CASE OF BEINAROVIC AND OTHERS v. LITHUANIA (European Court of Human Rights)

FOURTH SECTION
CASE OF BEINAROVIČ AND OTHERS v. LITHUANIA
(Applications nos. 70520/10, 21920/10 and 41876/11)

JUDGMENT
(Merits)
STRASBOURG
12 June 2018

FINAL
12/09/2018

This judgment has become final under Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Beinarovič and Others v. Lithuania,

The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

Ganna Yudkivska, President,
Vincent A. De Gaetano,
Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque,
Egidijus Kūris,
Iulia Motoc,
Carlo Ranzoni,
Péter Paczolay, judges,
and Marialena Tsirli, Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 17 April 2018,

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

PROCEDURE

1.  The case originated in three applications (nos. 70520/10, 21920/10 and 41876/11) against the Republic of Lithuania lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by four Lithuanian nationals, Ms Bronislava Beinarovič (“the first applicant”), Ms Janina Kšivanskienė (“the second applicant”), Ms Monika Korkuc (“the third applicant”) and Ms Sabina Dviliova (“the fourth applicant”), on 15 November 2010 (the first two applicants), 2 April 2010 (the third applicant) and 30 May 2011 (the fourth applicant).

2.  The applicants were represented by Ms E. Jankovska, a lawyer practising in Vilnius. The Lithuanian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent Ms E. Baltutytė, and later by their Agent Ms K. Bubnytė.

3.  The applicants complained under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention about the annulment of their property rights to plots of land on the grounds that the plots concerned were covered by forests of national importance.

4.  On 6 December 2011the applications were communicated to the Government.

5.  On 7 October 2015 the first applicant died. The second applicant, her daughter and legal heir, expressed the wish to pursue the proceedings on herbehalf.

THE FACTS

I.  THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE

6.  The first applicant was born in 1915 and lived in Vilnius.The second applicant was born in 1943 and lives in Vilnius. The third applicant was born in 1932 and lives in Pagiriai in the Vilnius Region. The fourth applicant was born in 1950 and lives in Vilnius.

7.  On various dates in 1991 the applicants or their relatives applied for restoration of their property rights to land which had been nationalised by the Soviet regime.

8.  On 8 September 1992 the Vilnius District Court acknowledged that I.B. (the first applicant’s husband and the second applicant’s father)had a right to have his property rights to a plot of land in the village of Kryžiokai, near Vilnius, restored.

9.  On 8 July 1993 the same court acknowledged that the fourth applicant had a right to have her property rights to a plot of land in Kryžiokai restored.

10.  On 24 April 1996 the Seimas passed a law amending the administrative boundaries of certain municipal areas. Under that law, certain villages around Vilnius, including Kryžiokai and Vaidotai, became part of the Vilnius city municipality.

11.  On 21 May 1998 the administrative authorities acknowledged that the third applicant had a right to have her property rights to a plot of land in Vaidotai restored.

12.  On 20 December 2002 the Government approved a plan of forests of national importance(valstybinės reikšmės miškai)covering the whole country.It included forests situated in the former villages of Kryžiokai and Vaidotai.

A.  As to the first and second applicants

13.  On 7 May 2003 the Vilnius County Administration (hereinafter “the VCA”) restored I.B.’sproperty rights (see paragraph 8 above) by giving him 5.40 hectares of land in Kryžiokai. As he had died in 1992, the first applicant was issued a certificate of inheritance in respect of the plot on 27 June 2003. On 16 October 2003 she gifted it to the second applicant.

1.  Annulment of property rights to0.25 hectares

14.  On 28 July 2008 the prosecutor of the Vilnius Region (hereinafter “the prosecutor”) lodged a claim with the Vilnius Regional Court, seeking to have I.B.’s property rights to 0.25 of the 5.40 hectaresgiven to him annulled (see paragraph 13above). The prosecutor submitted that, according to the data provided by the State Forest Management Service (Valstybinė miškotvarkos tarnyba),0.25 hectares of the plotwas covered by forest. Since that forest wassituated in a city (see paragraph10 above), itwasconsidered a forest of national importanceandcould thereforeonly be owned by the State (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below).The prosecutornoted that the forest had been included in the plan of forests of national importance adopted by the Government in 2002 (see paragraph 12 above), that is before the VCA had adopted its decision to give that land to I.B. In view of the circumstances, the VCA’s decision had to be declared unlawful and its effects annulled. The prosecutor asked that after annulling I.B.’s property rights to that part of the land, the first and second applicants’ property rights to it also be annulled.

15.  The applicants disputed the prosecutor’s claim. They submitted that I.B. had acquired property rights in good faith, having lawfully participated in the restitution process carried out by the authorities, and their annulment many years later would be contrary to the principle of legal certainty. The applicants further submitted that Kryžiokai had been a rural area until 1996 (see paragraph 10above) and the restoration of property rights had complied with the regulations concerning rural areas. They also submitted that,according to the Real Estate Register(Nekilnojamojo turto registras), their land was classified as agricultural and notforest, and the data of that Register had to be considered accurate until proven otherwise.

16.  The VCA also disputed the prosecutor’s claim. It submitted that I.B.’s property rights had been restored in accordance with Government regulationsadopted in 1998 and 2000 which had set out the rules of land reform in rural areas. The VCA argued that restoration of property rights was a continuous process and thus had to be carried out in accordance with thelegislation in force when it began and not that which was adopted later. The VCA also submitted that the decision to restore I.B.’s property rights had been taken incoordination with other authorities, including the Vilnius Forest Authority (Vilniaus miškų urėdija), and they had not presented any objections.

17.  The Ministry of Environment, which was a third party in the proceedings, asked the court to allow the prosecutor’s claim. It argued that the VCA’s decision to restore I.B.’s property rights had been contrary to mandatory statutory provisionsstating that urban forestscould only be owned by the State, and thus had to be annulled.

18.  On 17 September 2009 the Vilnius Regional Court allowed the prosecutor’s claim. The court observed that the Constitution and other legislationestablished that forests of national importance could only be owned by the State (see paragraphs86, 88 and 89 below). It quoted at length case-law of the Constitutional Court which emphasised the importance of forests to the environment and the obligation of the State to protect them in the public interest (see paragraphs 99-102 below).

19.  The Vilnius Regional Court noted that the former village of Kryžiokai had become part of the Vilnius city municipality in 1996 (see paragraph 10 above). Therefore, in line with the Law on Forests, any forest in that areawasurban forest (see paragraph 89 below). The court further noted that in 2002 the forest situatedon the plot given to I.B.had been included in a Government‑approved list of forests of national importance. Accordingly, when the VCA hadadopted the decision to give that plot to I.B. (see paragraph 13above), the forest situatedon it had already been recognised as a forest of national importance.Therefore, the restitution had not been carried out in accordance with the law. The court held that, in such circumstances, I.B.’s andthe applicants’ property rights could not take priority over the public interest and had to be annulled.

20.  However, the court observed that, according to theReal Estate Register, the area covered by forest on the applicants’ plot amounted to 0.187 hectares and not 0.25hectares as claimed by the prosecutor, and the data of thatRegister had to be considered accurate until proven otherwise. It therefore annulled I.B.’s property rights to 0.187 hectares of land, as well as the applicants’ rights to that part of the plot.

21.  The prosecutor lodged an appeal against that decision and submitted that when determining the area covered by forest, the court should have relied on the data provided by the State Forest Management Service and not the Real Estate Register. The Ministry of Environment lodged a similar appeal.

22.  The applicants and the VCA alsolodged appeals. They argued that the VCA’s decision had complied with all the relevant legislation in force when ithad beenadopted, so it had to be considered lawful. They also submitted that the court had not addressed the argument that in the process of restoration of property rights Kryžiokai had to be regarded as a rural area and not a city. The applicants also submitted that the annulment of their property rights and the requirement for them to return the land to the State would cause them serious difficulties and should therefore not be implemented (see paragraph 95 below).

23.  On 25 February 2010 the Court of Appeal upheld the appeals lodged by the prosecutor and the Ministry of Environment and dismissed those lodged by the applicants and the VCA. It reiterated that the Constitution and several laws prohibited the transfer of forests of national importance from the State into private ownership on any basis whatsoever, including restoration of property rights (see paragraphs 86 and 88‑91 below). Accordingly, it was immaterial that, as submitted by the VCA, its decision complied with certain regulationsadopted during the restitution process.The Court of Appealconsidered that the first-instance court had correctly found that the forest on the plotgiven to I.B. was urban forest and therefore a forest of national importance, and thus property rightsin respect of that part had to be annulled. However, it stated that when determining the area covered by forest the information had to be taken not from the Real Estate Registerbut from the Register of Forests (Miškų kadastras), which was administered by the State Forest Management Service. According to the latter, the plot given to I.B. included 0.25 hectares of forest. The Court of Appeal therefore partly amended the decision and annulled I.B.’s property rights to 0.25 hectares of land, as well as theapplicants’ rights to that part of the plot. It dismissed as unfounded the applicants’ argument that such a decision would cause them serious difficulties.

The Court of Appeal ordered the applicants and the VCA to pay the State’s legal costs.

24.  The applicants lodged an appeal on points of law. On 25 May 2010 the Supreme Court refused to acceptit for examination on the grounds that it raised no important legal issues.

2.  Annulment of property rights to1.73 hectares

25.  On 1 September 2008 the prosecutor lodged a further claim with the Vilnius Regional Court, seeking to have I.B.’s property rights to another 1.73 hectares of the 5.40 hectares given to him annulled (see paragraph 13above), on the grounds that it was covered by a forest of national importance, as well as to have the applicants’ property rights to that part of the plot annulled. The prosecutor presented similar arguments as in the previous proceedings (see paragraph 14 above). The applicants, the VCA and the Ministry of Environment also submitted essentially the same arguments as in the previous proceedings (see paragraphs 15-17above).

26.  On 13 May 2009 the Vilnius Regional Court allowed the prosecutor’s claim. It noted that the presence of forest on the plot of land given to I.B. had been confirmed by the data in the Register of Forests. It also noted that that forest was included in the list of forests of national importancecreated in 2002 (see paragraph 12 above). The court observed that even though restoration of property rights was a continuous process and included the preparation of various documents, the final decision to restore property rights had to comply with the law in force at the time of the adoption of that decision. It concluded that the VCA’s decision to give the plot to I.B. (see paragraph 13above)had been contrary to the Constitution and other legislation providing that forests of national importance could only be owned by the State (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below). Accordingly, it annulled I.B.’s property rights to1.73 hectares of the land, as well as the applicants’ rights to that part of the plot. The courtobserved that there was no dispute that I.B. had retained the right to restoration of his property rights, and the State was thus under an obligation to restore his rights to 1.73 hectares of land.

27.  The applicants and the VCAlodged appeals against that decision. They argued that the VCA’s decision had been based on various administrative and procedural acts according to which the forest on the applicants’ plot had not been considered a forest of national importance, and thus had been lawful. The prosecutor and the Ministry of Environment contested the appeals.

