Colic v. Croatia (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 256
November 2021

Čolić v. Croatia – 49083/18

Judgment 18.11.2021 [Section I]

Article 6
Civil proceedings
Article 6-1
Access to court

Disproportionate costs order against applicant in private civil proceedings amounting to double his compensation award: violation

Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
Article 1 para. 1 of Protocol No. 1
Peaceful enjoyment of possessions

Disproportionate costs order against applicant in private civil proceedings amounting to double his compensation award: violation

Facts – The applicant brought a successful civil action for damages against a private individual for physical assault. He was ordered to pay the defendant’s costs of the proceedings in an amount which was approximately double than that which he was awarded in damages. The applicant complained about the lack of access to a court and the violation of his property rights due to the excessive costs order.

Law – Article 6 § 1: Bearing in mind the pertinent case-law, in the present case there had been a restriction on the applicant’s right of access to court. The key question was whether the restriction was proportionate. A negative answer was arrived at as follows

Unreasonable costs of proceedings might raise an issue under the Convention primarily in cases in which a party succeeded, at least in part, with the grounds of the civil claim, but not with its entire amount. In such cases, very high costs of proceedings might “consume” a large portion or even the entirety of the party’s financial award. In the absence of weighty reasons to justify such a result, the litigation was rendered pointless and that party’s right to a court merely theoretical and illusory.

In the present case the applicant’s claim had been deemed well-founded and he had been awarded about 75% of his final claim for damages. The fact that one aspect of his claim, namely as per damages for mental anguish resulting in loss of amenities of life, had been dismissed in full, did not alter the fact that he had still succeeded in proving the occurrence of the act in question (the assault) and its causal link to the damage actually suffered by him. Further, what had been at stake for him was a well-founded claim for damages caused by an attack on his physical integrity by a private individual. Moreover, only half of his costs for his legal representation had been reimbursed. The proceedings had thus resulted in the absurd outcome that the applicant had been ordered to pay in costs to the defendant double the amount which he had been awarded in damages as a result of the attack.

The Government had failed to put forward sufficiently convincing reasons to justify this outcome. In this connection, the Court noted the following: the access-to-court guarantees applied with equal strength to private disputes as they did to those involving the State since in both types of proceedings a party could be forced to bear a disproportionate financial burden in the form of costs of proceedings, which could ultimately result in a breach of that party’s right of access to court. At the same time, the fact that the defendant in the present case had been a private party formed but an element in assessing the proportionality of the restriction of the applicant’s right of access to court. Further, regard being had to the relevant Supreme Court guidelines the applicant’s claim could not be considered as being exaggerated whereas the defendant had not born any additional costs when the applicant had reduced his initial claim. Lastly, the Supreme Court had not sufficiently taken into account that the defendant, who had challenged the applicant’s assault claim as unfounded, had only objected to the amount of damages as a precaution. Instead, and contrary to previous cases on the matter, that court had mechanically considered that, during the initial part of the proceedings when most procedural activities seemed to have taken place, the applicant had “quantitatively succeeded” with only some 25% of the amount claimed disregarding the fact that he had “qualitatively” succeeded with the grounds of his claim, that is, he had successfully proved the fact that the damage caused to him by the defendant had actually occurred. Consequently, the manner in which it had applied the domestic legislation in the applicant’s case fell outside the acceptable margin of appreciation allowed to the domestic courts under Article 6 § 1.

In the circumstances, the impugned restriction had impaired the very essence of the applicant’s right of access to court.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously)

Article 1 of Protocol No. 1: The applicant’s claim for compensation had been acknowledged in the amount awarded to him by the Supreme Court’s final judgment; it had thus been sufficiently established to qualify as an “asset” protected by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The substantial reduction of the amount of that claim resulting from the duty to pay the costs of the proceedings constituted an interference with his right to peacefully enjoy his possessions. Although that interference had been lawful and pursued a legitimate aim, having regard to the case-law on the subject and the reasons for the finding of a violation of Article 6 § 1, it had been disproportionate.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously)

Article 41: EUR 1,750 in respect of pecuniary damage.

(See also Stankov v. Bulgaria, 68490/01, 12 July 2007, Legal Summary ; Perdigão v. Portugal [GC], 24768/06, 16 November 2010, Legal Summary; Klauz v. Croatia, 28963/10, 18 July 2013 ; Cindrić and Bešlić v. Croatia, 72152/13, 6 September 2016, Legal Summary)

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