The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting on 8 January 2019 as a Committee composed of:
Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque, President,
Iulia Antoanella Motoc, judges,
and Andrea Tamietti, Deputy Section Registrar,
Having regard to the above application lodged on 14 October 2016,
Having regard to the observations submitted by the respondent Government and the observations in reply submitted by the applicant,
Having deliberated, decides as follows:
1. The applicant, Ms Laima Zizevičienė, is a Lithuanian national, who was born in 1964 and lives in Šilutė. She was represented before the Court by Mr D. Cvetkovas, a lawyer practising in Klaipėda.
2. The Lithuanian Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent, Ms K. Bubnytė-Širmenė.
A. The circumstances of the case
3. The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.
1. Developments concerning the plot of land of 0.06 hectares
4. In April 1988 the authorities decided to allocate a plot of land of 600 sq. m. (hereinafter referred to also as “the plot”) to the applicant for construction of an individual house. The applicant was obliged to submit details of the project for the residential house on the plot to an architect.
5. In April 1992 the applicant asked the authorities to sell her the plot and in June 1992 it was decided to allow the applicant to purchase the 0.06 hectares of land that she had been using for a price of 2,092 Russian roubles. This amount was debited from the applicant’s account.
6. On 3 September 1993 the mayor of Šilutė revoked the decision made by the authorities in 1988 (see paragraph 4 above) and provided the applicant, as the owner of an uncompleted residential house, with the same plot of 0.06 hectares of land.
7. On 10 September 1993 the applicant’s then husband agreed that his wife should sell the house and the other buildings on the plot. On the same day, the applicant sold the house, which was 51% finished, a cellar, a garage and a garden storage shed (viralinė) to J.P. The purchase agreement indicated that the applicant had received 9,573 Lithuanian litai (LTL ‑ approximately 2,773 euros (EUR)) before concluding the agreement. There is no information in the case-file, whether the mayor of Šilutė was informed about the sale of the buildings or whether the purchase agreement was registered in the Centre of Registers.
8. On the same day, 10 September 1993, the applicant and the mayor concluded a lease agreement for the plot for three years on the basis of the mayor’s decision (see paragraph 6 above). It appears that this lease was not renewed.
9. In February 1996 the authorities decided to allow J.P. to purchase 0.0602 hectares of land, including 0.06 hectares at issue, under and near the buildings he had purchased from the applicant. J.P. purchased the land on 27 March 1996, and it was registered in his name on that date in the Centre of Registers.
10. In September 1998 J.P. sold the land and the buildings to A.Č.
11. In June 1999 J.P., acting on the authority of A.Č., sent a letter to the local notary asking that a notice be forwarded to the applicant, asking her to vacate the residential house and the garage. It was indicated that the applicant had to move within three months, otherwise court proceedings would be commenced (see paragraphs 17 and 18 below).
12. In November 1999 the Šilutė Region Municipality decided to approve the margins and sizes of certain plots of land that were used by certain persons and the allocated plot of land, amounting to 0.06 hectares, was approved for purchase by the applicant. It was indicated that the plot was designated for residential use.
13. On 4 May 2000 the applicant concluded the purchase of the plot from the State, which was located at the same address as the land that J.P. had purchased previously. The agreement was concluded with the Klaipėda County Administration. The applicant paid nothing at that time because the amount she had paid in 1992 (which was still being held by the authorities ‑ see paragraph 5 above) was converted into LTL 523 (approximately EUR 151) and covered the price of the land. The applicant then asked the Centre of Registers to register the plot in her name; she indicated that it was designated for residential use. The plot was registered in the applicant’s name on 15 May 2000.
