AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF
Application no. 76523/01
by Bohuslav PROCHÁZKA and Růžena PROCHÁZKOVÁ
against the Czech Republic
The European Court of Human Rights (Second Section), sitting on 11 January 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 A. Mularoni,
Mrs E. Fura-Sandström, judges,
and Mrs S. Dollé, Section Registrar,
Having regard to the above application lodged on 31 August 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 applicants, Mr Bohuslav Procházka and Růžena Procházková, are Czech nationals who were born in 1950 and 1957 respectively and live in Říčany.
The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
The applicants are the owners of certain plots of land in Říčany u Prahy. In 1990 they decided to build a family house with an education centre to be run within the framework of their business activity.
1. Administrative proceedings
On 2 April 1990 the applicants informed the Department of Construction of the town of Říčany u Prahy (odbor výstavby města) of these plans. On 25 June 1990 they applied to the Říčany Municipal Construction Office (Městský úřad – stavební úřad) for a building permit (stavební povolení). According to the Government, on 2 April 1990 the applicants requested the construction authority to be sent forms for the construction of a family house. They subsequently replaced this application with a request for a building permit. However, there is no proof that they actually applied for a building permit. The Construction Office only dealt with the applicants' request for planning permission (územní rozhodnutí) concerning the construction of a family house which they filed on 25 March 1991.
According to the Government, the planning proceedings (řízení o vydání územního rozhodnutí) started on 25 April 1991 but were suspended on 11 May 1991 when the Construction Office invited the applicants to supplement their request for planning permission. The applicants stated that they received this invitation on 31 December 1992.
On 22 July 1991 the Construction Office decided, upon the applicants' request of 11 June 1991, that one of the applicants' plots of land could be permanently withdrawn from agricultural use. On 2 July 1991 it delivered a building permit for the construction of a drain connection.
On 29 June 1992 the applicants modified their planning application.
On 5 August 1992 they requested the Prague-East District Prosecutor (okresní procurator) to supervise the activities of the Construction Office. It was found that they had not received the invitation of the Construction Office of 11 May 1991. Upon the prosecutor's order, the invitation was notified to them on 30 December 1992. According to the Government, the applicants did not supplement their request for planning permission as they had been invited to do so by the Construction Office. They only asked for the reimbursement of CZK 5,280 (168 EUR) in taxes for the permanent withdrawal from agricultural use which they had been obliged to pay.
Due to the length of the proceedings, the applicants allegedly suffered an important financial prejudice and, therefore, started the construction without a building permit. The Government stated that the applicants' description of the relevant facts in this part of their application to the Court was shortened and distorted.
On 2 November 1993 the Construction Office decided to demolish the applicants' education centre as it had been built on agricultural land contrary to the existing territorial plans. On 16 December 1993 the Prague-East District Office (okresní úřad) quashed this decision and sent the case back to the Construction Office which, on 14 January 1994, again ordered the applicants to demolish their construction. The applicants appealed against this decision. At the same time, they sold the construction because of their difficult financial situation. On 2 June 1995 the new owners were granted a building permit.
According to the Government, on 12 July 1999 the Construction Office decided to demolish the applicants' family house as it had been built without a building permit. On 27 December 1999 the building permit was granted, the Construction Office having considered that the construction was not contrary to the public interest.
2. Proceedings for damages
On 14 January 1994 the Prague-East District Court (obvodní soud) stayed the proceedings on the applicants' action for damages which they had introduced on 23 December 1992 against the town of Říčany. The court stated that the applicants had been invited (at a hearing of 30 September 1993, according to the Government) to supplement their claim by 1 January 1994, but failed to do so.
On 21 January 1994 the applicants completed their action, the supplementary documents being notified to the court on 2 March 1994. On 10 May 1994 they were informed that the first hearing would be held on 14 June 1994 and that their completed action would be considered as a new action for damages.
