CASE OF BALOGH AND ADAMCO v. SLOVAKIA (European Court of Human Rights) 37974/20 and 55887/20

The two applicants complained of the excessive length of criminal proceedings pending against them before the Bratislava I District Court.


FIRST SECTION
CASE OF BALOGH AND ADAMČO v. SLOVAKIA
(Applications nos. 37974/20 and 55887/20)
JUDGMENT
STRASBOURG
18 November 2021

This judgment is final but it may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Balogh and Adamčo v. Slovakia,

The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Committee composed of:

Erik Wennerström, President,
Lorraine Schembri Orland,
Ioannis Ktistakis, judges,
and Viktoriya Maradudina, Acting Deputy Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 21 October 2021,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:

PROCEDURE

1. The case originated in applications against Slovakia lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) on the various dates indicated in the appended table.

2. The applicants, Slovak nationals, were represented by Mr M. Kuzma, a lawyer practising in Košice.

3. The Slovak Government (“the Government”) were given notice of the applications.

THE FACTS

4. The list of applicants and the relevant details of the applications are set out in the appended table.

5. The two applicants complained of the excessive length of criminal proceedings pending against them before the Bratislava I District Court.

6. On 29 July 2008 the applicants and two other people were indicted for murder. On the following day the indictment was delivered to the first‑instance court and rejected by it during a hearing on 27 November 2008. That decision was quashed on 26 May 2009 by the appellate court. The case was remitted for a new consideration.

7. The first-instance court accepted the indictment on 15 October 2010.

8. On 10 May 2017 the appellate court dismissed the applicants’ complaint about the length of the proceedings before the first-instance court as manifestly ill-founded, stating that on 27 April 2017 the case had been reassigned to a new judge who needed time to study the case-file.

9. On 9 October 2017 the applicants lodged a constitutional complaint challenging the length of the proceedings before the first-instance court.

10. Considering the factual complexity of the case and the conduct of the applicants, on 16 June 2020 the Constitutional Court (II. US 451/2018) found a violation of their right to a hearing within a reasonable time and awarded each of them 4,000 euros (EUR) in just satisfaction. In this regard, the Constitutional Court noted that since the first-instance court had granted the requests of the applicants’ lawyers for the adjournment of hearings, any delays caused by those adjournments could not be attributed to the court. At the same time, the Constitutional Court observed that the applicants had taken a very active part in the proceedings and that the most recent hearing concerning the merits of the case had taken place in June 2016. Moreover, after the reassignment of the case to a new judge in 2017, it had taken almost two years to set a date for a court hearing which had eventually been adjourned. It follows from the Constitutional Court’s decision that eight hearings have been held so far, namely on 15 October 2010, 15 and 16 February 2012, 10 and 11 June 2014, 9 and 10 December 2015, 16 and 17 March and 8 June 2016.

11. The Constitutional Court further noted that both applicants were already serving a prison sentence (the first applicant more than 20 years and the second applicant a life sentence), and that the length of the proceedings could be taken into consideration at the sentencing stage.

12. By a letter dated 15 December 2020 the applicants’ lawyer informed the Court that as of 22 June 2020 the case had been reassigned to yet another judge, that is the fourth judge assigned to the case.

13. The proceedings are still pending before the first-instance court.

THE LAW

I. JOINDER OF THE APPLICATIONS

14. Having regard to the similar subject matter of the applications, the Court finds it appropriate to examine them jointly in a single judgment.

II. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 1 OF THE CONVENTION

15. The applicants complained that the length of the criminal proceedings against them was incompatible with the “reasonable time” requirement. They relied on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention, which reads as follows:

Article 6 § 1

“In the determination of … any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a … hearing within a reasonable time by [a] … tribunal…”

16. The Government asserted that the applicants had lost their victim status, given the Constitutional Court’s decision acknowledging the violation of their right and awarding them just satisfaction that should be regarded sufficient in light of the fact that both applicants were already serving prison sentence and that the length of the impugned proceedings could be reflected in their newly imposed sentence.