14. In 2003 A.Č. sold the land and the buildings to A.Z., whose heir resold them to D.D. in 2012.
15. In November 2013 the applicant asked the National Land Service (“the NLS”) to explain how the same plot could have been sold to two people under different legal provisions and at different times. The NLS replied in December 2013 that State-owned land could only be sold, for purposes other than agriculture, to citizens who were the owners of residential buildings, citizens who had been allocated plots of land in towns before 7 February 1992 for the construction of individual houses, and “other persons”. The NLS indicated that the applicant had sold the unfinished residential building, a garage and a garden storage shed to J.P. (see paragraph 7 above). Even though she was no longer the owner of the buildings, in 2000 the applicant purchased the plot (see paragraph 13 above). It had not been verified whether the applicant had been the owner of the buildings on the plot because the latter had originally been allocated to her in 1988 (see paragraph 4 above), that is before 7 February 1992. J.P., on the other hand, had been allowed to purchase the same plot as the owner of the buildings on it. J.P.’s plot had been registered at the Centre of Registers together with the buildings on it (see paragraph 9 above) and the applicant’s plot had not been marked on the cadastral map nor had it been indicated that it had had buildings on it. Both land purchase agreements (J.P.’s and the applicant’s) had been approved by a notary. The issue of which purchase agreement was valid and which was to be annulled was not within the NLS’s competence and the matter had to be resolved in court.
2. Court proceedings concerning the plot
16. On 2 May 2014 the applicant started court proceedings. She asked for a renewal of the time permitted to lodge her claim as she was outside the limitation period. She also asked the court to revoke the purchase agreement concluded between her and J.P. in 1993 and the subsequent agreements concluded by J.P. and other persons in 1998, 2003 and 2012 (see paragraphs 7, 10 and 14 above). The applicant asked for the revocation of the decision taken by the authorities in 1996 by which J.P. had been allowed to purchase the plot (see paragraph 9 above). The applicant argued that J.P. had not registered the 1993 purchase agreement within three months, meaning the purchase procedure had not been completed and the subsequent purchase agreements had to be voided. The applicant also submitted that she had been deceived into selling the buildings because she had thought that the purchase agreement concluded was intended as security to ensure the return of a sum loaned to her then husband by J.P. She also stated that she had only found out about a breach of her rights in 2013, when she had received the NLS’s reply to her query (see paragraph 15 above). Finally, she submitted that she had been living at the same address since 1988 and had been using the plot. None of the purported buyers of the plot and buildings had sought to defend their property rights, which she thought reflected negatively on them in the case.
17. On 7 April 2015 the Klaipėda Regional Courtdismissed the applicant’s claim because she had missed the limitation period established in domestic law by a substantial margin (the limitation period was three years under the old Civil Code and ten years under the new one ‑ see paragraph 25 below). The applicant’s argument that she had only found out about the breach of her rights in 2013, when she had received the reply from the NLS (see paragraph 15 above), was not accepted. The court held that the applicant had sold her property in 1993, which was the most significant date in her case (see paragraph 7 above). The court was not convinced by the argument that the applicant had not understood the consequences of the agreement in 1993. Moreover, she had been asked in 1999 to vacate the house (see paragraph 11 above), and thus she must have understood that other people had rights over the property in question. As regards the registration of the purchase agreement, the court held that the three-month period was not applicable because J.P. had bought a house that was only partially built.
18. The applicant appealed. On 18 January 2016 the Court of Appeal upheld the first-instance decision. The court held that the limitation period started to run from the date on which the right to bring an action accrued. When a person stated that he or she had found out about a breach later on, the court had to examine at what point a diligent person would have found out about that breach (see paragraph 28 below). In the case at hand, the applicant had stated that she had found out about the breach of her rights in 2013 after receiving the NLS’s reply (see paragraph 15 above). She had also stated that none of the buyers had asked her to move in over twenty years. The court disagreed with her position. It found that in 1998 J.P. had informed the applicant that he was selling the buildings and that the applicant had agreed to this. Also, J.P. had indicated that he had asked the applicant to vacate the buildings several times. The court also found that she had received a notice approved by a notary on 24 June 1999, which stated that she had to move from the house and vacate the garage (see paragraph 11 above); therefore she should have understood that other persons had a claim on the property. The circumstances indicated by the applicant that, after the receipt of a notice in 1999, no further action had been taken did not mean that the applicant had not had an obligation to be diligent. If she had thought that her rights were being breached, she could have initiated an action to end the breach at that time. The court indicated that the applicant was not of an advanced age, she had secondary education, and she had been working as a supermarket manager at the time of concluding the agreement in 1993. The court found that the applicant should have been aware of a possible breach of her rights in 1993, and in any case on 24 June 1999, upon receipt of the notice to vacate, at the latest. However, she had only started court proceedings on 2 May 2014 and had missed the limitation period for submitting her claim (see paragraph 16 above). The court further stated that it could renew the limitation period if it had been missed for important reasons. In the applicant’s case, however, the court held that the applicant’s arguments that she had been deceived in concluding the purchase agreement with J.P. had been unfounded. The applicant had not been prevented from defending her rights within the time‑limit prescribed by law.