On 1 November 1994 they were informed that the hearing could not be held because the court file had been sent to the Prague Regional Court (krajský soud) which would deal with the applicants' appeal of 3 June 1994 against the decision of the District Court on 14 January 1994. On 14 November 1994 the Regional Court quashed this decision and remitted the case to the District Court which on 29 January 1995 held a hearing and adjourned it until 14 March 1995. The applicants' lawyer could not attend the hearing which had to be adjourned until 5 April 1995.
At a hearing held on 31 May 1995 the applicants again supplemented their action and requested that the Czech Republic, represented by the Ministry of Economy (Ministerstvo hospodářství), to be added to the proceedings as a second defendant.
A hearing held on 11 July 1995 was adjourned until 1 August 1995.
On 17 July 1995 the District Court granted the applicants' request that the Czech Republic represented by the Ministry of Economy be added to the proceedings, and that the amount of damages be increased.
On 12 September, 17 October, 21 November 1995 and 9 and 11 January 1996, the District Court held further hearings.
On 26 January 1996 the applicants submitted their final pleadings to the court which, on 6 February 1996, dismissed their action for damages. Having received the judgment on 9 July 1996, the applicants appealed on 22 July 1996, substantiating their appeal on 15 August 1996 and completing it, according to the Government, on 20 November 1997.
On 27 May 1996 the applicants challenged the judge of this court for bias. On 11 July 1996 the judge admitted that she was biased.
On 23 January 1997 the District Court invited the applicants' lawyer to specify whether she was still representing her clients and whether the appeal had been filed in the name of both of them or only in the name of the second applicant. She replied on 7 February 1997.
On 13 February 1997 the District Court rectified the verdict of its judgment of 6 February 1996. It further supplemented it on 16 May 1997.
On 12 February 1998 the Regional Court invited the applicants to specify, within a week, whether their appeal contained a new point on the merits of their action for damages. The applicants' lawyer answered on 3 March 1998. On 19 March 1998 the court adjourned the proceedings without fixing the next hearing in order to decide on the extension of the applicants' action for damages.
On 10 August 1998 it quashed the judgment of the District Court and remitted the case for further consideration. At the same time, it decided to exclude from the proceedings the judge who had dealt with the applicants' action.
On 2 and 27 November 1998 respectively, the applicants modified and supplemented their action for damages.
A hearing held on 21 December 1998 was adjourned until 27 January 1999 in order to hear witnesses.
On 22 December 1998 the Czech Republic, represented now by the Ministry of Local Development (Ministerstvo pro místní rozvoj) submitted its final pleadings to the court. The applicants submitted theirs on 25 January 1999.
On 27 January 1999 the District Court again dismissed the applicants' action for damages. On 6 April 1999 the applicants appealed. On 19 May 1999 they were invited to supplement their appeal within ten days. They substantiated the appeal on 26 May 1999.
On 2 December 1999, the Regional Court, after a hearing on 29 November 1999, again quashed the first instance judgment insofar as it concerned the Ministry of Local Development, and sent the case back to the District Court. It upheld the remainder of the judgment.
On 31 May 2000 the District Court, after a hearing on 26 April 2000, delivered its third judgment by which it again dismissed the applicants' action, this time directed only against the Ministry of Local Development. The judgment was notified to the applicants on 4 October 2000.
On 28 August 2000 (19 October 2000, according to the Government) the applicants appealed substantiating their appeal on 14 December 2000. On 15 January 2001 the Ministry of Local Development submitted its observations.
On 8 March 2001 the Regional Court partly quashed the judgment of the District Court and remitted the remainder of it to the first instance court.
On 28 May 2001 the District Court, being bound by the opinion of the Regional Court that the applicants had suffered damage because of the erroneous action of a public authority under State Liability Act no. 58/1969 when they had had to pay the tax for the permanent withdrawal of their plot of land from agricultural use, and decided that the Czech Republic had to pay them CZK 30,280 (961 EUR) with interest for the delays in payment.
