SECOND SECTION

DECISION

AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF

Application no. 65197/01 
by Irena VÍTOVCOVÁ, Alena HRABOVSKÁ and Máša PLACHÁ 
against the Czech Republic

The European Court of Human Rights (Second Section), sitting on 24 May 2005 as a Chamber composed of:

Mr J.-P. Costa, President
 Mr A.B. Baka
 Mr R. Türmen
 Mr K. Jungwiert
 Mr M. Ugrekhelidze
 Mrs E. Fura-Sandström, 
 Mr D. Popović, judges
and Mrs S. Dollé, Section Registrar,

Having regard to the above application lodged on 20 December 2000,

Having regard to the decision to apply Article 29 § 3 of the Convention and examine the admissibility and merits of the case together.

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

Having deliberated, decides as follows:

THE FACTS

The applicants, Mmes Irena Vítovcová, Alena Hrabovská and Máša Plachá, are three Czech nationals who were born in 1954, 1955 and 1952 respectively, and live in Prague. They were represented before the Court by Mr O. Choděra, a lawyer practising in Prague. The respondent Government were represented by their Agent, Mr V.A. Schorm.

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

I. Inheritance proceedings

On 26 October 1993 the Prague 7 District Court (obvodní soud) opened proceedings concerning the division of the estate of the applicants' late father, who had died intestate on 2 October 1993. It also appointed a judicial commissioner (soudní komisař) to deal with the inheritance proceedings.

On 2 December 1993 the judicial commissioner ascertained information concerning the inheritance from the widow of the deceased (hereafter “the widow”) and drew up a protocol on her preliminary examination. The protocol noted, inter alia, the widow's undertaking to provide an expert opinion on the property falling within the estate.

On 16 February 1994 the former wife of the deceased (not the widow) informed the court that there had been three daughters of the marriage - the present applicants.

On 23 March and 20 April 1994 respectively, the applicants registered as claimants of the inheritance and declared that they did not renounce it.

On 26 April 1994 the widow was summoned, but she excused herself on 2 May 1994, stating that she was suffering from a long-term illness and that she would inform the judicial commissioner about any improvements in her health. She was again summoned for 20 September 1994, but she did not appear, without apologizing. On 22 September 1994 the judicial commissioner received her apology, explaining her serious health condition. She was summoned for 11 October 1994.

In the meantime, on 20 May 1994, the former wife of the deceased (hereafter “the former wife”) had supplemented her statement concerning a certain recreational cottage and land in Hněvsín.

Between 13 April 1995 and 8 January 1996, the case was assigned to another judicial commissioner, as the former one was on maternity leave.

On 29 March 1996 the widow sent her apologies, explaining that she had had to undergo surgery and that she had had a heart attack in 1995.

On 23 April 1996 the widow sent the judicial commissioner an agreement on the division of the matrimonial property concluded between the deceased and his former wife, stating that she did not have enough money to pay for an expert opinion and that the applicants had refused to contribute. On 13 June 1996 she sent an expert opinion to the commissioner.

On 10 September 1996 she informed the judicial commissioner that she was again seriously ill.

On 3 April 1997 the former wife was heard in connection with the property agreement.

On 29 September 1997 the widow again informed the judicial commissioner about her serious health problems.

On 19 November 1997 the applicants raised objections in respect of the expert opinion.

On 16 December 1997 the judicial commissioner held a hearing to ascertain whether the property in question belonged to the inheritance and requested the police to ascertain whether the deceased or the widow had owned a car. On 23 December 1997 she received the police response, which was negative.

On 22 June and 22 September 1998 the judicial commissioner drew up a protocol with the widow.

On 29 October 1998 the third applicant was heard.

On 11 November 1998 the judicial commissioner held a hearing, at which the applicants repeatedly requested her to ascertain whether the widow was the owner of a car.

On 1 March 1999 the judicial commissioner held another hearing, at which she informed the parties that, according to the police information of 24 and 30 November 1998, the deceased had owned a car. She also informed them that the inheritance proceedings would be discontinued, because the real property in question was the subject of a dispute and the remaining part of the inheritance had insignificant value.

On 20 April 1999 the District Court discontinued the inheritance proceedings. On 8 July 1999 this decision became effective.

II. Proceedings on the additional examination of the inheritance

On 12 July 1999 the District Court received the applicants' request of 7 July 1999 for an additional examination of the inheritance, claiming that part of the property in Hněvsín should be included in the inheritance.

On 9 September 1999 the applicants' lawyer, upon the court's request, submitted documents relating to the property.

On 24 September 1999 the District Court granted the applicants' request and opened proceedings for an additional examination of the inheritance. It appointed a judicial commissioner to deal with it.

On 6 March 2000 the widow's lawyer was informed about the request for an additional examination of the inheritance.

On 7 March 2000 the judicial commissioner held a hearing.

On 29 March 2000 the judicial commissioner proposed to the District Court that the proceedings be discontinued, as there had been no new property to examine.

On 31 March 2000 the District Court remitted the case to her for further consideration.