28.  On 6 April 2010 the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeals submitted by the applicants and the VCA and upheld the decision of the first-instance court in its entirety. It stated that the first-instance court had been correct in finding that the forest on the applicants’ plot was a forest of national importance and could thus only belong to the State.

29.  The applicants lodged an appeal on points of law. On 9 July 2010 the Supreme Court refused to accept it for examination on the grounds that it raised no important legal issues.

3.  Subsequent restitutionprocess

30.  According to the Government, on 11May 2010 the VCA informed the applicants that there was no possibility ofrestitution in kind because there was no vacant land in the relevant area. According to the applicants, on 19October2010 they sent a letter to the National Land Service (the institution which took over the relevant functions of the VCA after an administrative reform-hereinafter “the NLS”) stating that they were of advanced age and did not “have the energy or state of health to look for vacant land in the Vilnius area”. Copies of the VCA’s and the applicants’ letters have not been submitted to the Court.

31.  On 23 February 2012 the applicants received a letter from the NLSconfirming that, after the courts had annulled I.B.’s property rights to 1.98 hectares of land, he had retained the right to have those property rights restored. It also stated that there was no more vacant land in the former village ofKryžiokai and that I.B.’s property rights could be restored by: (i) assigning a plot of land or forest equal in value to the land held previously; (ii) providing securities; (iii) discharging liabilities to the State; (iv) transferring, free of charge, a new plot of land equal in value to the land held previously for the construction of an individual home in the city or rural area where the previously held land was situated; or (v) providing monetary compensation (see paragraph 92 below). The applicants, as I.B.’s heirs, were asked to inform the authorities of their choice as to the form of restitution. It is unclear whether the applicants replied to this letter.

32.  On 24 July 2012 the applicants received another letter from the NLS which again confirmed that, after the courts had annulled I.B.’s property rights to 1.98 hectares of land, he had retained the right to have those property rights restored.It stated that there was a possibility for the applicants to receive a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in the Vilnius city area but as there were 4,806 other candidates waiting to receive plots in the area, the restitution process would take a long time. The applicants were asked to consideran alternative form of restitution, such as a plot of land in arural area, a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in a different city, or monetary compensation (see paragraph 92 below). They were also informed that there remained about 0.10 hectares of vacant land in the former village of Kryžiokai, so if theywished to receive a plot in that area, their request would be considered when the land plan was being prepared.

33.  On 21 August 2012 the applicants sent a letter to the NLS. They submitted that the annulment of their property rights to 1.98 hectares of land had caused them pecuniary damage in the amount of331,000 Lithuanian litai (LTL – approximately95,900 euros (EUR)), according to an assessment of the value of the land carried out in May 2012. In the applicants’ view, being put on the list with 4,806 other candidates and being made to wait for an undetermined period of time for restitution was unacceptable. The applicants asked to be allocated a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in Vilnius in the order of priority, and if that was not possible, to be informed how many plots were available in Vilnius and when they might expect to receive one. They also stated that they would agree to receive a plot of land in Kryžiokai but would first want to know its exact location. The applicants stated that they did not wish to choose any other form of restitution.

34.  On 14 December 2012 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several areas around Vilnius. The applicants were included in that list as candidates to receive 1.98 hectares of land. On 31 December 2012 the NLS held a meeting in which candidates were offered plots in the relevantareas. The second applicant took part in that meeting and chose three plots, measuring a total of 0.3627 hectares. She was offered more plots but refused them because there wereelectricity installations on them. The minutes of the meeting, approved by the NLS, stated that the next meeting of candidates would be held on 16 April 2013 and those who had not chosen their plots yet, including the second applicant, would be invited to participate. The Court was not provided with any information as to whether that meeting took place, whether the applicants were invited to attend and whether they did so.

35.  On 21 August 2014 the NLSadopted a land plan of the aforementioned areas around Vilnius, as well as the list of individuals who would be allocated plots in those areas. The applicants were included in the list and were entitled to receive four plots of land, measuring a total of 0.4035 hectares.

36.  On 7 October 2015 the first applicant died. The second applicant was issued a certificate of inheritance on 3 August 2016.

37.  On 29 January 2016 the NLS adopted a decision to restore I.B.’s property rights by giving him five plots of agricultural land, measuring a total of 0.7883 hectares. The decision stated that the rights to the remaining 1.1917 hectares would be restored later.

38.  On 26 April 2016 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several other areas around Vilnius. I.B. was included in that list as a candidate to receive 1.1917 hectares of land. On 18 May 2016 the NLS held a meeting in which candidates were offered plots in those areas. The second applicant took part in that meeting and chose two plots, measuring a total of 0.18 hectares. It does not appear that she was offered any more plots in that meeting.

39.  On 31 August 2017 the NLSadopted a land plan of several areas around Vilnius, as well as the list of individuals who would be allocated plots in those areas. I.B. was included in the list and was entitled to receive two plots of land, amounting to a total of 0.18 hectares.

40.  According to the latest information provided to the Court, the first and second applicants’ property rights to 1.1917 hectares of land have still not been restored.

B.  As to the third applicant

41.  On 6 April 2004 the VCA restored the third applicant’s property rights by giving her and another candidate, G.D., joint ownership of 0.52 hectares of agricultural land and 2.12 hectares of forest in Vaidotai. The third applicant’s share of the jointly owned forest was one hectare.

1.  Annulment of property rights tojointly owned 2.12 hectares

42.  On 9 April 2009 the prosecutor lodged a claim with the Vilnius City Second District Court, seeking to have the applicant’s and G.D.’s property rights to the 2.12 hectares of forestannulled (see paragraph 41above). The prosecutor submitted that the forest was situated in a city (see paragraph 10above) and was thus considered a forest of national importance which could only be owned by the State (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below). The prosecutor noted that the forest in question had been included in the plan of forests of national importance adopted by the Government in 2002 (see paragraph 12 above), that is before the VCA had adopted its decision to give that forest to the applicant and G.D. Accordingly, the VCA’s decision had to be declared unlawful and its effects annulled.

43.  The applicant disputed the prosecutor’s claim. She submitted that the VCA’s decision to give the forest to her and G.D. had been taken in line with the law in force at the material time and in coordination with the relevant authorities, including the Vilnius Forest Authority. The applicant also argued that, in line with the case-law of the Constitutional Court, forests which belonged to private individuals and were subsequently declared to be of national importance did not have to be taken into State ownership,as owners’ rights could be restricted in order to protect the forest. She therefore asked the court to protect her property rights.

44.  The VCA also disputed the prosecutor’s claim. It submitted that the restoration of property rights to the land in the former village of Vaidotai had been carried out in line with the regulations applicable to rural areas. It also submitted that the decision to give the forest in question to the applicant and G.D. had been based on several administrative acts adopted in 2000, and so the decision could not be annulled as long as those acts remained in force.

45.  The Ministry of Environment, which was a third party in the proceedings, asked the court to allow the prosecutor’s claim. It argued that at the time when the VCA had adopted the decision to give the forest to the applicant and G.D., the forest had officially beenurban forest (see paragraph 10above) and had been included in the list of forests of national importance (see paragraph 12 above). Accordingly, the VCA’s decision had been contrary to mandatory statutory provisions (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below) and had to be annulled.

46.  On 4 March 2009 the Vilnius City Second District Court allowed the prosecutor’s claim. It reiterated that, in line with the Constitution and the Law on Forests, urban forests were considered forests of national importance and could only belong to the State (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below). The court also emphasised the importance of forests to the environment and the obligation of the State to protect them in the public interest. It then noted that the former village of Vaidotai had become part of the Vilnius city municipality in 1996 (see paragraph 10above), so any forests within that area were urban forests. The court also observed that the forest given to the applicant and G.D. had been included in the list of forests of national importance approved by the Government in 2002 (see paragraph 12 above). Accordingly, the VCA’s decision to give that forest to the applicant and G.D. had been adopted after the forest had already become a forest of national importance (see paragraph 41above). The court held that it was immaterial whether other administrative acts on which the VCA’s decision had been based remained valid (see paragraph 44 above) because property rights had been restored to the applicant and G.D. by that decision and not by any other acts. The court therefore annulled the applicant’s and G.D.’s property rights to the 2.12 hectares of forest.

47.  The applicant and the VCA lodged appeals against that decision, raising essentially the same arguments as before (see paragraphs43and 44above). In addition, the applicant submitted that her property rights to the forest in question had been challenged four years after it had been given to her, and thus she had lost the opportunity to have her property rights restored because there was almost no vacant land left in Vilnius or the surrounding area.

48.  On 13 August 2009 the Vilnius Regional Court dismissed the appeals and upheld the first-instance court’s decision in its entirety. It considered that that court had been correct in finding that the forest in question was a forest of national importance and that the VCA’s decision had thus been contrary to mandatory statutory provisions prohibiting the transfer of such forests into the ownership of private individuals. In response to the applicant’s argument that she had lost the opportunity to have her property rights restored (see paragraph 47 above), the Vilnius Regional Court stated that Lithuanian law provided for partial restitution, and that where it was impossible to restore property rights in natura, it could be done in other ways, including by monetary compensation (see paragraphs92and 97below). Therefore, the court considered that the applicant had retained the right to have her property rights restored in one of the forms provided for by law.

49.  The applicant and the VCA lodged appeals on points of law, relying on essentially the same arguments as before (see paragraphs 43, 44 and 47 above).In addition, the applicant submitted that shehad acquired the property in good faith and that ordering her to return it to the State would cause herserious difficulties (see paragraph 95 below). She argued that she could no longer receive a plot in the same area because there was no more vacant land there and that she would not receive fair compensation either because property prices had decreased. The applicant submitted that the public interest to protect forests could be achieved in other ways, such as by imposing on her special conditions for use of the forest.

50.  On 5 February 2010 the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals on points of law and upheld the findings of the lower courts. It observed that restoring property rights to forests in valuable areas had been prohibited since the beginning of the restitution process in Lithuania. Accordingly, individuals could not have a legitimate expectation to acquire property rights to such forests. It also stated that the VCA, as the institution in charge of restoration of property rights, was under an obligation to ensure that its decisions complied with all relevant legislation adopted throughout the entirety of the restitution process.

51.  The Supreme Court reiterated that when a transaction was annulled, the parties had to return to one another everything that they had received from that transaction (see paragraph 94 below). It stated that the lower courts had not identified any exceptional circumstances why that rule should not be applied in the present case, nor had the applicant pointed to any such circumstances. The Supreme Court noted that the applicant had retained the right to have her property rights restored in accordance with the law, so her argument that she would experience serious difficulties (see paragraph 49 above) had to be dismissed as unfounded.

2.  Subsequent restitution process

52.  On 7 April 2010 the applicant sent a letter to the VCA seeking to be given a plot of land in the former village of Vaidotai. On 11 May 2010 the VCA informed the applicant that there was no vacant land in Vaidotai and asked her to choose another form of restitution (see paragraph 92 below).

