallsförsäkring; 608/1948) provides that appellate bodies in accident insurance matters are the Accident Board, the Insurance Court and the Supreme Court.
On the Accident Board there are a full-time president, at least two vice-presidents and at least three lawyer and medical doctor members as well as at least six members representing labour market organisations. They all bear the responsibility of a judge. The president, the vice-presidents and the lawyer members must be qualified to sit as a judge and they must have a good knowledge of accident insurance. The medical doctor members must be registered and have a good knowledge of insurance medicine. All the members and their personal substitutes were at the relevant time appointed by the Council of State for a fixed term of three years. The labour market members were appointed on a proposal by the employers’ and employees’ organisations.
3. Accident pension
Pursuant to section 18, subsection 2 of the Act on Accident Insurance (tapaturmavakuutuslaki, lag om olycksfallsförsäkring, 608/1948) an accident pension is paid on condition that an employee’s working capacity because of the injury or illness caused by an accident is estimated to have been reduced by at least 10 %.
The applicant complained under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention that the Accident Board and the Insurance Court did not give adequately reasoned decisions, as they did not indicate the evidence and consequent facts which led to their rejection of his appeal.
The applicant complained about allegedly insufficient reasoning provided by the Accident Board and the Insurance Court. He invoked Article 6, which reads, in so far as relevant, as follows:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ..., everyone is entitled to a fair ... hearing ... by [a] ... tribunal... “
A. The Government’s preliminary objection
The Government invoked Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, claiming that the applicant had not exhausted domestic remedies. They argued that the applicant had not at any point during the national proceedings appealed on the ground that the relevant decisions were not reasoned adequately.
The applicant contested the Government’s view.
The Court recalls at the outset that by Article 35 § 1 of the Convention it may only deal with the matter after all domestic remedies have been exhausted, according to the generally recognised rules of international law, and in compliance with domestic formal requirements and time-limits (see, e.g., Yahiaoui v. France, no. 30962/96, judgment of 14 January 2000, § 31). Moreover, the complaints intended to be made subsequently at Strasbourg should have been made to the appropriate domestic body, at least in substance and in compliance with the formal requirements and time-limits laid down in domestic law.
The Court notes that in the present case the applicant appealed to the Insurance Court on 26 May 1998 for the decision of the Accident Board be revoked. He alleged that the decision of the Accident Board included clear mistakes, falsified and modified facts and even lies. In his application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court on 10 February 1999 he alleged that the reasoning of the Accident Board was fallacious and inadequate as the Accident Board did not comment on the medical evidence presented by him. He further claimed that neither the Accident Board nor the Insurance Court adduced any grounds as to why the medical opinions provided by the applicant were not taken into account. The Court is therefore satisfied that the applicant has raised the substance of his complaint about the inadequate reasoning of the domestic decisions before the domestic courts.
Consequently, the application cannot be rejected for failure to exhaust domestic remedies.
B. Applicability of Article 6 to the Accident Board proceedings
The Government, noting that the Accident Board fulfilled several requirements of a tribunal within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, left it to the Court to decide whether that provision applied to the proceedings before the Accident Board.
In the applicant’s opinion Article 6 § 1 applies to the Accident Board proceedings.
According to the Court’s case-law, a "tribunal" is characterised in the substantive sense of the term by its judicial function, that is to say determining matters within its competence on the basis of rules of law and after proceedings conducted in a prescribed manner. It must also satisfy a series of further requirements - independence, in particular of the executive; impartiality; duration of its members’ terms of office; guarantees afforded by its procedure - several of which appear in the text of Article 6 § 1 itself (see, among other authorities, Belilos v. Switzerland, judgment of 29 April 1988, Series A no. 132, § 64).
The Court notes that the Accident Board is an independent statutory appellate body where a person injured in an accident is entitled to bring his case for compensation under the Act on Accident Insurance. The Act lays down provisions on the time limit for the appeal and on the appeal proceedings. The Council of State appoints its president, the vice-president and their deputies for a certain period. The labour market members are appointed on a proposal by the employers’ and employees’ central organisations. The president, vice-president and lawyer members are required to have a degree qualifying them for the office of judge and to have a good knowledge of accident insurance.