On 10 May 2000 the judicial commissioner, after having held a hearing on 25 April 2000, again proposed to the District Court to discontinue the proceedings.

On 26 May 2000 the District Court again remitted the case to her for further consideration.

On 21 September 2000 the judicial commissioner requested the parties to submit their written observations. As none of the parties responded within the time-limit, on 16 January 2001 she repeated her request for their observations. On 23 January 2001 the applicants' lawyer submitted observations.

As the widow's lawyer failed to submit observations, on 2 April 2001 the judicial commissioner fixed a hearing for 16 May 2001, at which the applicants' lawyer and the judicial commissioner quarrelled. The lawyer objected to the commissioner's partiality because of her conduct at this hearing, and the commissioner suggested her own exclusion for partiality because of the conduct of the applicants' lawyer.

After the case-file had been submitted to the District Court on 29 June 2001 and the judicial commissioner had clarified her proposal on 9 August 2001, the court excluded the commissioner from the case on 28 August 2001. On 30 August 2001 this decision became effective.

On 8 October 2001 the District Court appointed another judicial commissioner, who fixed a hearing for 15 February 2002 which, upon the request of the widow's lawyer, was adjourned to 27 February 2002. Upon the first applicant's request, it was again adjourned to 12 March 2002.

On 11 April 2002 the District Court discontinued the proceedings.

On 31 January 2003 the Prague Municipal Court (městský soud) quashed the decision and remitted the case to the District Court for further consideration.

On 24 September 2003 the District Court approved the agreement of heirs.

III. Proceedings before the Constitutional Court

On 6 April 2000 the applicants lodged a constitutional appeal (ústavní stížnost), complaining about the length of the inheritance proceedings and the proceedings on the additional examination of the inheritance.

On 21 June 2000 the Constitutional Court (Ústavní soud) rejected the constitutional appeal for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies.

COMPLAINT

The applicants complained under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention about the length of the proceedings.

THE LAW

The applicants complained that the length of the proceedings was incompatible with the “reasonable time” requirement, provided in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, which reads, insofar as relevant, as follows:

In the determination of his civil rights and obligations..., everyone is entitled to a ... hearing within a reasonable time by [a]... tribunal...”

A. Admissibility

The Government first submit that the applicants did not exhaust the domestic remedies available to them.

The Court recalls that it has previously held that there was no effective remedy under Czech law to complain about the length of civil proceedings (Hartman v. the Czech Republic, no 53341/99, §§ 55-69, ECHR 2003-VIII). It sees no reason to distinguish the present case from that of Hartman and dismisses, therefore, the Government's first objection.

The Government further submit that the division of the estate of the applicants' late father was dealt with in two separate sets of proceedings: the inheritance proceedings and the proceedings on the additional examination of the inheritance.

They affirm that the purpose of such second proceedings is to enable the examination of property whose existence is discovered after the completion of inheritance proceedings. Accordingly, they can be opened repeatedly and without time-limit. Consequently, they cannot be considered to be an integral part of the main inheritance proceedings.

The Government contend that the complaint concerning the length of the first inheritance proceedings has been introduced outside the six-month time-limit, within the meaning of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, since the proceedings ended on 8 July 1999, when the District Court's decision on the discontinuation of the proceedings became effective, whereas the application was introduced before the Court on 20 December 2000.

The applicants did not comment on this objection.

The Court concurs with the Government's view that the inheritance of the estate of the applicants' late father was dealt with in two separate sets of proceedings. However, it observes that the applicants lodged a constitutional appeal, complaining about the length of both sets of proceedings.

Accordingly, the final decision in the main inheritance proceedings for the purpose of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, is the Constitutional Court's decision of 21 June 2000. The Court recalls that the six month time-limit, within the meaning of Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, runs from the date on which the final decision was taken. It therefore dismisses the Government's second objection.

B. Merits

The Government submit that the two sets of proceedings were non-contentious. The courts and, in particular, the judicial commissioners have no procedural means to clarify disputed facts. Therefore, they have to try to settle any disputes by an agreement between the parties. Accordingly, the cooperation of the parties in such proceedings is indispensable.

I. Inheritance proceedings

The Government state that the case was complex, in particular, due to a dispute between the parties concerning the property in Hněvsín.

They maintain that, although the widow was summoned on 26 April 1994, she could not be heard until the end of 1997 due to her serious ill-health. They admit that, in 1995, the judicial commissioner, replacing the former commissioner during her maternity leave, was inactive, but they argue that the proceedings were, in any event, awaiting the hearing of the widow. The widow provided the expert opinion in respect of the property in question on 13 June 1996, although she had undertaken to do so earlier in the protocol on the preliminary examination of 2 December 1993. The applicants' refusal to assist her financially in this task had contributed to the delay.

As to the conduct of the authorities, the Government consider the overall length of the proceedings reasonable. They contend that the delays in the proceedings were caused mainly by the insufficient cooperation between the parties to the proceedings and the long-term illness of the widow.