19. The applicant lodged two appeals on points of law but on 18 and 21 April 2016 the Supreme Court dismissed them as not raising important legal issues.
3. Criminal proceedings against J.P.
20. In February 1995 the applicant was questioned as a witness in a criminal case against J.P. During her questioning, she indicated that her then husband had taken a loan of LTL 20,000 (approximately EUR 5,792) from J.P.’s company in September 1993. The applicant and her husband secured the loan by mortgaging the residential house that was located on the plot. The applicant claimed that J.P. had informed her that in order to secure the loan, a purchase agreement had to be concluded. As the residential house had been registered in the applicant’s name, she signed the purchase agreement. The loan had not been repaid on time, and J.P.’s business partner informed the applicant that the house had to be sold. The house was registered under J.P.’s name. The applicant also indicated that at some point in time two women had come to the house and asked about buying it, but J.P. needed to recoup the sums loaned so the applicant could not agree to transfer the house to them.
21. In March 1996 the authorities decided to terminate the criminal case against J.P. in part. The authorities established that J.P. had provided loans to citizens and that those citizens had had to effectively mortgage their properties by concluding purchase agreements with J.P. In the event that the loans were not repaid, J.P. registered the purchase agreements and the properties became his. The applicant was one of the persons whose property became J.P.’s property after a failure to repay the loan. The authorities found that no unlawful actions had been committed by J.P. on that account.
22. In August 1996 J.P. was found guilty of unlawful use of foreign currency by the Kretinga District Court. This decision did not concern the loan the applicant’s husband had taken from J.P. in Lithuanian national currency.
4. Further developments concerning the plot
23. On 22 May 2018 the NLS invited the applicant to come to a meeting on 25 May 2018 and to express her opinion on the possible revocation of the land purchase agreement of 2000 (see paragraph 13 above) and the opportunity to receive equitable compensation.
24. In the minutes of the meeting of 25 May 2018 it was indicated that the applicant had been informed about the meeting in writing and by telephone but she had failed to appear. In those circumstances, the NLS had been unable to revoke the purchase agreement of its own motion.
B. Relevant domestic law and practice
25. Article 84 of the old Civil Code, which was in force until 30 June 2001, provided that the general limitation period was three years. The new Civil Code, which came into force on 1 July 2001, extended the general limitation period to ten years (Article 1.125).
26. The limitation period begins to run from the date on which the right to bring an action accrues. A person has the right to bring an action from the date on which he or she becomes aware, or should have become aware, of a breach of his or her right (Article 86 of the old Civil Code and Article 1.127 § 1 of the new Civil Code).
27. The expiry of the limitation period before lodging a claim is a valid ground to dismiss a claim (Article 1.131 § 1 of the new Civil Code).
28. The Supreme Court has held that in order to properly assess when the limitation period begins to run, the objective moment in time at which a person’s rights were breached has first to be determined. Sometimes the objective and subjective moments in time coincide. The limitation period starts to run from the date the person became aware of a breach of his or her rights. In cases where a person has stated that he or she did not become aware of the breach of his or her rights on the day of the breach, the court dealing with the case has to ascertain whether there is any evidence indicating the contrary or whether, having regard to the nature and time of the breach, the claimant became aware of it any later than a prudent and careful person would have done in the same situation. If a person has not been diligent enough in that regard, the limitation period has to start running from the date the person should have become aware of the breach of his or her rights. The subjective understanding of a breach is connected with the person – he or she has to provide relevant evidence showing when he or she became aware of the breach (see for example, the Supreme Court’s decision of 21 June 2013 (no. 3K-3-362/2013)).