Having regard to its case-law and having detected no specific element which would permit it to hold otherwise, the Court finds that the Accident Board fulfilled the requirements of a tribunal. Accordingly, Article 6 § 1 applied to the proceedings before it.
C. Reasoning of the decisions
The Government observed that, even though in cases involving accident pensions a detailed statement of reasons might often be difficult to provide because the assessment of the working capacity was based on an overall assessment, the reasons given in the present case by the Accident Board and later by the Insurance Court did, however, enable the applicant to make effective use of his right to appeal, as was evident from his submissions to that effect. They argued that the Accident Board stated in its decision the applicable law and assessment of the medical reasons for the decision, noting specifically that the applicant’s depression was not caused by the accident. They emphasised that the applicant provided the Accident Board with several medical opinions by his doctors on his injuries and on the treatment of those injuries at different stages since 1994, and all these certificates were later at an appellate stage also available to the Insurance Court.
As to the reasoning of the Insurance Court’s decision, the Government admitted that the statement of reasons for the decision could have been somewhat more extensive and the application of the applicable legislation to the specific circumstances of the case could have been set out in more detail. The Government were, however, of the opinion that the reasoning given by the Insurance Court was sufficient for rejecting the applicant’s appeal.
As to the applicant’s allegation that the decision of the Insurance Court did not state which medical opinions had been taken into account and which had been disregarded, the Government observed that according to the Insurance Court’s decision the applicant submitted new medical opinions to the Insurance Court, in addition to the ones submitted to the Accident Board. The Insurance Court listed this evidence in its decision. Furthermore, the Insurance Court briefly stated that the new material filed while the case was pending did not change the evaluation of the applicant’s disability. In the Government’s view the Insurance Court therefore took into consideration all the aforementioned facts and documentation while assessing the situation before making its decision, and the outcome of the proceedings could not be regarded arbitrary. Finally the Government observed that the Insurance Court incorporated in its decision the reasons given by the Accident Board and the decision of the latter was annexed to its decision.
The applicant maintained that the insurance company granted him a daily allowance for 100 % reduction of his working capacity until 8 March 1995. He, however, had continuing problems because of the injuries he sustained and submitted medical opinions to the insurance company applying for a continued daily allowance. The insurance company rejected his application for the reason that his working capacity was reduced by less than 10 %. The applicant was of the view that he was not given reasons as to how and on what grounds his working capacity was considered to have been increased after March 1995. The applicant emphasised that the decision of the insurance company was against the medical opinions submitted by him.
The applicant maintained that the Accident Board did not give any more detailed reasoning in its decision. In his view it was not clear from its decision on what grounds the Accident Board held the nerve damage in his left elbow (for which he had received compensation from the insurance company) to be mild and/or probably sickness-related.
As to the reasoning of the Insurance Court the applicant observed that he had submitted to it two further medical opinions. However, the court upheld the Accident Board’s decision without any further reasoning. The applicant concluded that despite medical opinions supporting his claims the Accident Board and Insurance Court had failed to give any reasons as to why they reached to a contrary conclusion.
The Court recalls its judgment in Hirvisaari v. Finland (no. 49684/99, 27 September 2001) in which the Pension Board and the Insurance Court were found to have failed to provide adequate reasons for discontinuing a full disability pension and granting the applicant only a partial one. The Court found as follows:
“30. The Court reiterates that, according to its established case-law reflecting a principle linked to the proper administration of justice, judgments of courts and tribunals should adequately state the reasons on which they are based. The extent to which this duty to give reasons applies may vary according to the nature of the decision and must be determined in the light of the circumstances of the case. Although Article 6 § 1 obliges courts to give reasons for their decisions, it cannot be understood as requiring a detailed answer to every argument. Thus, in dismissing an appeal, an appellate court may, in principle, simply endorse the reasons for the lower court’s decision (see the García Ruiz v. Spain judgment of 21 January 1999, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1999-I, § 26; and the Helle v. Finland judgment of 19 December 1997, Reports 1997-VIII, §§ 59 and 60). A lower court or authority in turn must give such reasons as to enable the parties to make effective use of any existing right of appeal.
