Category Archives: Recent Case Law

Denial of justice by not applying EU law: judgment of the ECHR in the case of Spasov v. Romania

In the case of Spasov v. Romania (27122/14, 6.12.2022), the ECHR found that the applicant, the owner and captain of a vessel registered in Bulgaria who was fishing in Romania’s exclusive economic zone, had been the victim, inter alia, of a denial of justice (Art. 6 of the Convention) because he had been convicted on the basis of Romanian criminal law which previously had been found to be in breach of EU law, notably the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy, by the European Commission. By not applying these rules, which had direct effect in the Romanian legal order and prevailed over national law, the Romanian courts had made a manifest error of law.

In evaluating the impact of the relevant EU law in the present case, the ECHR did not engage in its own interpretation of EU law, for which it has indeed no competence, as recalled in § 83 of the judgment. Rather, it relied, in the absence of a ruling by the CJEU, on the clear position which had been expressed in this case by the European Commission in its exchange with the Romanian authorities, indicating to them that by prosecuting the applicant, they had committed serious breaches of EU law, notably of Regulations nos. 2371/2002 and 1256/2010.

This case is an illustration of the fact that it is not only compliance with EU law by the domestic authorities which can give rise to an issue under the Convention (see, among others, Bosphorus v. Ireland; Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France). It is also, in certain specific circumstances, the failure to comply with EU law (in a similar sense, see Romeo Castaño v. Belgium).

Procedural rights in criminal proceedings and the European Convention on Human Rights: judgments by the CJEU in the cases of HN and DD

On 15 September last, the CJEU handed down two important rulings on different aspects of the right of an accused person to be present at his or her trial, thereby applying Directive 2016/343 on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings.

In the case of HN (C-420/20), the CJEU ruled that while Art. 8 of Directive 2016/343 does not preclude national legislation imposing an obligation on suspects and accused persons to be present at their criminal trial, it does preclude legislation permitting a trial to be held in the absence of the suspect or accused person, where that person is outside the Member State concerned and is unable to enter its territory because of an entry ban imposed on him or her by the competent authorities of that Member State.

In the case of DD (C-347/21), the CJEU in essence ruled that where, for the sake of preserving the right to be present at the trial, an additional examination of an incriminating witness is necessary because the first examination could not be attended by the accused person and his lawyer for reasons beyond their control, Article 8(1) of Directive 2016/343 and Article 3(1) of Directive 2013/48 (on the right of access to a lawyer) do not require the whole previous examination of that witness to be repeated. Rather, it is sufficient that the accused person and his or her lawyer be able freely to question that witness, provided that, prior to that additional examination, the accused person and his or her lawyer are provided with a copy of the minutes of the previous examination of that witness.

One striking aspect of both rulings is the fact that here, in contrast for instance with the recent ruling in TL, the CJEU explicitly drew on relevant Strasbourg case-law, notably on the leading cases of Hermi v. Italy, Sejdovic v. Italy, Jussila v. Finland and Al-Khawadja and Tahery v. United Kingdom, as a basis, along with the two directives, on which to build its own reasoning. These references each time follow a clear indication by the CJEU to the effect that, since the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by Articles 47 §§2-3 and 48 of the EU-Charter corresponds to that same right as protected by Article 6 of the Convention, “the Court must, accordingly, ensure that its interpretation of the latter provisions ensures a level of protection which does not disregard that guaranteed by Article 6 ECHR, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights” (C-420/20, §§ 54-55; C-347/21, § 31).

Thus, in addition to drawing on the said Strasbourg case-law, the CJEU also rightly pointed to the need to preserve under EU law the minimum level of protection emerging from it. In so doing, it not only made use of the “toolbox function”of the Convention, as it indeed quite often does when simply taking on board Convention elements as it deems fit. In addition, in a move which is less frequent in its case-law and is therefore to be commended, it acknowledged – and effectively applied – the “benchmark function” which was conferred on the Convention in relation to EU law by Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter. The Explanations to this provision indeed state: “In any event, the level of protection afforded by the Charter may never be lower than that guaranteed by the ECHR.” This is clearly in order to protect national judges from being held liable in Strasbourg for breaching the Convention when applying EU law.