53.  On 29 October 2010 the applicant sent a letter to the NLS stating that she was 78 years old and did not “have the energy or the state of health to participate in the complicated restitution process for a second time”. The applicant stated that she had lost her property because of the unlawful actions of the VCA, therefore the NLS, as the VCA’s successor, had to compensate her for the pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage which she had sustained. She asked the NLS to provide her with a list of plots of land equal in value in the Vilnius city area to which her property rights could be restored.

54.  On 13 December 2010 the NLS informed the applicant that, in accordance with the law, her property rights could be restored by assigning her a plot of land equal in value to the land held previously or by providing securities, but that there was no possibility ofher receiving a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in a city. The letter provided the address of a website on which the applicant could find information about vacant plots of land, and she was asked to submit a request to the municipal authorities indicating the area in which she wished to receive a plot equal in value. It was also stated that if she was dissatisfied with the response given, she could lodge a complaint with the director of the NLS.

55.  On 16 December 2011 the applicant sent a request to the NLS for compensation in securities. On 1 February 2012 she received a reply informing her that compensation in the form of securities was temporarily unavailable.

56.  On 6 March 2012 the applicant submitted a request fora plot of land for the construction of an individual home in the town of Trakai. On 30 May 2012 in a letter to the NLS she reiterated her wish to receive a plot in Trakai and stated that she also wished to receive a plot of land in Vilnius, butdid not wish to have her property rights restored by monetary compensation.

57.  On 23 July 2012 the NLS sent a letter to the applicant confirming that, after the courts had annulled her property rights to one hectare of land (see paragraph 41 above), she had retained the right to have those property rights restored. She could be given a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in Vilnius or Trakai, but there were many other candidates waiting to receive plots in those areas (4,806 and 94 respectively, and the land plan for Trakai had not been prepared yet), therefore the restitution process would take a long time. She was asked to consider an alternative form of restitution, such as a plot of land in a rural area, a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in a different city or monetary compensation. She was also informed that there remained some vacant land in the former village of Vaidotai, so if she wished to receive a plot in that area, her request would be considered when the land planwas being prepared.

It is unclear whether the applicant replied to that letter or submitted any requests concerning the form of restoration of her property rights.

58.  On 7 October 2013 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several areas around Vilnius. The applicant was included in that list as a candidate to receive 1.12 hectares of land. On 9 October 2013 she was sent an invitation to attend a meeting of candidates on 22 October 2013. She did not take part in that meeting.On 24 October 2013 she was sent an invitation to attend a meeting of candidates on 6 November 2013. She did not take part.

The applicant submitted to the Court that she had not been informed of those meetings.

59.  On 5 April 2016 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several other areas around Vilnius. The applicant was included in that list as a candidate to receive 1.12 hectares of land. On 22 April 2016 the NLS held a meeting of candidates to receive plots of land in those areas. Her representative took part in the meeting but did not provide a form of authority.

60.  On 17 May 2016 the NLS held another meeting of candidates to receive plots of land in the aforementioned areas. The applicant participated in that meeting but did not choose any of the plots offered to her. The minutes of the meeting do not indicate the reasons for her refusal.

The applicant submitted to the Court that the plots offered to her had had electricity installations on them and had therefore been “worthless”.

61.  According to the latest information provided to the Court, the third applicant’s property rights to one hectare of land have still not been restored.

C.  As to the fourth applicant

62.  On 10 December 2003 the VCA restored the fourth applicant’s property rights by giving her 2.67 hectares of land in the villages of Kryžiokai and Naujaneriai. On 25 April 2005 she sold 1.5 hectares of the land given to her in Kryžiokai to another individual, J.S., for LTL 495,000 (approximately EUR 143,400). The sale agreement was certified by a notary.

1.  Annulment of property rightsto 0.15 hectares

63.  On 15 December 2008 the prosecutor lodged a claim with the Vilnius Regional Court, seeking to have the applicant’s property rights to0.15 of the 2.67 hectares given to her annulled (see paragraph 62 above). The prosecutor submitted that, according to the data provided by the State Forest Management Service, the 0.15 hectares were covered by forest. Since it wassituated in a city (see paragraph 10above), it was considered a forest of national importance and could thus only be owned by the State (see paragraphs86, 88 and 89 below).The prosecutor asked that after annulling the applicant’s property rights, the sale agreement between her and J.S. be annulled in respect of that part of the land.

64.  The applicant disputed the prosecutor’s claim.She submitted that there had not been any forest on the land before its nationalisation, and if a forest had grown there afterwards, that should not preclude the restoration of her property rights. She also submitted that she had not acted unlawfully, so the property could not be taken from her. The applicant argued that if authorities or officials had acted unlawfully, the State should have to buy the land from her, and that the public interest should be protected without prejudice toher rights.

65.  The VCAalso disputed the claim. It argued that the applicant’s property rights had been restored in accordance with the legislation in force at the material time, and that the decision had been taken in coordination with various authorities, including the Ministry of Environment and the Vilnius Forest Authority, which had not presented any objections.

66.  The Ministry of Environment, which was a third party in the proceedings, supported the prosecutor’s claim.

67.  On 29 March 2010 the Vilnius Regional Court allowed the prosecutor’s claim. It observed that even though the Real Estate Register did not contain information about the presence of forest on the applicant’s land, it had been proven by the data provided by the State Forest Management Service.The court reiterated that forests of national importance could only be owned by the State (see paragraphs 86, 88 and 89 below), and that forests situated in cities were considered forests of national importance, irrespective of whether they had been officially designated as such (see paragraph 102 below). It observed that the former village of Kryžiokai had become part of the Vilnius city municipality in 1996 (see paragraph 10above). Accordingly, the court held that the VCA’s decision to restore the applicant’s property rights had been unlawful and had to be annulled.

68.  Finding that the applicant had not had a right to acquire the 0.15 hectares of land in question, the Vilnius Regional Court held that, consequently, she had had no right tosell the land, and thus the sale agreement between her and J.S. in the relevant part also had to be annulled. In accordance with the Civil Code, J.S. was ordered to return 0.15 hectares of land to the State, and the applicantwas ordered to return LTL 49,500 (approximately EUR 14,340) to J.S. (see paragraph 94 below). The court noted that the applicant had retained the right to restoration of her property rights, and that the restitution process had to be “continued at the expense of the VCA or its successor, by finalising (and not starting afresh), in the same order of priority, the restitution process that had already begun”. It accepted the applicant’s argument that she might face financial difficulties as a result of having to return money to J.S. because she no longer had the necessaryamount.The courtgave the applicant six months from the date on which the decision became final to return the money to J.S. It observed that it had no authority to directly order the VCA to complete the restoration ofthe applicant’s property rights within that period of time, but that “the activity of the VCA or its successor in the restitution process could constitute grounds for reducing the possible expenses of that institution, if [the applicant and J.S.] were found to have suffered losses as a result of unlawful acts established in the present decision … and had to be compensated”.

69.  The applicant lodged an appeal against that decision, presenting essentially the same arguments as before (see paragraph 64 above). She also argued that the order to pay the money to J.S. should not have been imposed on her but on the VCA, since it was the latter which had acted unlawfully.

70.  On 7 February 2011 the Court of Appeal dismissed the applicant’s appeal and upheld the decision of the first-instance court in its entirety. The court stressed that forests of national importance could not be transferred into private ownership on any basis whatsoever, including restitution ofnationalised property (see paragraph 101 below). It stated that the institutions responsible for adopting decisions on restoration of property rights had to verify whether all the conditions for restitution provided by law were complied with and, when deciding to restore property rights in natura, whether the property in question was not a type which could only belong to the State. Accordingly, the VCA, when adopting the decision to restore the applicant’s property rights, had been under an obligation to verify whether that decision complied with the lawin force at the time of its adoption.

71.  The Court of Appeal held that the finding that the applicant’s property rights had been restored in contravention of the law enabled it to consider that she had acquired those property rights in bad faith (nesąžininga įgijėja). It stated that the applicant and J.S. “could not be considered bona fide acquirersmerely because the land in question had become private property as a result of a decision adopted by a public authority”. It also stated that when an individual knew or ought to have known that an administrative decision might be contrary to the law, he or she could not rely on his or her good faith.

72.  The Court of Appeal further observed that even though the unlawful restoration of property rights had been the result of a decision adopted by the VCA, under the law it was not possible to order the VCA, and not the applicant, to return the money paid for the plot in questionto J.S. (see paragraph 69 above). The court considered that requiring J.S. to return the plot to the State and the applicant to return the money to J.S. would not cause “serious difficultiesfor the defendants” (see paragraph 95 below). It also reiterated that the applicant had retained the right to restoration of her property rights in one of the forms provided for by law.

73.  The applicant lodged an appeal on points of law. On 29 March 2011 the Supreme Court refused to accept it for examination on the grounds that it raised no important legal issues.

74.  On 25 October 2011 the applicant paid LTL 49,500 to J.S.

2.  Subsequent restitutionprocess

75.  On 23 February 2012 the applicant received a letter from the NLS confirming thatshe had retained the right to have herproperty rightsto 0.15 hectares of land restored. It stated that there was no more vacant land in Kryžiokai and that her property rights could be restored by: (i) assigning a plot of land or forest equal in value to the land held previously; (ii) providing securities; (iii) discharging liabilities to the State;(iv) transferring, free of charge, a new plot of land equal in value to the land held previously for the construction of an individual home in the city or rural area where the previously held land was situated; or (v) providing monetary compensation (see paragraph 92 below). The applicant was asked to inform the authorities of her choice as to the form of restitution.

76.  On 7 March 2012 the applicant sent a letter to the NLS stating that she had suffered pecuniary damage in the amount of LTL 49,500 as a result of the actions of the authorities. The applicant expressed her wish to be given a plot of land of 0.15 hectares, and if the value of that plot waslower than LTL 49,500, that the difference be paid to her as damages.

77.  On 24 July 2012 the applicant received another letter from the NLS. It stated that there was a possibility of her receiving a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in the Vilnius city area but as there were 4,806 other candidates waiting to receive plots in that area, the restitution would take a long time. The applicant was asked to consider an alternative form of restitution, such as a plot of land in a rural area, a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in a different city or monetary compensation. She was also informed that there was a possibility for her to receive land in Kryžiokai, so if she wished to receive a plot in that area, her request would be considered when the land planhad been prepared.

78.  On 21 August 2012 the applicant sent a letter to the NLS. She reiterated that the annulment of her property rights to 0.15 hectares of land had caused her pecuniary damage in the amount of LTL 49,500. In her view, being put on the list with 4,806 other candidates and being made to wait for an undetermined period of time for restitution was unacceptable. The applicant asked to be allocated a plot of land for the construction of an individual home in Vilnius in the order of priority, and if that was not possible, to be informed how many plots were available in Vilnius and when she might expect to receive one. If she could not be given such a plot, she wished to receive compensation of LTL 49,500. The applicant stated that she did not wish to choose any other form of restitution.

79.  On 14 December 2012 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several areas around Vilnius. The applicant was included in that list as a candidate to receive 0.15 hectares of land. On 31 December 2012 the NLS held a meeting in which candidates were offered plots in the relevant areas.The applicant took part in that meeting.According to the minutes of the meeting approved by the NLS and signed by the applicant, she refused the plot which was offered to her and stated that she wished to wait for the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in her case.