31. In the present case, the Court observes that the first part of the reasons given by the Pension Board merely referred to the relevant provisions of law, indicating the general conditions under which an employee is entitled to receive pension. In the second part of the reasoning it was mentioned that the applicant’s mental state had deteriorated during the autumn of 1997, the symptoms of his illness, however, being considered mild. On these grounds the Pension Board found the applicant partly capable of working as from 1 June 1997. While this brevity of the reasoning would not necessarily as such be incompatible with Article 6, in the circumstances of the present case the decision of the Board failed to satisfy the requirements of a fair trial. In view of the fact that the applicant had earlier received a full invalidity pension, the reference to his deteriorating state of health in a decision confirming his right to only a partial pension must have left the applicant with a certain sensation of confusion. In these circumstances the reasoning cannot be regarded as adequate.
32. Nor was the inadequacy of the Board’s reasoning corrected by the Insurance Court which simply endorsed the reasons for the lower body’s decision. While such a technique of reasoning by an appellate court is, in principle, acceptable, in the circumstances of the present case it failed to satisfy the requirements of a fair trial. As the applicant’s main complaint in his appeal had been the inadequacy of the Pension Board’s reasoning, the more important was it that the Insurance Court give proper reasons of its own.”
The Court observes that in the present case the applicant had initially been granted a daily allowance for a full reduction of his working capacity until 8 March 1995, and subsequently an accident pension until 31 March 1995 due to his accident of 9 March 1994. His application for a continued accident pension was rejected. In its decision the Accident Board set out the applicable legal provision and found that as from 31 March 1995 the injuries sustained in the accident reduced the applicant’s working capacity by less than 10 %. It also considered that his other medical problems were not caused by the accident, given the examinations and that his left elbow nerve damage was mild and probably sickness related. Nor was his depression regarded to have been caused by the said accident given the initial doctor’s reports.
The Court further notes that although Article 6 § 1 obliges courts to give reasons for their decisions, it cannot be understood as requiring a detailed answer to every argument (see Van de Hurk v. the Netherlands, judgment of 19 April 1994, Series A no. 288, p. 20, § 61). In the present case the Court recalls that the applicant sought to substantiate his request for a continued accident pension by adducing, inter alia, medical opinions to the Accident Board and again to the Insurance Court in which his treating doctors attested to his incapacity for work. In the opinions submitted to the Insurance Court one of his doctors considered him to be incapable of working until further notice and another considered his working capacity to have been reduced considerably. The courts noted the evidence adduced by the applicant. There is no indication that the applicant’s arguments and his doctors’ opinions were not properly or fairly examined. While the Insurance Court upheld the Accident Board’s decision it found that the fresh evidence adduced by the applicant did not change the evaluation of the outcome of the Accident Board’s decision. Therefore, even though its reasoning did not contain an express evaluation of the two doctors’ opinions, there is no indication that the applicant’s arguments and his doctors’ opinions were not properly or fairly examined.
As to the reasoning by the Insurance Court, the Court would note that in dismissing an appeal, an appellate court may, in principle, simply endorse the reasons for the lower court’s decision (see García Ruiz v. Spain, § 26, cited above). It is significant in this respect, as in the present case, that the decision of the Accident Board was appended to the Insurance Court’s decision (see Helle v. Finland, § 56, cited above).
The present case can be distinguished from H.A.L. v. Finland (no. 38267/97, 27 January 2004) in which the Court found a violation on account of the fact that the domestic authorities withheld information which, taken together with the inadequate reasoning, prevented the applicant from participating properly in the proceedings up to and including the Appellate Board for Social Insurance. The present case can also be distinguished from the case of Hirvisaari v. Finland in that the reasoning of the Accident Board and Insurance Court were not contradictory in their terms.
The Court is therefore not persuaded that in the circumstance of this case that the applicant in the present case was deprived of a fair hearing within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
It follows that this complaint is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.
For these reasons, the Court unanimously
Declares the application inadmissible, without prejudging the merits of the case.
Michael O’Boyle Nicolas Bratza
HAUTAKANGAS v. FINLAND DECISION
HAUTAKANGAS v. FINLAND DECISION