On 10 August 2001 the applicants withdrew their action as to the payment of the interest on the amount of CZK 30,280, covering the period from 23 December 1992 to 15 July 1995.
On 10 January 2002 the Regional Court, on the Ministry for Local Development's appeal of 13 August 2001, upheld the District Court's judgment of 28 May 2001, apart from the interest on the amount of CZK 30,280 for period from 16 July 1994 to 25 July 1995. The District Court's judgment became effective on 31 January 2002.
On 28 March 2002 the District Court invited the applicants to comment upon the partial withdrawal of their action. On 29 March 2002 it discontinued the proceedings in this respect.
The applicants complained about the length of the proceedings, invoking Article 6 § 1 of the Convention. The applicants also complained that the Construction Office was not impartial and that the administrative authority dealing with their request for planning permission did not decide on the merits or discontinue the proceedings.
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...”
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, CEDH 2003-VIII). It sees no reason for distinguishing the present case from that of Hartman and dismisses, therefore, the Government's objection.
The Government further submit that the length of the proceedings for damages was affected by the previous complex administrative proceedings. The District Court had to assess a number of documents and hear witnesses in order to clarify the applicants' request for a building permit which they had allegedly filed on 25 June 1990.
They maintain that the applicants contributed to the prolongation of the proceedings by extending and supplementing their action for damages, and substantiating their appeals but only after having been reminded to do so by the Regional Court. Moreover, the applicants did not join the necessary documentary evidence to their action, some of the documents being submitted only in 2001.
As to the conduct of the authorities, the Government contend that the courts conducted the proceedings with due diligence and without unreasonable delays.
The applicants maintain their complaint.
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 period to be taken into consideration began on 23 December 1992, when the applicants lodged an action for damages with the Prague-East District Court, and ended on 31 January 2002, when the fourth judgment of this court became effective. It thus lasted over nine years and one month for two levels of jurisdiction which dealt with the case four times.
The Court considers that, although the law to be applied 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.
As to the conduct of the authorities, the Court observes that there was no significant delay in the proceedings which generally progressed at an acceptable pace, hearings being scheduled at regular intervals.
As regards the behaviour of the applicants, the Court observes that they amended or supplemented their action for damages on several occasions. Although parties are entitled to make use of their procedural rights, they must bear the consequences when their actions prolong the proceedings (see, Kępa v. Poland (dec.), no. 43978/98, 30 September 2003). Accordingly, the Court finds that the applicants' conduct contributed to the prolongation of the proceedings.
After examining the overall duration of the proceedings, the factual complexity of the case, and taking into account the fact that the case was dealt with at two levels of jurisdiction, four times, and that part of the delay was indisputably attributable to the applicants, the Court does not consider that the length of the proceedings in the present case was excessive. It finds, therefore, that there has been compliance with the “reasonable time” requirement of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention (cf. Mariniello v. Italy (dec.), no. 36012/97, 28 September 1999).
It follows that this part of the application is manifestly ill-founded, within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention.
2. The applicants further complained that the Construction Office was not impartial and that the administrative authority dealing with their request for planning permission did not decide on the merits or discontinue the proceedings. They claimed to have thereby been deprived of their right to pursue domestic remedies and seek judicial review.
Even assuming that the applicant may be said to observe the formal requirements laid down in Article 35 § 1 of the Convention, the Court, having examined these complaints, finds nothing in the case file which might disclose any appearance of a violation of the Convention. It follows that these complaints are manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.
3. The procedure under Article 29 § 3 of the Convention must therefore be discontinued.
For these reasons, the Court by a majority
Declares the application inadmissible.
S. Dollé J.-P. Costa
PROCHÁZKA AND PROCHÁZKOVÁ v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC - DECISION
PROCHÁZKA AND PROCHÁZKOVÁ v. THE CZECH REPUBLIC - DECISION