80.  On 26 April 2016 the NLS approved the list of candidates to receive plots of land in several other areas around Vilnius. The applicant was included in that list as a candidate to receive 0.15 hectares of land.

81.  On 27 April 2016 the NLS sent a letter to the applicant inviting her to attend a meeting of candidates on 18 May 2016 in which she would be offered a plot. The applicant did not take part in that meeting.

82.  On 18 May 2016 the NLS sent a letter to the applicant inviting her to attend a meeting of candidates on 1 June 2016 in which she would be offered a plot. It is unclear whether the applicant took part in that meeting.

83.  According to the latest information provided to the Court, the fourth applicant’s property rights to 0.15 hectares of land have still not been restored.

II.  RELEVANT DOMESTIC LAW AND PRACTICE

A.  Constitutional and statutory provisions

1.  Constitution

84.  Article 23 of the Constitution reads:

“Property shall be inviolable.

The rights of ownership shall be protected by law.

Property may be taken only for the needs of society according to the procedure established by law and shall be justly compensated for.”

85.  From the entry into force of the Constitution on 2 November 1992 until 23 January 2003, the relevant part of Article 47 read:

“Land, inland waters, forests and parks shall belong by right of ownership only to the Republic of Lithuania and its nationals.”

86.  Since 23 January 2003, the relevant part of Article 47 reads:

“The subsurface, as well as inland waters, forests, parks, roads, and historical, archaeological, and cultural objects of State importance, shall belong by right of exclusive ownership to the Republic of Lithuania.”

87.  The relevant part of Article 54 reads:

“The State shall take care of the protection of the natural environment, wildlife and plants, individual objects of nature, and areas of particular value, and shall supervise the sustainable use of natural resources, as well as their restoration and increase.”

2.  Law on Forests

88.  The Law on Forests entered into force on 1 January 1995. From that date until 1 July 2001, the relevant parts of Article 5 provided that forests of national importance belonged exclusively to the Republic of Lithuania if they had been designated as urban forests.

89.  A new version of the Law on Forests entered into force on 1 July 2001, and its relevant provisions have remained valid until present. Article 2 defines urban forests as forests situated in cities. Article 4 § 4 (2) provides that forests of national importance, including urban forests, belong exclusively to the Republic of Lithuania.

3.  Legislation governing restoration of property rights

90.  The Law on the Procedure and Conditions of Restoration of Property Rights to Existing Real Property entered into force on 1 August 1991. Initially it did not contain any provisions concerning urban forests. From 20 May 1992, however, Article 13 provided that forests which had been designated as urban forests were considered redeemable by the State (valstybės išperkami miškai).

91.  On 9 July 1997 the Law on Restoration of Citizens’ Property Rights to Existing Real Property (hereinafter “the Law on Restitution”) entered into force, and the previous law (see paragraph 90 above) was repealed. However, the relevant part of Article 13 of the Law on Restitution was essentially the same as that of the previous law, and it has remained unchanged to date.

92.  Article 16 of the Law on Restitution provides that the State has to compensate citizens for any land, forest and riparian rights bought by it by: (i) assigning a plot of land or forest equal in value to the land held previously; (ii) providing securities; (iii) discharging liabilities to the State; (iv) transferring, free of charge, a new plot of land equal in value to the land held previously for the construction of an individual home in the city or rural area where the previously held land was situated; or (v) providing monetary compensation.

93.  The Law on Restitution was amended with effect from 1 February 2012. Article 21 currently provides that in cases where citizens have not expressed their intentions as to their preferred form of restitution within the time-limits laid down in the law, or where they have chosen a form not provided for by law, or where it is impossible to restore their property rights in the form chosen, property rights are restored by monetary compensation.

4.  Civil Code

94.  Article 1.80 § 1 of the Civil Code, in force since 1 July 2001, provides that any transaction which fails to comply with mandatory statutory provisions is null and void. When a transaction is declared null and void, each party is required to return to the other everything that they have received from that transaction (restitution). Where restitution in kind is impossible, the parties are required to pay each other monetary compensation, unless the law provides otherwise.

95.  Article 6.146 provides that restitution is to be made in kind, except where that is impossible or would cause serious difficulties for the parties. In such cases, restitution is to be made by payment of a monetary equivalent.

96.  Article 4.96 § 2 provides that immovable property cannot be reclaimed (negali būti išreikalautas) from a person who has acquired it in good faith, except for the cases when the rightful owner has lost that property as a result of a crime committed by other persons. Article 4.96 § 3 provides that where ownership of movable or immovable property has been acquired free of charge from a person who had no right to transfer ownership, the rightful owner has the right to reclaim that property in all cases.

B.  Domestic court practice

1.  Principles of restoration of property rights

97.  For relevant domestic practice as to the principles of restoration of property rights in Lithuania, see Jasiūnienė v. Lithuania (no. 41510/98, § 22, 6 March 2003), Igarienė and Petrauskienė v. Lithuania (no. 26892/05, §§ 24-25, 21 July 2009), Albergas and Arlauskas v. Lithuania (no. 17978/05, §§ 26-33, 27 May 2014), and Paukštis v. Lithuania (no. 17467/07, §§ 40-41 and 46-48, 24 November 2015).

98.  In its ruling of 5 July 2007, the Constitutional Court held:

“It should be noted that the constitutional goal of a harmonious, just and open civil society, and the constitutional requirements of legal certainty, legal security and [protection of] legitimate expectations imply that the restitution process may not last an unjustifiably long time; thus, amendments to …legislation cannot create grounds for protracting this process for an unreasonably long period. Due to the unreasonably long time during which property rights to existing real property are restored, the very essence of restitution can be distorted or even denied, constitutional property rights, as well as other rights of the individual, can be violated, and people’s trust in the State and the law can be undermined.”

2.  Protection of forests

99.  In its ruling of 1 June 1998, the Constitutional Court held:

“Forests are one of the principal natural resources. They are part of the indivisible ecological system;they serve the welfare of society and people, preserve the stability of the landscape and improve the quality of the environment. The general principles of environmental protection are applied to forests as a constituent part of the environment; environmental protection is a concern and obligation of the State and the population.Both public and private interests should be devoted to improving the quality of the environment, diminishing any negative impact upon it,and striving for ecological production andefficient utilisation of natural resources …

Therefore, the special ecological, social and economic significance of forests for the environment and for the public interestjustifiescertain limitations and restrictions on the rightsof forest owners.”

100.  In its ruling of 13 May 2005, the Constitutional Court held:

“The proper and rational use [of land, forests and bodies of water] is a public interest protected by the Constitution… [L]and, forests and bodies of water are special objects [of property rights], since their proper use and protection is essential forthe existence of a human being as a biological and social being, maintenance and development of his social ties, survival and development of the individual andsociety, and the welfare of the nation.”

101.  In its ruling of 14 March 2006, the Constitutional Court held:

“Under Article 47 § 1 of the Constitution (as amended on 23 January 2003), inland waters, forests and parks of national importance shall belong exclusively to the Republic of Lithuania.This constitutional provision means that the objects listed in it can belong only to the State, save for the exceptions that originate from the Constitution itself.The State (its institutions and officials) may not adopt any decisions that would allow these objects to be transferred from State ownershipinto the ownership of other persons (save for the exceptions permitted by the Constitution) …

On the other hand, the fact that the Constitution treats certain objects of national importance as belonging exclusively to the Republic of Lithuania, does not mean that objects which belonged to certain other persons and were later recognised as being of national importance must necessarily be taken intoState ownership …

It must further be noted that not all inland waters, forests and parksshall be recognised as inland waters, forests and parks of national importance, but only those whose enduring value is so great, and the need to preserve them forfuture generations is so pressing, that if they were not deemed to be of national importance, their preservation would be under threat.

In view of the special enduring value of inland waters, forests and parks of national importance and the need to preserve them forfuture generations, the State is under a constitutional obligation to take care of these objects and preserve them.

The recognition that land, forests, parks and bodies of water… are of national importance implies a special legal regime with regard to theirmanagement, protection and use …

[I]f natural objects …belong to the State, then, regardless of whether or not they have been recognised as objects of national importance, they may be transferred to ownership of other persons only on the basis of the Constitution. It should be noted that there would be no constitutional basis where land, forests, parks and bodies of waterin areas of particular value and which belong to the State are transferred into the ownership of other persons either freeof charge or for an unreasonably low price, or where land, forests, parks and bodies of waterare transferred into the ownership of other persons when property rights are being restored to them in kind (i.e. when land, forests, parks or bodies of waterare transferredinto the ownership of persons who did not previously have propertyrights to those objects).”

102.  In its ruling of 6 September 2007, the Constitutional Court held:

“[I]rrespective of whether the Government has officially designated certain urban forests as forests of national importance, under the Law on Forests, urban forests are forests of national importance.”

3.  Consequences of annulment of restoration of property rights

103.  In its ruling of 12 April 2012 in a civil case no. 3K-7-165/2012, the Supreme Court stated that there was divergent practice among domestic courts with regard to the effects of the annulment of administrative acts on restoration of property rights, in particular when the persons to whom those rights had been restored hadlater sold that property to third parties. The Supreme Court observed that,in some cases, the courts annulled all subsequent transfers of the property, ordered each party to return to the other what it had received from the transaction, and stated that the process of restoration of property rights with respect to the initial claimant would have to be started afresh. In other cases, courts considered that the process of restoration in respect of the initial claimant had to be considered completed, and that the State had to reclaim the property from the final purchaser, for adequate compensation. An extended panel of the Supreme Court therefore considered it necessary to harmonise the courts’ practice. It held:

“In the present case, the State lost its ownership of a forest of national importance as a result of administrative acts on restoration of property rights adopted by its authorised institution, the VCA. These decisions have been declared unlawful and have been annulled … After the annulment of the administrative acts on restoration of property rights, the State should regain its property rights in respect of the plots of land which were unlawfully transferred to [the claimants], and restoration of the property rights of the latter would have to be decided anew. However, in this case, the plots of land have been transferred to third parties for monetary consideration…

The extended judges’ panel notes that when applying restitution in a specific case, it is essential to assess the circumstances which determine the need for its application, as well as the specifics of the legal relationship in question and the object of the restitution. In this case, one of the circumstances determining the need for restitution is the fact that, in line with Article 47 of the Constitution, forests of national importance belong exclusively to the State, so they must be returned to it. Other specific features of restitution in this case are determined by the nature of the process of restoration of property rights …

In this case there was no dispute as to [the claimants’] right to restoration of their property rights, but it was found that the property in question could not be returned to them in natura. It has not been determined that [the claimants] exercised any undue influence on the authorities’ decisions. Accordingly, the transfer of forests of national importance into [the claimants’] ownership occurred because of the authorities’ actions, whereas [the claimants] trusted the competence of the authorities. The extended judges’ panel observes that, contrary to the conclusions of the lower courts in this case, [the claimants’] good faith in the process of restoration of property rights has not been denied. Simply because they, as careful and diligent parties to a legal relationship, ought to have known that the law prohibited the restoration of property rights to forests in urban areas, does not constitute grounds to regard them as having acquired the property in bad faith,since they did not have the competence to make any decisions on the limits of the plots of land to be given to them and, as stated before, there are no grounds to find that they exercised any undue influence on the authorities’ decisions … In such circumstances, where persons acting in good faith have [acquired] forests of national importance as a result of theimproper actions of the authorities, restitution after the annulment of the relevant administrative acts must be applied in a way as not to deny those persons’ rights to legal certainty and the protection of their legitimate expectations …

In view of the relevant case-law of the European Court of Human Rights … the extended judges’ panel notes that, in cases such as the present, applying restitution in integrum – that is to say, declaring the restoration of property rights [to the claimants], whose rights have already been restored, incomplete and returning them to an uncertain situation until that question is decided anew, would be disproportionate and might breach [the claimants’], who have not violated any laws, right to legal certainty and the protection of their legitimate expectations. In cases such as the present, where restitution has to be applied primarily because of the unlawfulness of authorities’ decisions, the State must assume the negative effects of restitution, while [the individuals concerned] can only be made to suffer minimal negative effects of returning the property to the State, as provided for by law.