The applicants did not express any further views on the merits of this part of the application.

The Court reiterates that the reasonableness of the length of proceedings must be assessed in the light of the circumstances of the case and with reference to the criteria established by its case-law, particularly the complexity of the case, the conduct of the applicant and of the relevant authorities and what was at stake for the applicant in the dispute (see, among many other authorities, Frydlender v. France [GC], no. 30979/96, § 43, ECHR 2000-VII).

The Court also reiterates that only delays for which the State can be held responsible may justify a finding that a “reasonable time” has been exceeded (see Papachelas v. Greece [GC], no. 31423/96, § 40, ECHR 1999-II).

The period to be taken into consideration for this first set of proceedings began on 26 October 1993, when the District Court opened the case, and ended on 21 June 2000, when the Constitutional Court rejected the applicant's complaint on the length issue, albeit for technical reasons. The proceedings thus lasted nearly six years and eight months for two levels of jurisdiction.

The Court considers that, although the applicable law was not particularly difficult, the case presented a certain complexity on its facts. Moreover, it did not involve any issue which was urgent, irremediable or of vital importance for the applicants.

As to the conduct of the authorities, the Court observes that the police partly contributed to the length of the proceedings, as they had to be asked twice to provide information concerning the widow's and the deceased's ownership of a car.

However, the Court observes that the proceedings were mainly protracted due to the long-term illness of the widow. The inactivity of the substitute judicial commissioner in 1995 did not affect the overall length of the proceedings, as the hearing of the widow was required but she was too ill at that time. The widow again contributed to the length of the proceedings by her late submission of the expert opinion. The State cannot be held liable for such delays.

After examining the overall duration of the first set of proceedings, the factual complexity of the case and taking into account the fact that the widow's serious health condition mainly contributed to the length of the proceedings, the Court does not consider that the case discloses any appearance of a violation of the reasonable time” requirement of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

It follows that this part of the application must be rejected as being manifestly ill-founded, pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

II. The proceedings on the additional examination of the inheritance

As to the complexity of these proceedings, the Government refer to their observations on the main inheritance proceedings.

They maintain that the parties to the proceedings did not sufficiently cooperate with the judicial commissioner, who repeatedly had to request them to submit their written observations. They also contributed to the length of the proceedings by their requests for the adjournment of the hearings of 15 and 27 February 2002. In addition, the applicants' lawyer contributed to the length of the proceedings by his request to exclude the commissioner from dealing with the case for reasons of partiality.

As to the conduct of the authorities, the Government contend that, except for a five month period between September 1999 and 6 March 2000, there were no delays attributable to the State.

The applicants did not express any further views on the merits of this part of the application.

The Government maintain that the period to be taken into consideration began on 24 September 1999, when the District Court granted the applicants' request and opened the proceedings for an additional examination of the inheritance.

The Court recalls that the time to be taken into consideration starts with the institution of the proceedings (see Scopelliti v. Italy, judgment of 23 November 1993, §18). Accordingly, the period to be taken into consideration began on 7 July 1999, when the applicants requested the District Court to make an additional examination of the inheritance, and ended on 24 September 2003, when the District Court approved the agreement of heirs. The proceedings thus lasted over four years and two months for three levels of jurisdiction. The case was considered twice by the District Court, once by the Municipal Court and once by the Constitutional Court.

The Court again notes the factual rather than legal complexity of this part of the case, which did not involve any issue which was urgent, irremediable or of vital importance for the applicants.

As to the conduct of the authorities, the Court observes that there was a nine month delay between 11 April 2002, when the District Court discontinued the proceedings, and 31 January 2003, when the Municipal Court quashed the decision. However, thereafter there were no significant delays.

As regards the conduct of the applicants, the Court observes that they did not sufficiently cooperate with the judicial commissioner, who repeatedly had to request them for observations. Moreover, the applicants requested an adjournment of the hearing of 27 February 2002. Although parties are entitled to make use of their procedural rights, they must bear the consequences when their actions prolong the proceedings (see Kepa v. Poland (dec.), no. 43978/98, 30 September 2003). Accordingly, the Court finds that the applicants' conduct contributed to the prolongation of the proceedings.

It appears that the exclusion of the judicial commissioner from dealing with the case was requested by the applicants' lawyer and the commissioner. Thereby both of them partly contributed to the prolongation of the proceedings.

After examining the overall duration of the second proceedings, the factual complexity of the case, and taking into account that part of the delay was attributable to the applicants, the Court does not consider that the case discloses any appearance of a violation of the “reasonable time” requirement of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

It follows that this part of the application must also be rejected as being manifestly ill-founded, pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

In these circumstances, the application of Article 29 § 3 of the Convention to the present case should be discontinued and the application rejected as a whole.

For these reasons, the Court unanimously

Declares the application inadmissible.

S. Dollé J.-P. Costa 
 Registrar President

VÍTOVCOVÁ AND OTHERS v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC DECISION


VÍTOVCOVÁ AND OTHERS v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC DECISION