Press release – 330(2006)
EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Press release issued by the Registrar
GRAND CHAMBER JUDGMENT
SÜRMELI v. GERMANY
The European Court of Human Rights has today delivered at a public hearing its Grand Chamber judgment1 in the case of Sürmeli v. Germany (application no. 75529/01).
The Court held unanimously
· that there had been a violation of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights on account of the lack of an effective remedy in German law in respect of the excessive length of pending civil proceedings;
· that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing) on account of the excessive length of the proceedings in the applicant’s case.
Under Article 41 (just satisfaction) of the Convention, the Court awarded the applicant 10,000 euros (EUR) for non-pecuniary damage and EUR 4,672.89 for costs and expenses. (The judgment is available in English and French.)
1. Principal facts
The case concerns an application brought by Mustafa-Selim Sürmeli, a 43-year-old Turkish national who lives in Stade (Germany).
In May 1982 the applicant was involved in an accident with a cyclist while on the way to school and sustained injuries including a broken left arm. After negotiations with the cyclist’s insurance company had failed, the applicant applied to the Hanover Regional Court on 18 September 1989, in particular seeking damages and a monthly pension.
The proceedings comprised two phases. The first ended when the Hanover Regional Court held that the applicant was entitled to damages at a rate of 80% for the consequences of the accident. An appeal by the applicant against that decision was unsuccessful and his subsequent appeal on points of law was dismissed in December 1993.
The second phase of the civil proceedings concerned the assessment of the amount of the damages and pension to be awarded to the applicant. It began in March 1994, after the case file had been sent back from the Federal Court of Justice to the Hanover Regional Court. In the course of the proceedings the Regional Court took steps including the appointment of a number of experts and the parties entered into negotiations on an out-of-court settlement, which ultimately failed. During that phase the applicant, among other things, objected to several of the experts and applied for the Regional Court judges to withdraw. On 31 October 2005 the Regional Court delivered its final judgment. The applicant subsequently appealed to the Celle Court of Appeal, before which the proceedings are still pending.
On 14 March 2001 the applicant lodged a constitutional complaint about the excessive length of the proceedings. On 16 August 2001 the Federal Constitutional Court decided not to examine the applicant’s complaint, without giving reasons for its decision. A second constitutional complaint was dismissed on 27 June 2002 as being insufficiently substantiated.
In May 2002 the applicant applied to the Hanover Regional Court for legal aid in order to bring an action for damages against the Land of Lower Saxony on account of the length of the proceedings in the Regional Court. His application was refused at first instance and on appeal.
2. Procedure and composition of the Court
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 24 November 1999 and was declared admissible on 29 April 2004. On 1 February 2005 the Chamber to which the case had been allocated relinquished jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber under Article 302 of the Convention. A hearing took place in public in the Human Rights Building, Strasbourg, on 9 November 2005.
Judgment was given by the Grand Chamber of 17 judges, composed as follows:
Jean-Paul Costa (French), President,
Christos Rozakis (Greek),
Nicolas Bratza (British),
Boštjan M. Zupančič (Slovenian),
Georg Ress (German),
Lucius Caflisch (Swiss)3,
Ireneu Cabral Barreto (Portuguese)
Riza Türmen (Turkish),
Karel Jungwiert (Czech),
Volodymyr Butkevych (Ukrainian),
John Hedigan (Irish),
Matti Pellonpää (Finnish),
Kristaq Traja (Albanian),
Antonella Mularoni (San Marinese),
Alvina Gyulumyan (Armenian),
Danutė Jočienė (Lithuanian),
Ján Šikuta (Slovakian), judges,
and also Lawrence Early, Section Registrar.
3. Summary of the judgment4
Relying on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time) of the Convention, the applicant complained of the length of the proceedings in the Hanover Regional Court, which to date have lasted more than 16 years. He further submitted under Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) that German law did not afford him a remedy in respect of the length of the proceedings. He complained, in particular, that lodging a constitutional complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court to that end was not an effective remedy.
Decision of the Court
The German Government raised a preliminary objection to the effect that domestic remedies had not been exhausted in respect of the complaint under Article 6 § 1, and cited four remedies that the applicant could have used. The Court observed that in its admissibility decision in the present case the Chamber had joined to the merits the objection that domestic remedies had not been exhausted, on the ground that the question was closely linked to that of the existence of an effective remedy within the meaning of Article 13. It therefore decided to examine the Government’s objection under that article.