In the present case, the individuals to whom property rights to forests of national importance had been restored by unlawful administrative acts (the claimants) subsequently sold that property to other persons, that is to say they expressed their wish to change the type of their property and had no interest in using it any longer. In view of that, as well as all of the above considerations, the extended judges’ panel holds that restitution shall not be applied to [the claimants] – they shall not be ordered to return the money received from the sale agreement to the other party, and the restoration process in their respect shall be considered complete; otherwise their situation would be unfairly and disproportionately worsened (Article 6.145 § 2 of the Civil Code) …

[R]estitution shall be applied to the State and the final acquirers of the property; the latter shall be ordered to return that property to the State … The State shall be ordered to compensate [the final acquirers] for their expenses for the acquisition of the property, which should not exceed its market price at the time when the sale agreement was concluded.”

THE LAW

I.  JOINDER OF THE APPLICATIONS

104.  Having regard to the similar subject matter of the applications, the Court finds it appropriate to order their joinder (Rule 42 § 1 of the Rules of Court).

II.  PRELIMINARY QUESTION

105.  The Court notes at the outset that the first applicant died after the present application had been lodged. The second applicant, her daughter and legal heir, expressed her wish to continue the proceedings before the Court on her late mother’s behalf. The Government have not disputed that the second applicant is entitled to pursue the application on the first applicant’s behalf and the Court sees no reason to hold otherwise (see, among other authorities, Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan (dec.) [GC], no. 40167/06, § 51, 14 December 2011, and the case-law cited therein).

III.  ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 1 OF PROTOCOL No. 1 TO THE CONVENTION

106.  The applicants complained that their property rights had been annulled because of mistakes made by the authorities, and that to date they had not been fully compensated either by restitution in kind or in monetary terms. They relied on Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, which reads as follows:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”

A.  Admissibility

1.  As to the exhaustion of domestic remedies

(a)  Separate civil proceedings against the State

107.  The Government submitted that all fourapplicants had had the ability toinstitute separate civil proceedings against the State and claim compensation for non-pecuniary damage caused by the unlawful actions of the authorities. They referred to several rulings of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court adopted between April 2010 and June 2012 acknowledging the right of individuals to claim compensation for such damage, as well as the Supreme Administrative Court’s ruling of 7 May 2012 in which the claimant was awarded LTL 5,000 (approximately EUR 1,450) in respect of non-pecuniary damage following the annulment of previously restored property rights. The Government also referred totwo rulings of the Supreme Administrative Court adopted in August and December 2011 in which the claimants were awarded compensation in respect of pecuniary damage caused by the authorities’ inaction in the process of land planning (not related to the restoration of rights to nationalised property).

108.  The Government observed that the first, second and third applicants could “only claim redress for this damage upon the finalisation of the process of restoration of property rights, when one could assess theexact damage, if any, suffered”.

109.  With regard to the fourth applicant, the Government referred to the Supreme Court’s rulings of 26 January and 12 April 2012 (see excerpts from the latter in paragraph 103 above)in which it held that the State had to assume the negative effects of the annulment of unlawfully restored property rights, especially when the property had been later sold to third parties.The Government argued that the fourth applicant, who had sold her land to a third party(see paragraph 62 above), could have relied on those rulings in order to claim damages from the State, without waiting for the finalisation of the restitution process.

110.  The applicantssubmitted that in their appealsthey had asked the courts to protect their property rights and apply the law in a “fair” manner (see paragraphs 22, 49, 64 and 69 above)but no compensation had been offered to them.

111.  The Courtreiterates that applicants are only obliged to exhaust domestic remedies which are available in theory and in practice at the relevant time– that is to say, remedies that are accessible, capable of providing redress in respect of their complaints and offering reasonable prospects of success (see Sejdovic v. Italy [GC], no. 56581/00, § 46, ECHR 2006‑II).

112.  Turning to the circumstances of the present case, the Court firstly observes that in the majority of the domestic cases referred to by the Government the ability for individuals to claim damages from the State had been acknowledged only in theory, and the Government provided only one example of a case in which that remedy had actually been applied in a situation similar to the applicants’ (see paragraph 107 above). In the Court’s view, that is insufficient to demonstrate that the remedy suggested by the Government was available to the applicants in practice at the relevant time (see, for a similar situation, Činga v. Lithuania (merits), no. 69419/13, § 76, 31 October 2017).

113.  The Court further observes that the Government themselves acknowledged that the first, second and third applicants could only claim damages from the State after the process of restoration of their property rights had finished (see paragraph 108 above). Bearing in mind that the thrust of the applicants’ complaint is that that process has not finished to date, the Court is not persuaded that the remedy proposed by the Government could provide them with redress.

114.  The Court lastly notes that the domestic court decisions relied on by the Government in their submissions concerning the fourth applicant (see paragraph 109 above) were adopted after she had alreadylodged her application with the Court (see paragraph 1 above). It reiterates that the requirement for the applicant to exhaust domestic remedies is normally determined with reference to the date on which the application was lodged with the Court (see Baumann v. France, no. 33592/96, § 47, ECHR 2001‑V (extracts), and Škorjanec v. Croatia, no. 25536/14, § 44, ECHR 2017 (extracts)). While this rule is subject to exceptions, which may be justified by the particular circumstances of each case (see Demopoulos and Others v. Turkey (dec.) [GC], nos. 46113/99 and 7 others, § 87, 1 March 2010, and Domján v. Hungary (dec.), no. 5433/17, § 34, 14 November 2017), the Court considers that in the present case there are no grounds which would justify such an exception.

115.  Accordingly, the Court dismisses the Government’s submission that the applicants failed to exhaust domestic remedies by not instituting separate civil proceedings against the State.

(b)  The applicants’ appeals on points of law

116.  The Government contended that the first, second and fourth applicants’ appeals on points of law had not complied with the requirements ofdomestic law, as demonstrated by the fact that the Supreme Court had refused to examine them (see paragraphs 24, 29 and 73 above).

117.  The applicants submitted that in the domestic proceedings they had all been represented by the same lawyer and their appeals on points of law had contained essentially the same arguments, but the Supreme Court had only accepted the third applicant’s appeal for examination (see paragraphs 50 and 51 above), without providing any reasons.

118.  The Courthas previously held that it is for the Supreme Court to decide questions of domestic law, particularly whether a case is important for the consistent interpretation of Lithuanian law. What matters for the Court is whether in an appeal applicants “at least in substance and in compliance with the formal requirements and time-limits laid down in domestic law” raised the complaints which they subsequently made to the Court (see Lietuvos Nacionalinis Radijas ir Televizija and Tapinas and Co Ltd. v. Lithuania (dec.), no. 27930/05, 6 July 2010, and Koturenka v. Lithuania (dec.), no. 10646/08, § 20, 29 September 2015).

119.  In the present case, the Court observes that the applicants in their appeals on points of law did raise the complaints concerning the annulment of their property rights which they subsequently made to the Court.Furthermore,the Supreme Court did not indicate that those appeals had not complied with the formal requirements or time-limits laid down in domestic law (see paragraphs 24, 29 and 73 above). It follows that the Government’s objection concerning the applicants’ alleged failure to exhaust domestic remedies must be dismissed.

2.  Conclusion

120.  The Court further notes that the applicants’ complaints under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention are not manifestly ill‑founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention, nor are they inadmissible on any other grounds. They must therefore be declared admissible.

B.  Merits

1.  The parties’ submissions

(a)  The applicants

121.  All the applicants submitted that their property rights had been annulled unlawfully and without sufficient grounds. They argued that the domestic courts had incorrectly found that the land given to them had been covered by forests of national importance. They submitted that Kryžiokai and Vaidotai had always been rural areas where there had been no forests before nationalisation, and forests which had grown there later should not preclude the restoration of their property rights. Theyfurther submitted that in 1996 those areas had become part of the Vilnius city municipality but not Vilnius city (see paragraph 10 above), and the law of 1996 had not stipulated that forests in municipality areaswereurban forests.Accordingly, the applicants contended that the VCA’s decisions to give those forests to them had been in accordance with the law.

122.  The applicants further submitted that they had not acted unlawfully in the restitution process and had acquired theirproperty rights in good faith, and therefore taking the property from them had been contrary to domestic law (see paragraphs 84 and95 above). They submitted that they had already participated in the lengthy restitution process once and it had been unfair to subject them to it again because of the fault of authorities. Furthermore, even though they had formally retained the right to have their property rights restored, that was de facto impossible because there was not enough vacant land in the relevant areas, or any available land was of significantly lower quality than the plots which had been previously given to the applicants, and the State did not have sufficient funds to pay them fair monetary compensation. The applicants argued that the State should have chosen a different way of protecting the public interest,without prejudice to their property rights.

123.  The applicants also submitted that, following the annulment of their property rights, the authorities should have taken the initiative to offer them suitable plots of land. They contended that they were of an advanced age and in poor health and should thus not have been expected to search for suitable land themselves.

124.  The applicants lastly submitted that they had still not had their property rights fully restored. In the cases of the first, second and third applicants more than seven years had passed since their rights had been annulled (see paragraphs 24, 29 and50 above), and in the case of the fourth applicant, more than six years (see paragraph73 above). In particular, the third and fourth applicants contended that they had not been offered any plots equal in value to the land which they had been given previously.

(b)  The Government

125.  The Government firstly submitted that the applicants’ complaints had to be viewed in the broader context of the complex processof restoration of rights to property nationalised during the Soviet regime. That process required coordination between multiple authorities and the balancing of various different interests. While the restitution process had been ongoing, changes had occurred in the relevant legal framework and the administrative division of the area. There had also been legal disputes and proceedings instituted by unsatisfied claimants, which had further slowed down the authorities’ ability to carry out the restitution. That process had been especially complicated in the areas around big cities, such as Vilnius, where there had been the highest number of claimants waiting to receive plots of land but the least amount of vacant land. The Government submitted that all the aforementioned circumstances had to be taken into account when assessing the actions of the authorities in the applicants’ cases.