All of this is of course without prejudice to the possibility for EU law to provide “a more extensive protection” (Art. 52(3), 2nd sentence, of the EU-Charter). In this connection, there is also room for a fruitful interaction between Article 6 of the Convention and the directives on procedural rights in criminal proceedings. A striking illustration of such an interaction is provided by the fact that while, on the one hand, the directive on the right to access to a lawyer (2013/48) clearly draws on the Strasbourg case-law relating to that right, the European Court of Human Rights, on the other hand, in Ibrahim and Others v. United Kingdom took on board the specifications contained in that directive concerning the notion of compelling reasons justifying an exception from the right to access to a lawyer (§ 259).

At any rate, since procedural rights in criminal proceedings are an area with a significant overlap between EU law and the Convention, in terms not only of the scope and substance of the rights concerned but also of the high number of cases in which Article 6 of the Convention is invoked, such explicit indications by the CJEU about the Strasbourg sources of its reasoning would appear to be of great importance, for at least three reasons.

First, as part of the CJEU’s legal reasoning which, as with any judicial decision, citizens have in principle a right to know and understand by virtue of the rule of law.

Secondly, for pedagogical reasons, as an illustration of the existing interaction between the Convention and EU law regarding many fundamental rights. For why suggest autonomy from the Convention where there is none and a wholistic approach would be required instead?

Thirdly, because any domestic judgment applying preliminary rulings by the CJEU may ultimately be reviewed in Strasbourg under Article 34 of the Convention (see Bivolaru et Moldovan c. France). Consequently, domestic judges have an interest in being given the legal arguments to satisfy themselves that by applying a preliminary ruling of the CJEU, they will not remain under the Convention level of protection and not run the risk of being found in Strasbourg to have breached the Convention. After all, it is their own responsibility and that of their respective Member States which are engaged in Strasbourg, interpretations of the Convention by the CJEU not being authoritative. Contrary to EU law itself, domestic judges are indeed not autonomous.

Push-back and detention of migrants at the border: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Valstybės sienos apsaugos tarnyba

In the case of Valstybės sienos apsaugos tarnyba (C-72/22 PPU, 30.06.2022), the CJEU ruled that a domestic regulation which, by reason of the state of emergency created by a mass influx of migrants, precludes a foreigner who unlawfully entered a Member State from lodging an application for international protection, is incompatible with Articles 6 and 7(1) of the Procedures Directive (2013/32). Moreover, the domestic regulation allowing in the same circumstances asylum seekers to be placed in detention for the sole reason that they are staying illegally on the territory of that Member State was declared incompatible with Article 8(2) and (§) of the Reception Directive (2013/33).

A comparison of this CJEU ruling with the relevant Strasbourg case-law reveals a number of striking similarities but also some particularities. Here is a short overview of them, concerning four different aspects. In view of the duty of domestic judges to apply EU law in conformity with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which basically means that in case of divergencies they should apply the norm providing the higher protection, such considerations would not appear totally irrelevant. What is indeed required here is a wholistic approach which does no longer consider the Convention and EU law separately but rather as interacting with each other whenever EU law applies.

a. Unlawful stay on the territory of a State

A first striking element of the present CJEU ruling is its reliance on the need to interpret the relevant provisions of the Procedures Directive so as to ensure the effectiveness of the rights at stake, i.e. the right to access to the procedure in which applications for international protection are examined and the right to asylum enshrined in Article 18 of the EU-Charter (§§ 61-62).

Another remarkable element is the reminder by the CJEU, in light of the wording of the Directive, that the “making” of an application for international protection cannot be made dependent on the observance of administrative formalities, such formalities applying only at a later stage, when the application is “lodged”. Furthermore, a third-country national or stateless person is entitled to make such an application on the territory of a Member State even if that person is staying illegally on the said territory and irrespective of the prospects of success of such an application (§ 58).

