The Unnecessary Delay of Justice

Case Report of the ERRC

Nikolai Gughinski

Czech Constitutional Court finds that a Civil Court in Ustí nad Labem has violated the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in case involving Roma plaintiffs

Summary

On November 5, 1996, a chamber of the Czech Constitutional Court rendered a decision declaring that the failure of a first instance civil court in the city of Ustí nad Labem to consider a civil claim lodged in May 1993 infringed upon the right to have one’s case considered by a court without unnecessary delay as guaranteed by Art. 38(2) of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (CCFRF).1 The civil claim was filed by seven Roma plaintiffs who requested the court to declare that the Ustí nad Labem municipal authorities had infringed upon their civil rights by forcibly evicting them from their apartments and subsequently deporting them to the Slovak Republic.

Facts

The plaintiffs – Gejza Červeňák, Margita Červeňáková, Aranka Horvátová, Ondrej Červeňák, Iveta Červeňáková, Peter Mirga and Vojtěch Filko – are Roma from the northern Czech town of Ustí nad Labem. From 1990 to 1993 they lived with their families in municipally-owned flats. Their lease contracts with the municipality were first concluded in 1990 and subsequently extended in 1991 and 1992.

On February 24, 1993, the Usti nad Labem Ciry Police broke into the flats of the plaintiffs. With the assistance of municipal employees, the police forced the Roma out and emptied their belongings into the street. The lease contracts were seized and destroyed by the police. The Roma families were informed that their lease contracts had been terminated and that they were prohibited from remaining in their apartments.

Under continuous police escort, the Roma were then taken to the railway station, placed on a train bound for Slovakia and handed train tickets previously purchased by municipal authorities. The municipal office in Ustí nad Labem claimed that the plaintiffs had implicitly terminated their lease contracts by declaring their intention to leave the Czech Republic and go to Slovakia. However, the Ustí nad Labem Municipality could provide no evidence of the plaintiffs’ purported travel intentions.

At various times in March and April 1993, all members of the evicted families (approximately 30 persons altogether) returned to Ustí nad Labem, where they were repeatedly denied access to the apartments, which had been sealed. Since March 1993, the Roma have been living in abandoned garages in the city.

Legal proceedings

On May 19, 1993, the victims, all represented by Prague lawyer Dr. Klára Veselá, lodged a civil complaint at the District Court of Ustí nad Labem. In the complaint they asked the court to find that the lease relationship between them and Ustí nad Labem municipality remained force. They also asked the court issue an enforcement notice for the apartments to be made accessible to them.

On October 11, the District Court requested additional information: This was provided by the plaintiffs on November 5, 1993. On March 25 and June 15, 1994, the plaintiffs complained before the District Court that the proceedings had not yet started. On June 28, 1994 the Chair of the District court notified the plaintiffs that their complaints were justified and assigned the case to another judge, as the judge initially assigned the case had left on maternity leave. In July 1995, one year after the last communication with the court, the applicants complained again to the Chair of the District Court that the court proceedings had not yet commenced. In August 1995, the Chair of the District Court in Ustí nad Labem responded that the proceedings were delayed because of the excessive workload of the court. In January 1996 the proceedings before the District Court were suspended on a technicality.

In October 1995, the plaintiffs lodged an application at the Secretariat of the European Commission on Human Rights in Strasbourg (No. 29008/95). The applicants claimed violations of Article 8 of the ECHR with respect to the forceful eviction from their homes, and violation of Art. 6(1) of the ECHR2 with respect to the unreasonable delay in the institution of civil proceedings by the District Court in Ustí nad Labem. On February 28, 1996, a chamber of the European Commission on Human Rights declared the application inadmissible on the ground that domestic remedies had not been exhausted as required by Art. 27(3) of the Convention. The Commission referred in particular to the possibility for individual complaint to the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic. Anticipating such a decision, in January 1996 the applicants lodged a complaint in the Czech Constitutional Court, invoking Art. 38(2) of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The complaint alleged infringement of the right to have their case considered by a court without unnecessary delay.

In a decision handed down on November 5, 1996, the Czech Constitutional Court declared that the failure of the District Court in Ustí nad Labem to consider the claim constituted a violation of Art. 38(2) of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The Constitutional Court issued an order to the District Court in Ustí nad Labem to „no longer delay” consideration of the case.

Conclusion

The decision of the Czech Constitutional court is important for at least two reasons. First, it is a rare example of a high domestic tribunal affording legal protection to Romani plaintiffs. Second, in one of its first decisions concerning Art. 38(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, the Czech Constitutional Court established a high standard in the protection of the right to have cases considered by national courts without „unnecessary delay”.

The Constitutional Court, however, did not set forth which criteria to apply in deciding how long a delay constitutes a violation ofArt. 38(2) of the CCFRE Therefore jurists seeking to interpret the decision may look for guidance to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights under Article 6(1) of the ECHR. In a substantial body of case-law, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that, even where delay in considering a case is not self-evidently unreasonable, the substantive rights at issue are relevant in deciding whether the length of civil procedure is excessive. The Strasbourg court has found that relatively short periods of time may violate Art. 6(1), where the particular rights at stake are of great importance and therefore require expeditious consideration by national courts. Although the test of „unnecessary delay” established by Art. 38(2) of the CCFRF and the „reasonable time” test set forth in Art. 6(1) ECHR are not identical, the caselaw of the Strasbourg organs provides interpretation of the substantive rights at issue which applies to the CCFRF as well. Therefore, lawyers who are seeking to make use of the Czech Constitutional Court decision may employ the European Court’s jurisprudence both in its interpretation and further application to other similar disputes before domestic jurisdictions.

Endnotes:

  1. Article 38(2) Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms provides: "Everybody is entitled to have his or her case considered in public without unnecessary delay and in his or her presence, and to express his or her opinion on all the evidence submitted. (...)"
  2. Article 6(1) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms provides: "In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgements shall be pronounced publicly but the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice." Article 8(1) of the ECHR provides: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

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