29. The applicant complained under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention that she had been deprived of a fair hearing because the domestic courts dismissed her complaint solely on the basis of the limitation period. She also complained under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention that the State erred in transferring the same plot to two persons and thus breached her right to the peaceful enjoyment of her possessions.
30. The applicant complained that her right to peaceful enjoyment of her possessions – the plot – had been violated as a result of an error of the domestic authorities and of the refusal of the domestic courts to examine her claim because of the expiry of the limitation period. She relied on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.
In so far as relevant, these provisions read as follows:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations … everyone is entitled to a fair … hearing … by [a] … tribunal …”
Article1 of Protocol No. 1
“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.”
1. The parties’ submissions
(a) The Government
31. The Government submitted that the applicant had been fully aware from the beginning that she had undertaken an obligation to use the plot for residential purposes. She must have been aware that she could not use the buildings, if not in 1993, then by 1999 at the latest, when she had been asked to vacate them (see paragraphs 7 and 11 above). The courts had taken into consideration different dates on which the applicant should have become aware of the alleged breach of her rights (see paragraphs 17 and 18 above). As the applicant had sold the buildings on the plot in 1993, she ought to have disclosed that circumstance before being allowed to purchase the plot in 2000 (see paragraph 13 above). It was the Government’s view that, by failing to disclose that essential circumstance, the applicant had acted in bad faith.
32. The Government argued that the applicant had not been prevented in any way from lodging a claim and her claim had been examined by the domestic courts. The decisions of the domestic courts had been well-reasoned and not arbitrary and the applicant had been able to submit the evidence and arguments which she thought necessary to protect her interests. It was the Government’s view that the limitation period in the applicant’s case had not been applied automatically and that the applicant’s submissions had been carefully considered.
33. Finally, the Government claimed that the fact that the applicant paid the money for the plot well before concluding the purchase agreement concerning the land did not attract the application of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.
(b) The applicant
34. The applicant argued that the authorities had sold the same plot to two different persons and registered both of their titles at the Centre of Registers. When the applicant had tried to resolve the situation, the courts had refused to examine the substance of her claim because the limitation period had expired. The applicant submitted that the plot still officially belonged to two persons and that the situation had not been resolved. The authorities’ proposal to resolve the situation by revocation of the land purchase contract concluded between her and the State (see paragraph 23 above) had been inappropriate because, according to her, it could not resolve the substance of the dispute.
35. The applicant claimed that the agreement for the sale of buildings in 1993 (see paragraph 7 above) had been fictitious. In this connection, the applicant found it to be of a certain importance that J.P. had been convicted for the unlawful use of foreign currency (see paragraph 22 above).
2. The Court’s assessment
(a) Complaint under Article 6 of the Convention
36. As to the applicant’s complaint under Article 6 of the Convention, the Court notes that the applicant alleged that the courts had refused to examine her claim because of the expiry of the limitation period.
37. The Court notes that the role played by limitation periods is of major importance when interpreted in the light of the Preamble to the Convention, which, in its relevant part, declares the rule of law to be part of the common heritage of the Contracting States (see Dacia S.R.L. v. Moldova, no. 3052/04, § 75, 18 March 2008, and Bogdel v. Lithuania, no. 41248/06, § 80, 26 November 2013). The Court also reiterates that it is primarily for the national authorities, notably the courts, to resolve problems of interpretation of domestic legislation. The Court’s role is confined to ascertaining whether the effects of such an interpretation are compatible with the Convention. This applies in particular to the interpretation by courts of rules of a procedural nature, such as time-limits governing the submission of documents or lodging of appeals (see Dumitru Gheorghe v. Romania, no. 33883/06, § 26, 12April 2016 and the references therein).