17. As regards the applicants’ victim status, the Court observes that the proceedings have been pending for thirteen years before the first-instance court. Moreover, the Court cannot but notice that there had been considerable time intervals between the hearings raging from three months to two years, that more than five years had already elapsed since the last hearing held in June 2016, and that just over a year ago the case was again assigned to yet another new judge (see paragraph 12 above).

18. The Court also finds that the possible reduction of the sentence does not as yet deprive the applicants of their victim status, since the imposition of a more lenient sentence has this potential only if it is made in an express and measurable way (see Chiarello v. Germany, no. 497/17, § 55, 20 June 2019). Since the proceedings have not so far reached the sentencing stage, this argument is more of a hypothetical nature.

19. In view of these considerations, the Court finds that the just satisfaction awarded to the applicants at the domestic level cannot be considered sufficient in the light of the Court’s case-law (see Scordino v. Italy (no. 1) [GC], no. 36813/97, §§ 205-206 and 214-15, ECHR 2006‑V,) even taking into account the first applicant’s long term imprisonment and the lifelong prison sentence of the second applicant (see, mutatis mutandis, Tempel v. the Czech Republic, no. 44151/12, §§ 81-82, 25 June 2020). The applicants can accordingly still claim to be a “victim” of a breach of the “reasonable time” requirement and the Government’s objection should therefore be dismissed.

20. 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 following criteria: the complexity of the case, the conduct of the applicants and the relevant authorities and what was at stake for the applicants in the dispute (see, among many other authorities, Pélissier and Sassi v. France [GC], no. 25444/94, § 67, ECHR 1999‑II, and Frydlender v. France [GC], no. 30979/96, § 43, ECHR 2000‑VII).

21. In the leading case of Pavlík v. Slovakia (no. 74827/01, 30 April 2007) the Court already found a violation in respect of issues similar to those in the present case.

22. Having examined all the material submitted to it, the Court has not found any fact or argument capable of justifying the overall length of the proceedings at the national level. Having regard to its case-law on the subject, the Court considers that in the instant case the length of the proceedings was excessive and failed to meet the “reasonable time” requirement.

23. This complaint is therefore admissible and discloses a breach of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.

III. APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION

24. Article 41 of the Convention provides:

“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”

25. Regard being had to the documents in its possession and to its case‑law (see, in particular, Pavlík, cited above), the Court finds it reasonable to award the sums indicated in the appended table.

26. The Court considers it appropriate that the default interest rate should be based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank, to which should be added three percentage points.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT, UNANIMOUSLY,

1. Decides to join the applications;

2. Declares the applications admissible;

3. Holds that these applications disclose a breach of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention concerning the excessive length of criminal proceedings;

4. Holds

(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicants, within three months, the amounts indicated in the appended table, at the rate applicable at the date of settlement;

(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amounts at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points.

Done in English, and notified in writing on 18 November 2021, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

Viktoriya Maradudina                                  Erik Wennerström
Acting Deputy Registrar                                     President

__________

APPENDIX
List of applications raising complaints under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention
(excessive length of criminal proceedings)

No. Application no.

Date of introduction

Applicant’s name
Year of birth
 
Start of proceedings End of proceedings Total length
Levels of jurisdiction
Domestic court
File number
Domestic award
(in euros)
Amount awarded for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage per applicant
(in euros)[1]
Amount awarded for costs and expenses per application
(in euros)[2]
1. 37974/20
21/08/2020
Jozef BALOGH
1978
29/07/2008 pending More than 13 years, 1 month and 24 days
1 level of jurisdiction
Constitutional Court
II. US 451/2018
4,000
9,000 250
2. 55887/20
04/12/2020
Branislav ADAMČO
1978
29/07/2008 pending More than 13 years, 1 month and 24 days
1 level of jurisdiction
Constitutional Court
II. US 451/2018
4,000
9,000 250

[1] Plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicants.
[2] Plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicants.

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