The Court observed that the right to expeditious proceedings was guaranteed by the German Basic Law and that a violation of that right could be alleged before the Federal Constitutional Court. Where that court found that proceedings had taken an excessive time, it declared their length unconstitutional and requested the court concerned to expedite or conclude them.
However, the German Federal Constitutional Court was not empowered to set deadlines for the lower court or to order other measures to speed up the proceedings in issue; nor was it able to award compensation. The only means available for it to ensure that pending proceedings were expedited was to declare that their length was in breach of the Basic Law and to call upon the court concerned to take the steps necessary for their progress or conclusion. The Federal Constitutional Court itself acknowledged the limited scope of its powers in declaring the length of proceedings to be unconstitutional.
That being so, the Court found that the German Government had not shown that a constitutional complaint was capable of affording redress for the excessive length of pending civil proceedings. Accordingly, the applicant had not been required to raise before that court his complaint about the length of the proceedings in his case.
Appeal to a higher authority
The Court noted that the Government had not advanced any relevant reasons to warrant the conclusion that an appeal to a higher authority, as provided for in section 26(2) of the German Judges Act, would have been capable of expediting the proceedings in the Regional Court.
Special complaint alleging inaction
This remedy had no statutory basis in German law. Although a considerable number of courts of appeal had accepted it in principle, the admissibility criteria for it were variable and depended on the circumstances of the particular case. The Federal Court of Justice, for its part, had yet to give a ruling on the admissibility of such a remedy. The Government had not given any details as to the effect on the proceedings where such a complaint had been declared admissible. Having regard to the uncertainty about the admissibility criteria for this remedy and to its practical effect on the proceedings in the applicant’s case, the Court considered that no particular relevance should be attached to the fact that the Celle Court of Appeal had not ruled out such a remedy in principle. Moreover, the Federal Constitutional Court had not declared the applicant’s constitutional complaints inadmissible for failure to exhaust domestic remedies.
Accordingly, the Court concluded that a special complaint alleging inaction could not be regarded as an effective remedy in the applicant’s case.
Action for damages
The Court noted that even if the courts before which an action for damages was brought were to conclude that there had been a breach of judicial duties on account of excessively lengthy proceedings, they would not in any event be able to make an award in respect of non-pecuniary damage, whereas in cases concerning the length of civil proceedings the applicants above all sustained damage under that head.
In conclusion, the Court considered that none of the four remedies advocated by the Government could be considered effective within the meaning of Article 13. Accordingly, the applicant had not had an effective remedy which could have expedited the proceedings in the Regional Court or provided adequate redress for delays that had already occurred. The Court therefore held that there had been a violation of Article 13 and dismissed the German Government’s objection of failure to exhaust domestic remedies.
Article 6 § 1
The Court noted that the proceedings in question, which had begun on 18 September 1989 and were still pending in the German courts, had lasted more than 16 years and seven months to date.
Notwithstanding both the conduct of the applicant, who had repeatedly asked for extensions of the time he had been given and had objected several times to the Regional Court judges dealing with his case, and the arguments put forward by the Government, the Court considered that the length of the proceedings had exceeded a reasonable time. It therefore held that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1.
As the Court had noted, German law did not afford litigants an effective means of complaining of the length of pending civil proceedings. In accordance with Article 46 (binding force and execution of judgments) of the Convention, Germany therefore had a legal obligation to select, subject to supervision by the Committee of Ministers, the general measures to be adopted in its legal order to put an end to the violation found by the Court and to redress so far as possible the effects.
The Court took note in that connection of a bill, tabled shortly before the parliamentary elections of 18 September 2005, to introduce in German written law a new remedy in respect of inaction. According to the Government, that remedy would ease the Federal Constitutional Court’s caseload in that complaints about the length of proceedings would in future have to be submitted to the court dealing with the case or, if that court refused to take steps to expedite the proceedings, to an appellate court. The Court welcomed such an initiative and encouraged the speedy enactment of a law containing the proposals set out in the bill.
The Court’s judgments are accessible on its Internet site (http://www.echr.coe.int).
Emma Hellyer (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 42 15)
Stéphanie Klein (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 88 41 21 54)
Beverley Jacobs (telephone: 00 33 (0)3 90 21 54 21)
The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.