38. The above means that the existence of a limitation period per se is not incompatible with the Convention. What the Court needs to ascertain in a given case is whether the nature of the time-limit in question and the manner in which it was applied are compatible with the Convention. This means, among others, that the application of the statutory limitation period must have been foreseeable for the applicant, having regard to the relevant legislation and case-law and the particular circumstances (see Kamenova v. Bulgaria, no. 62784/09, § 48, 12 July 2018).
39. In the present case, the Court notes at the outset that the applicant did not allege that there had been any discrepancies in the case-law of the domestic courts; she only asserted that the manner in which the domestic courts had applied the domestic law had been unfair.
40. The Court notes that, pursuant to Article 86 of the old Civil Code and Article 1.127 § 1 of the new Civil Code, the right to bring an action started from the date on which the person became aware, or should have become aware, of the breach of his or her rights (see paragraph 26 above). The Court considers that it was therefore lawful for the domestic courts to apply the time-limit to the applicant’s case. The time-limit also pursued a legitimate aim, namely to ensure legal certainty and finality in the area of property disputes. Furthermore, there is nothing to indicate that the domestic courts displayed any arbitrariness in the application of the said time-limit. The Court observes that the domestic courts carefully examined the applicant’s factual submissions as to why she had not lodged her claim earlier and found that she had had the opportunity to lodge her claim with the domestic courts within the relevant time (see paragraphs 17 and 18 above). Most importantly, they observed that the applicant’s claim had only been lodged in 2014, that is, nearly twenty-one years after she had sold the buildings to J.P., nearly fifteen years after she had been asked to vacate the buildings being officially notified by the notary and nearly fourteen years after she had concluded the land purchase agreement (see paragraphs 7, 11 and 13 above).
41. In respect of the applicant’s claim that the domestic courts had failed to examine the merits of her case, the Court notes that by failing to lodge her action before the domestic courts within the statutory limitation period under domestic law (see paragraph 25 above) – and it appears from the available evidence that she has never argued, either before the domestic courts or the Court, that the limitation period was not sufficiently clear or foreseeable – the applicant placed herself in a situation in which she risked having her claim declared time-barred. The Lithuanian authorities cannot be blamed for the applicant’s own failure to act within the statutory time-limit.
42. In light of the applicable legal provisions, and bearing in mind the Court’s limited power to deal with alleged errors of fact or interpretation of domestic legislation made by domestic authorities, the Court finds no grounds to substitute its view for that expressed by the Lithuanian courts.
43. It follows that the applicant’s complaint under Article 6 is manifestly ill-founded and must, as such, be rejected in accordance with Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
(b) Complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention
44. As regards the complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, the Court reiterates its established case-law to the effect that all complaints intended to be made at international level should have been aired before the appropriate domestic courts, at least in substance and in compliance with the formal requirements and time-limits laid down in domestic law (see, among many other authorities, Azinas v. Cyprus [GC], no. 56679/00, § 38, ECHR 2004‑III).
45. Turning to the present case, the Court reiterates its finding that the applicant’s claim before the domestic courts had not been examined because she had applied to the courts too late (see paragraphs 17 and 18 above). Consequently, her complaint had been rejected on procedural grounds and had not been examined on the merits.
46. In these circumstances, where failure to respect procedural rules constitutes the reasons for the refusal of a remedy, the Court cannot consider that the requirement as to the exhaustion of domestic remedies has been satisfied (see, amongst many other authorities, Craxi v. Italy (dec.), no. 63226/00, 14 June 2001, with further references). The Court therefore finds that the applicant failed to exhaust domestic remedies. It follows that the applicant’s complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention should be declared inadmissible under Article 35 §§ 1 and 4 of the Convention.
For these reasons, the Court, unanimously,
Declares the application inadmissible.
Done in English and notified in writing on 31 January 2019.
Andrea Tamietti Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque
Deputy Registrar President