126.  The Government did not dispute that the applicants had had “possessions” within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, and that there had been an interference with their right to peaceful enjoyment of property. However, they argued that that interference had been in line with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

127.  The Government submitted that the prohibition on individuals owning forests of national importance, including urban forests, was laid downin the Constitution (see paragraph 86 above), the Law on Forests (see paragraphs 88 and 89 above) and the Law on Restitution (see paragraphs 90 and 91 above). Furthermore, the Constitutional Court had held that urban forests were forests of national importance, irrespective of whether they had been officially designated as such (see paragraph 102 above). Accordingly, the Government submitted that the interference with the applicants’ possessions had been in accordance with the law.

128.  The Governmentalso argued that the impugned interference had pursued the legitimate aim of protecting forests as part of the natural environment. They noted that the importance of forests had been highlighted by the domestic courts in some of the applicants’ cases (see paragraphs18 and 46above). The Government contended that that aim fell within the wide margin of appreciation available to the legislature in implementing social and economic policies, especially when it concerned measures adopted in the course of the fundamental reforms in the transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic State.

129.  The Government further argued that the applicants had not had to bear an individual and excessive burden. They had not been deprived of their home but of land covered by forest, which had had “little economic and social impact on their lives”. In addition, the applicants had only been deprived of part of the plots which had been given to them, and therefore they could still partly enjoy their property. The Government also contended that the applicants had only been “the undisputed owners” of the property for a relatively short period of time of about five years, until the prosecutor had challenged those rights before the domestic courts (see paragraphs 13, 14, 25, 41, 42, 62 and 63above).

130.  The Government further submitted that under the law the courts which had annulled the applicants’ property rights could not award them compensation at the same time, but the applicants had retained the right to have their property rights restored in one of the forms provided for by law (see paragraphs 92 and 93 above). They submitted that there was enough vacant land in the Vilnius Region and the adjacent areas which could be given to the applicants. At the same time, the Government stated that the Convention did not guarantee the right to restitution of propertyin natura (see Jasiūnienė v. Lithuania,no. 41510/98, §§ 40-41, 6March 2003). They also argued that cooperation of applicants with the public authorities in the restitution process was of key importance when determining the proportionality of the interference with their property rights. They submitted that the domestic authorities had been active in contacting the applicants and informing them about the process, but they were not entitled to take over the initiative from the applicants. The restitution could not be finalised until the applicants expressed their intentions as to their preferred form of restitution.While the Government acknowledged that the first and second applicants had cooperated with the authorities, they argued that the third and fourth applicants had failed todo so.

131.  The Government lastly submitted that, after the applicants’ property rights had been annulled, the subsequent restitution process had not been excessively long. In their observations of April and August 2012, the Government stated that the restitution process in the Vilnius Region was due to be completed by the end of 2013. However, in their additional submissions of June 2015 and September 2017, they no longer provided a specific date for completion of the restitution process in the Vilnius Region.

2.  The Court’s assessment

(a)  Existence of an interference with the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions

132.  The Court notes that there is no dispute between the parties that the annulment of the applicants’ property rights to the plots of land restored to them constituted an interference with their right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. It is of the view that that interference has to be regarded as deprivation of property within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention (see Paplauskienė v. Lithuania, no. 31102/06, §§ 37-38, 14 October 2014, andRomankevič v. Lithuania, no. 25747/07, § 33, 2 December 2014).

(b)  Lawfulness of the interference

133.  The Court observes that the requirement that forests of national importance can only belong to the State is established in the Constitution (see paragraph 86 above) and the Law on Forests (see paragraphs 88 and 89 above). The Law on Forests also provides that forests situated in cities constitute forests of national importance (see paragraphs 88 and 89 above), and the Law on Restitution similarly provides that urban forests are redeemable by the State (see paragraphs 90 and 91 above). The relevant provisions of that legislation were in force at the time when the applicants’property rights were restored (see paragraphs 13, 41 and 62 above). The Court is therefore satisfied that the decisions adopted by the VCA to restore the applicants’ property rights to plots of land including urban forests did not comply with the aforementioned legislation, and the annulment of those decisions was therefore in accordance withthe law. It is also satisfied that the requirement for the applicants, after their property rights had been annulled, to return the relevant plots to the State wasin accordance with the law(see Article 1.80 of the Civil Code in paragraph 94 above).

134.  The Court takes note of the particular situation of the fourth applicant, who had sold the plot containing forest to a third party before her rights to that plot were annulled (see paragraph 62 above). It appears from the Supreme Court’s ruling of 12 April 2012 (see paragraph 103 above) that, at the time when her property rights were annulled and she was ordered to return the money to the purchaser and return the plot to the State (see paragraphs 67, 68 and 70-73 above), the practice of the domestic courts was inconsistent. In some cases, the courts annulled all subsequent transfers of the property and ordered the parties to return to the other what they had received from the transaction (like in the fourth applicant’s case), whereas in other cases, the courts held that the State had to reclaim the property from the final purchaser. The Supreme Court decided to harmonise the case-law and adopt the latterposition (see paragraph 103 above). The Court takes note of the Supreme Court’s decision; it alsoreiterates that divergence of case-law, in itself, cannot be considered contrary to the Convention (see Nejdet Şahin and Perihan Şahin v. Turkey [GC], no. 13279/05, § 51, 20 October 2011). In the circumstances of the present case, it therefore considers that the interference with the fourth applicant’s property rights was also in accordance with the law.

(c)  Legitimate aim of the interference

135.  The Court has previously held that the protection of nature and forests falls within the scope of public interest within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention (seeTurgut and Others v. Turkey, no. 1411/03, § 90, 8 July 2008; Depalle v. France [GC], no. 34044/02, § 81, ECHR 2010; and Matczyński v. Poland, no. 32794/07, § 101, 15 December 2015). It also observes that the Constitution of Lithuania and the case-law of the Constitutional Court establish the obligation of the State to take care of the natural environment, including forests, in the interests of society (see paragraphs 87 and 99-101above). The courts which examined some of the applicants’ cases also highlighted the importance of forests and the State’s obligation to protect them (see paragraphs 18 and 46 above).

136.  The applicants in the present case disputed the aim of the interference with their property rights by arguing that there were no forests on the land which had been given to them, or that those forests were not of national importance (see paragraph 121above). In this connection, the Court reiterates that it is not its task to deal with errors of fact or law allegedly committed by a national court unless and in so far as such errors may have infringed rights and freedoms protected by the Convention (see, among many other authorities, García Ruiz v. Spain [GC], no. 30544/96, § 28, ECHR 1999-I, and Jantner v. Slovakia, no. 39050/97, § 32, 4 March 2003). In other words, the Court cannot question the assessment of the domestic authorities unless there is clear evidence of arbitrariness (see, among many other authorities, Sisojeva and Others v. Latvia (striking out) [GC], no. 60654/00, § 89, ECHR 2007‑I). It therefore considers that in the present case it was primarily the role of the domestic courts to establish whether the applicants’ land included forests and whether those forests were of national importance, in accordance with domestic law.The Court cannot overlook the fact that in some of the applicants’ cases different public registers provided inconsistent information about whethertheir land was forested (see paragraphs 15, 23 and67above), or that the various authorities in charge of the protection of forests had not objected to the restoration of that land to the applicants (see paragraphs 16, 43 and65above). However, the domestic courts held that the presence of forests on the applicants’ land had been sufficiently established by the information provided by the State Forest ManagementService (see paragraphs23, 26 and 67above). The courts also found that those forests were urban forests because the areas in which they were situated hadbecome part of the Vilnius city municipality in 1996, and that they had been officially designated as forests of national importance in 2000 (see paragraphs 19, 26, 46 and 67above). Having examined the domestic courts’ reasoning, the Court cannot regard their findingsas arbitrary and sees no reason to substitute them with its own assessment.

137.  Accordingly, the Court is satisfied that the interference with the applicants’ property rights pursued a legitimate aim of public interest, namely the protection of forests of national importance.

(d)  Proportionality of the interference

(i)  Relevant general principles

138.  The Court reiterates that any interference with property must, in addition to being lawful and having a legitimate aim, also satisfy the requirement of proportionality. A fair balance must be struck between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights, the search for such a fair balance being inherent in the whole of the Convention. The requisite balance will not be struck where the person concerned bears an individual and excessive burden (see Sporrong and Lönnroth v. Sweden, 23 September1982, §§ 69-74, Series A no. 52; Brumărescu v. Romania [GC], no. 28342/95, § 78, ECHR 1999-VII; andAnthony Aquilina v. Malta, no. 3851/12, §§ 58-59, 11 December 2014).

139.  The Court has on many occasions emphasised the particular importance of the principle of “good governance”. It requires that where an issue in the general interest is at stake, in particular when the matter affects fundamental human rights such as those involving property, the public authorities must act in good time and in an appropriate and above all consistent manner (see Beyeler v. Italy [GC], no. 33202/96, § 120, ECHR 2000‑I; Pyrantienė v. Lithuania, no. 45092/07, § 55, 12 November2013; and Vukušić v. Croatia, no. 69735/11, § 64, 31 May 2016).

140.  The good governance principle should not, as a general rule, prevent the authorities from correcting occasional mistakes, even those resulting from their own negligence. However, the need to correct an old “wrong” should not disproportionately interfere with a new right which has been acquired by an individual relying on the legitimacy of the public authority’s action in good faith. In other words, State authorities which fail to put in place or adhere to their own procedures should not be allowed to profit from their wrongdoing or to escape their obligations. The risk of any mistake made by the State authority must be borne by the State itself and the errors must not be remedied at the expense of the individuals concerned. In the context of revoking ownership of a property transferred erroneously, the good governance principle may not only impose on the authorities an obligation to act promptly in correcting their mistake, but may also necessitate the payment of adequate compensation or another type of appropriate reparation to its former bona fide holder (see Lelas v. Croatia, no. 55555/08, § 74, 20 May 2010; Maksymenko and Gerasymenko v. Ukraine, no. 49317/07, § 64, 16 May 2013; andBogdel v. Lithuania, no. 41248/06, § 66, 26 November 2013).

141.  In previous cases concerning restitution of property, the Court has acknowledged the complexity of the legal and factual issues a State faces when resolving such questions. It follows that certain impediments to the realisation of the applicants’ right to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions are not in themselves open to criticism. Even so, it has held that the state of uncertainty in which the applicants might find themselves as a result of delays attributable to the authorities is a factor to be taken into account in assessing the State’s conduct (see Broniowski v. Poland [GC], no. 31443/96, §§ 151 and 185, ECHR 2004‑V;Velikovi and Others v. Bulgaria, nos. 43278/98 and 8 others, § 166, 15 March 2007; Igarienė and Petrauskienė, no. 26892/05, § 58, 21 July 2009; andPaukštisv. Lithuania, no. 17467/07, § 84, 24November 2015).

142.  The Court lastly reiterates that the compensation terms under the relevant legislation are material to the assessment whether the contested measure respects the requisite fair balance and, notably, whether it imposes a disproportionate burden on the applicants. It has held that the taking of property without payment of an amount reasonably related to its value would normally constitute a disproportionate interference. At the same time, Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention does not guarantee a right to full compensation in all circumstances (seeScordino v. Italy (no. 1) [GC], no. 36813/97, § 95, ECHR 2006‑V; Kozacıoğlu v. Turkey [GC], no. 2334/03, § 64, 19 February 2009; and Vistiņš and Perepjolkins v. Latvia [GC], no. 71243/01, §§ 110 and 112, 25 October 2012). The Court has accepted that the principle of partial restitution to rectify old wrongs conformed to the Convention, and that, consequently, the amount of compensation for long-extinguished property rights could be assessed in accordance withcalculation methods established in relevant legislation rather than with the full market value of such property (see Kavaliauskas and Others v. Lithuania, no. 51752/10, §§ 53-56, 14 March 2017, and the cases cited therein). However, the Court has previously found that the requisite fair balance was not struck in cases where the disproportion between the market value of the property and the compensation awarded to the applicants was “extreme” or “too significant” (see Vistiņš and Perepjolkins, cited above, § 119; Noreikienė and Noreikav. Lithuania, no. 17285/08, § 39, 24 November 2015; and Tunaitis v. Lithuania, no. 42927/08, § 42, 24 November 2015).

(ii)  Application of the above principles in the present case

(α)  As concerns all the applicants

143.  In the present case, all the applicants complained that the annulment of their property rights to the plots of land restored to them had been contrary to Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention. The Court has already acceptedthat the plots had been transferred to the applicants in contravention of domestic law (see paragraph 133 above). In line with the general principles established in its case-law (see the references provided in paragraphs 139 and 140 above), the Court therefore considers that the Lithuanian authorities were entitled to correct their mistakes and annul the restoration of the applicants’property rights in order to protect forests classified as being of national importance. Accordingly, it is of the view that the annulment in itself did not constitute a violation of the applicants’ rights under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.

144.  At the same time, the Court underlines that the decisions to restore the applicants’ property rights were adopted by the authorities, who alone were responsible for making sure that their decisions complied with all relevant legislation. The applicants were ordinary citizens who participated in the restitution process under the same conditions as everyone else; they were not in a privileged position and there are no grounds to find that they acted unlawfully when obtaining their property (see also Pyrantienė, cited above, § 59, andAlbergas and Arlauskas v. Lithuania, no. 17978/05, § 68, 27 May 2014). The courts which examined the first, second and third applicants’ cases did not find any indication of bad faith on the part of those applicants either (see paragraphs 18-20, 23, 26, 28, 46, 48 and 50-51above). Although the Court of Appealin the fourth applicant’s case held that she could not have been considered a bona fide acquirer of property (see paragraph 71above), the Court finds this conclusion difficult to accept. It observes that the Court of Appeal did not refer to any actions of the fourth applicant which might have demonstrated her bad faith, nor did it provide any relevant arguments why it had reached that conclusion with regard to the fourth applicant in a situation in which the only unlawful actions had been carried out by the authorities. The Court is not convinced that the fourth applicant (or any other applicants) should have questioned the actions of the relevant authorities instead of expecting the latter to take all measures to avoid mistakes in application of the legislation – especially taking into account the complexity and technical nature of the legal acts governing the process of restoration of land titles (seeMisiukonis and Others v. Lithuania, no. 49426/09, § 60, 15 November 2016; see also the position of the Supreme Court of Lithuania in paragraph 103 above). Therefore, the Court concludes that all the applicants obtained their property in good faith, and thus should not have had to bear the burden of remedying the mistakes for which the authorities were solely responsible (see the references provided in paragraph 140 above). In such circumstances, the Court considers that, contrary to the Government’s submissions (see paragraph 129 above), it is immaterial for the assessment of the burden borne by the applicants how long they had owned the property in question before it was taken from them, or how much other property had been restored to them and not annulled.

145.  While it was not disputed that the applicants had retained the right to have their property rights restored to the same amount of land which had been taken from them (see paragraphs 31, 57 and 75above), they complained that they should not have been made to participate in the restitution process again, since they had already done so once and had lost the property through no fault of their own (see paragraph 122 above). The Court is mindful that it is not its role to determine the best way for States to correct errors made by authorities in the process of restoring property rights (see Misiukonis and Others, cited above, § 63). However, it reiterates that the correction of those errors should not create disproportionate new wrongs (see the references provided in paragraph 140 above). In the present case, the Court agrees with the applicants that expecting them to undergo a lengthy additional process, without having regard to their particular situation and the reasons why they had lost the previously restored property, had beendisproportionate (see also the Vilnius Regional Court’s decision in the fourth applicant’s case in paragraph 68 above).

146.  The applicants also argued that after their property rights had been annulled, they had lost the opportunity to receive new plots of the same quality because no such plots were available in the relevant areas any more (see paragraph 122 above). The Court observes that Lithuanian law provides several forms of restoration of property rights, including not only restitution in kind but also monetary compensation, compensation in securities anddischarging liabilities to the State (see paragraph 92 above). It reiterates that Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention does not guarantee the right to acquire property and it cannot be interpreted as imposing any general obligation on the Contracting States to restore property which was transferred to them before they ratified the Convention; nor does Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 impose any restrictions on the Contracting States’ freedom to determine the scope of property restitution and to choose the conditions under which they agree to restore property rights of former owners (see Slivenko v. Latvia (dec.) [GC], no. 48321/99, § 121, ECHR 2002-II; Jantner,cited above, § 34; and Kopecký v. Slovakia [GC], no. 44912/98, § 35, ECHR 2004‑IX).Accordingly, the Court considers that, after the applicants’ property rights were annulled, Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 did not impose an obligation on the authorities to give the applicants new property in kind, but that they could have been compensated in any of the forms provided for by domestic law, in line with the principles established in the Court’s case-law (see paragraph 142 above).

147.  Accordingly, the Court will now assess whether in each case the authorities complied with their obligation to promptly and adequately compensate the applicants for the losses which they suffered as a result of the authorities’ mistakes.

(β)  As concerns the first and second applicants

148.  The first applicant inherited the right to restoration of property rights from her late husband, I.B., and gifted it to the second applicant (see paragraph 13 above). I.B.’s right to restoration of his property rights was acknowledged by the authorities in 1992 and 2003 (see paragraphs 8 and 13 above). Accordingly, there was no dispute that I.B. had such a right and, consequently, that the applicants had the right to inherit it (see also the findings of the Vilnius Regional Court in paragraph 26 above). Therefore, after the applicants’ property rights to 1.98 hectares of land were annulled by the final court decisions of 25 May and 9 July 2010 (see paragraphs 24 and 29 above), theauthorities were under an obligation to act promptly in order to restore their property rights in one of the forms provided for by law.

149.  However, in the Court’s view, the authorities failed to act with sufficient promptness. While the Government submitted that the applicantshad received the first letter from the VCA in May 2010 (see paragraph 30 above), the Court notes that no copy of it has been submitted, and from the description given by the Government it does not appear that in the letter the applicants were asked to choose a form of restitution or even informed which forms were possible. Be that as it may, no further action was taken until February and July 2012 when the applicants received letters from the NLS informing them about the forms of restitution provided for by law and asking them to indicate their choice (see paragraphs 31 and 32above).The applicants did so in August 2012 (see paragraph 33above).

150.  The second applicant took part in a meeting of candidates to receive land in December 2012, in which she chose some plots (see paragraph34above). However, the land plan for the relevant areas was only adopted in August 2014 (see paragraph 35above), and the applicants’ property rights to 0.7883 hectares of land were only restored in January 2016 (see paragraph 37above). It therefore took the authorities five and a half years to restore the applicants’ rights to only part of the land which they were entitled to receive.

151.  The Court observes that the authorities were aware of the applicants’ individual situation – specifically, that their property rights had already been restored and later had to be annulled because of the mistakes made in the restitution process (see paragraphs31and 32above). Furthermore, in their letter of August 2012, the applicantsreiterated that they had already undergone the process once, and asked for priority treatment (see paragraph33above). However, their request for such treatment was not addressed at any stage.

152.  Not only was the applicants’ individual situation not taken into account, but there were lengthy periods in the restitution process when, according to the documents provided to the Court, no action was taken at allwith respect to the applicants – in particular, from May 2010 to February 2012, December 2012 to August 2014, and August 2014 to January 2016 (see paragraphs 30-37above). Meanwhile, the applicants’ own actions cannot be reproached – they promptly replied to the letters sent to them by the authorities, attendedthe meetings to which they had been invited, and chose some of the plots offered to them, refusing others for reasons which do not appear unfounded (see paragraphs 33, 34 and 38above). The Court observes that the Government acknowledged that the first and second applicantshad cooperated with the authorities (see paragraph 130above). It therefore considers that, even taking into account the complexity of the restitution process (see paragraph 141 above), the Government did not provide sufficient reasons to justify such long delays and the inactivity of the authorities (see also the ruling of the Constitutional Court of Lithuania in paragraph 98 above).

153.  The Court further observes that to date the applicants have only been given 0.7883 hectares of land, with a further 1.1917 hectares still to be restored (see paragraph 37above). Although the restitution process is still ongoing, the most recent documents indicate that the applicants can only expect to receive 0.18 hectares in the near future (see paragraph 39above), which would bring the total amount of land restored to them to less than half of what theyhave lost (1.98 hectares).

154.  Accordingly, the Court finds that the authorities failed to act with sufficient promptness to restore the applicants’ property rights. The restitution process included significant periods of inactivity which were imputable solely to the authorities, and as a result, the applicants’ property rights have still not been fully restored after more than seven years. There has therefore been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the first and second applicants.

(γ)  As concerns the third applicant

155.  The third applicant’s right to restoration of property rights was acknowledged by the authorities in 1998 and 2004 (see paragraphs 11 and 41 above). Accordingly, there was no dispute that she had had such a right (see also the findings of the Vilnius Regional Court and the Supreme Court in paragraphs 48 and 51 above). Therefore, after the applicant’s property rights to one hectare of land were annulled by the final court decision of 5 February 2010 (see paragraph 50 above), the authorities were under an obligation to act promptly in order to restore her property rights in one of the forms provided for by law.

156.  The Court observes that initially the authorities acted with relative promptness, informing the applicant about the forms of restitution and asking her to indicate her choice, though each of the letters sent to her during the periodfrom 2010 to 2012 contained slightly different information about the options available to her (see paragraphs 52, 54, 55 and 57above). It further observes that although during that period the applicant promptly responded to the authorities’ letters and indicated her choice as to the form of restitution (see paragraphs 52, 53, 55 and 56above), she was not invited to attend a meeting of candidates to receive land in the relevant area until October 2013 (see paragraph 58above), that is more than three years after her property rights had been annulled. The Court notes that the authorities were aware of the applicant’s individual situation ‑ specifically, that her property rights had already been restored and later had to be annulled because of the mistakes made in the restitution process (see paragraph 57above). However, there is no indication in the documents provided to the Court that her individual situation was taken into account at any stage.

157.  TheGovernment argued that the applicant herself had failed to cooperate with the authorities (see paragraph 130above). In the Court’s view, the applicant’s conduct between 2010 to 2012 cannot be reproached (see paragraph 156 above) – in fact, it appears that during that period contact between the applicant and the authorities was mainly initiated by the applicant, and the authorities only acted in response (see paragraphs 52‑55 above). However, the Court observes that from the end of 2013 the applicant’s attitude was less cooperative – she did not attend the first two meetings to which she was invited (see paragraph 58 above), she failed to send a properly authorised representative to the third meeting (see paragraph 59 above), and at the fourth meeting she refused the plots offered to her, although the minutes did not indicate any reasons for the refusal (see paragraph 60 above). The applicant argued that she had not been informed of the first two meetings and that the plots offered to her atthe fourth meeting had not been suitable (see paragraphs 58 and 60 above). Be that as it may, the Court considers that even if the applicant could be regarded as nothaving fully cooperated, the overall delay in the restitution process was nonetheless imputable to the authorities –in particular, it cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that no action at all appears to have been taken between November 2013 and April 2016 (see paragraphs 58 and 59 above; see also the ruling of the Constitutional Court of Lithuania in paragraph 98 above).

158.  The Court also reiterates that Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention does not impose any restrictions on the Contracting States’ freedom to determine the scope of property restitution (see the references provided in paragraph 146 above). It observes that, under Lithuanian law, the authorities were entitled to restore property rights by monetary compensation, even without the applicant’s consent (see paragraph 93 above). In several previous cases in which the applicants had failed to properly express their will as to their preferred way of restitution, the Court considered that payment of monetary compensation was compatible with the Convention (see Nekvedavičius v. Lithuania(merits), no. 1471/05, § 62, 10 December 2013, andValančienė v. Lithuania, no. 2657/10, § 63, 18 April 2017). Therefore, even if the applicant had failed to attend some meetings or had refused the plots offered to her, the Court considers that the authorities had the ability to restore her property rights by monetary compensation, in line with the principles established in the Court’s case-law (see paragraph 142 above).

159.  Accordingly, the Court finds that, despite a certain lack of cooperation on the part of the applicant, the overall length of the restitution process was imputable to the authorities, and they are responsible for the fact that the applicant’s property rights have still not been restored after more than seven years. There has therefore been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the third applicant.

(δ)  As concerns the fourth applicant

160.  The fourth applicant’s right to restoration of property rights was acknowledged by the authorities in 1993 and 2003 (see paragraphs 9 and 62 above). Accordingly, there was no dispute that she had had such a right (see also the findings of the Vilnius Regional Court and the Court of Appeal in paragraphs 68 and 72 above). Therefore, after the applicant’s property rights to 0.15 hectares of land were annulled by the final court decision of 29 March 2011 (see paragraph 73 above), the authorities were under an obligation to act promptly in order to restore her property rights in one of the forms provided for by law.

161.  The applicant was informed about the forms of restitution provided for by law and asked to indicate her choice in February 2012 (see paragraph 75 above),and she was invited to attend a meeting of candidates to receive land in the relevant area in December 2012 (see paragraph 79 above), that is approximately one year and nine months after her property rights had been annulled. In the circumstances of the present case, the Court is willing to accept that that period was not excessive and that the authorities therefore acted with sufficient promptness.

162.  The Court notes that at the meeting of 31 December 2012 the applicant refused to choose any plots of land and stated that she wished to wait for the decision of the Court in the present case (see paragraph 79 above); she did not attend any further meetings despite being invited to them (see paragraphs81 and 82above). In this connection, the Court takes note of the Government’s position that the cooperation of applicants with the public authorities in the restitution process is of key importance when determining the proportionality of the interference with their property rights (see paragraph 130 above; see alsoPaukštis, §§ 85-86, and Valančienė, §§ 71-72, both cited above). In the present case, not only did the applicant not cooperate with the authorities, but she explicitly refused to participate in the restitution process in accordance with domestic law. In the Court’s view, such explicit refusal distinguishes the fourth applicant’s situation from that of the third applicant (see paragraphs 157 and 158above) and other cases in which the applicants had failed to express their intentions but the Court nonetheless considered that the authorities should have proceeded with restitution irrespective of the applicants’ will (see Nekvedavičius, § 62, and Valančienė, § 63, both cited above). It observes that the applicant herself effectively suspended the restitution process and any delays which followed after that cannot be considered the responsibility of the authorities.In this connection, the Court also reiterates that within the scheme of the Convention it is intended to be subsidiary to the national systems safeguarding human rights (seeBurden v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 13378/05, § 42, ECHR 2008;Austin and Others v. the United Kingdom [GC], nos. 39692/09 and 2 others, § 61, ECHR 2012; and Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan (just satisfaction) [GC], no. 40167/06, §§ 29-32, 12 December 2017).It should therefore not be treated as the first-instance authority for restoring property rights, without allowing the domestic authorities an opportunity to do so.

163.  Accordingly, the Court finds that, even though the applicant’s property rights have still not been restored, this has been caused byher own explicit refusal to participate in the restitution process, for which the authorities cannot be held responsible. There has therefore been no violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the fourth applicant.

(e)  Conclusion

164.  The Court concludes that there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the first, second and third applicants, in view of the excessive length of the restitution process and the fact that their property rights have still not been fully restored. The Court also concludes that there has been no violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the fourth applicant.

IV.  OTHER ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE CONVENTION

165.  The applicantsfurthercomplained under Article 6 § 1 and Article 13 of the Convention that the domestic courts in the proceedings concerning the annulment of their property rights had disregarded their arguments and had adopted unfair and unfounded decisions. They lastly complained under Article 14 of the Convention that they had been discriminated on the basis of their national origin – they submitted that the majority of individuals who had had their rights to forests restored and later annulled had been Polish.

166.  Having regard to its findings under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, the Court considers that no separate issues arise under Article 6 § 1 and Article 13 of the Convention. It therefore finds that it is not necessary to examine the admissibility and merits of the applicants’ complaints under these provisions.

167.  As to the applicants’ complaints under Article 14 of the Convention, the Court finds that the material in its possession does not disclose any appearance of a violation of that provision. This part of the applications must therefore be rejected as being manifestly ill-founded, pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

V.  APPLICATION OF ARTICLE 41 OF THE CONVENTION

168.  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.”

A.  Damage

1.  Pecuniary damage

169.  The first and second applicants claimed 50,804 euros (EUR) in respect of pecuniary damage. The third applicant claimed EUR 22,011 under this head. Theapplicants submitted that these amounts corresponded to the market value of the land which had been taken from them and not restored to date.

170.  The Government submitted that the best way of remedying the violations of the applicants’ rights was to restore their property rights in one of the forms provided for by domestic law, and that awarding any other compensation would be premature. They also argued that the assessment of the market value of the land had been carried out by a private company at the applicants’ request and could not be regarded as independent.

171.  The Court considers that the question of the application of Article 41 in respect of pecuniary damage is not ready for decision. It is therefore necessary to reserve the matter, due regard being had to the possibility of an agreement between the respondent State and the applicants (Rule 75 §§ 1 and 4 of the Rules of Court).

2.  Non-pecuniary damage

172.  The first and second applicants claimed a total of EUR 14,480 in respect of non-pecuniary damage for the stress and inconvenience caused by the prolonged violations of their rights. The third applicant also claimed EUR 14,480 under this head.

173.  The Government submitted that the applicants’ claims in respect of non-pecuniary damage were excessive and unsubstantiated.

174.  The Court considers that the applicants undoubtedly suffered distress and frustration in view of the prolonged inability to have their property rights restored. However, it considers the amounts claimed by them excessive. Making its assessment on an equitable basis and taking into account its findings in the present judgment (see paragraphs 149-154 and 156-159 above), the Court awards the second applicant, who is also the first applicant’s heir, EUR 7,000 and the third applicant EUR 3,000 in respect of non‑pecuniary damage.

B.  Costs and expenses

1.  The first and second applicants

175.  The first and second applicants also claimed EUR 894 for the costs and expenses incurred before the domestic courts, consisting of the State’s legal costs awarded from them (see paragraph 23 above) and the bailiff’s enforcement costs. They provided bank receipts showing that they had paid that amount to the bailiff.

176.  The Government submitted that those expenses had not been “incurred in order to prevent or obtain redress for the matter found to constitute a violation of the Convention, as required by the Court” and should therefore be rejected.

177.  According to the Court’s case-law, an applicant is entitled to the reimbursement of costs and expenses in so far as it has been shown that these have been actually and necessarily incurred and are reasonable as to quantum. In the present case, regard being had to the documents in its possession and the above criteria, the Court grants the claim for costs and expenses in full and awards the second applicant, who is also the first applicant’s heir, EUR 894 under this head.

2.  The third applicant

178.  The third applicant did not submit any claim in respect of costs and expenses. The Court therefore makes no award under this head.

C.  Default interest

179.  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 that the first applicant’s daughter(the second applicant) has standing to continue the present proceedings in the first applicant’s stead;

3.  Declaresthe applicants’ complaints concerning Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention admissible and the complaints concerning Article 14 of the Convention inadmissible;

4.  Holdsthat there has been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the first, second and thirdapplicants;

5.  Holds that there has been no violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in respect of the fourth applicant;

6.  Holds that there is no need to examine the admissibility and merits of theapplicants’complaints concerning the alleged unfairness of proceedings under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention and Article 13 of the Convention;

7.  Holds that the question of the application of Article 41 is not ready for decision in so far as pecuniary damage resulting from the violations found in the present case in respect of the first, second and third applicants is concerned, and accordingly:

(a)  reserves the said question;

(b)  invites the Government and the aforementioned applicants to submit, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, their written observations on the matter and, in particular, to notify the Court of any agreement that they may reach;

(c)  reserves the further procedure and delegates to the President of the Chamber the power to fix the same if need be;

8.  Holds

(a)  that the respondent State is to pay the applicants, within three months from the date on which the judgment becomes final in accordance with Article 44 § 2 of the Convention, the following amounts:

(i)  EUR 7,000 (seven thousand euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, to the second applicant (who is also the first applicant’s heir)in respect of non-pecuniary damage;

(ii)  EUR 894 (eight hundred and ninety-four euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, to the second applicant (who is also the first applicant’s heir) in respect of costs and expenses;

(iii)  EUR 3,000 (three thousand euros), plus any tax that may be chargeable, to the third applicant in respect of non-pecuniary damage;

(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;

9.  Dismissesthe remainder of the applicants’ claims for just satisfaction.

Done in English, and notified in writing on 12 June 2018, pursuant to Rule 77 §§ 2 and 3 of the Rules of Court.

Marialena Tsirli                                                                  Ganna Yudkivska
Registrar                                                                              President

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