On all these points, there is strong convergence with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It is indeed well-established Strasbourg case-law that the Convention is intended to guarantee not rights that are theoretical or illusory but rights that are practical and effective, a principle which the ECtHR frequently applies in migration cases, as in M.K. and Others v. Poland where it stated:

The Court’s main concern in cases concerning the expulsion of asylum‑seekers is whether effective guarantees exist that protect the applicant against arbitrary refoulement, be it direct or indirect, to the country from which he or she has fled (§ 167).

As regards the role played by formalities in applying for asylum, the ECtHR stated in N.D. and N.T. v. Spain:

The protection of the Convention … cannot be dependent on formal considerations such as whether the persons to be protected were admitted to the territory of a Contracting State in conformity with a particular provision of national or European law applicable to the situation in question. The opposite approach would entail serious risks of arbitrariness, in so far as persons entitled to protection under the Convention could be deprived of such protection on the basis of purely formal considerations, for instance on the grounds that, not having crossed the State’s border lawfully, they could not make a valid claim for protection under the Convention. States’ legitimate concern to foil the increasingly frequent attempts to circumvent immigration restrictions cannot go so far as to render ineffective the protection afforded by the Convention, and in particular by Article 3. (§ 184)

As the ECtHR put it in M.K. and Others v. Poland: Taking into account the absolute nature of the right guaranteed under Article 3, the scope of that obligation was not dependent on whether the applicants had been carrying documents authorising them to cross the Polish border or whether they had been legally admitted to Polish territory on other grounds. (§ 178)

b. Pushback at the State border

It is worth noting, however, that the ruling of the CJEU concerns the situation of a migrant who already found himself on the territory of Lithuania, though unlawfully, which is different from the situation occurring when migrants are not admitted to the territory of a State and face pushbacks at the border instead.

Regarding that kind of situation, the ECtHR, relying notably on the Schengen Borders Code and the Procedures Directive, ruled in N.D. and N.T. v. Spain that States should ensure effective access to means of legal entry:

With regard to Contracting States like Spain whose borders coincide, at least partly, with external borders of the Schengen Area, the effectiveness of Convention rights requires that these States make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry, in particular border procedures for those who have arrived at the border. Those means should allow all persons who face persecution to submit an application for protection, based in particular on Article 3 of the Convention, under conditions which ensure that the application is processed in a manner consistent with the international norms, including the Convention. … However, where such arrangements exist and secure the right to request protection under the Convention, and in particular Article 3, in a genuine and effective manner, the Convention does not prevent States, in the fulfilment of their obligation to control borders, from requiring applications for such protection to be submitted at the existing border crossing points (see also Article 6 of the EU Procedures Directive, …). Consequently, they may refuse entry to their territory to aliens, including potential asylum-seekers, who have failed, without cogent reasons … to comply with these arrangements by seeking to cross the border at a different location, especially … by taking advantage of their large numbers and using force. (§§ 209-210)

As regards asylum-seekers at the State border, there is again some convergence between the present CJEU ruling and the Strasbourg case-law on access to the territory of the State concerned. The ECtHR indeed stated in M.K. and Others v. Poland:

In order for the State’s obligation under Article 3 of the Convention to be effectively fulfilled, a person seeking international protection must be provided with safeguards against having to return to his or her country of origin before such time as his or her allegations are thoroughly examined. Therefore, the Court considers that, pending an application for international protection, a State cannot deny access to its territory to a person presenting himself or herself at a border checkpoint who alleges that he or she may be subjected to ill-treatment if he or she remains on the territory of the neighbouring State, unless adequate measures are taken to eliminate such a risk. (§ 179)

c. Derogations

A further interesting aspect of the present ruling is the denial by the CJEU of the possibility for the national authorities to rely on Article 72 TFEU in order to derogate from the prescriptions of the Procedures Directive by reason of the threat to public order or internal security flowing from the mass influx of migrants at the border. This approach would appear to be in line with the absolute nature of Article 3 of the Convention, the effect of which is to prohibit torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment even in the most difficult circumstances (Gäfgen v. Germany, § 87).

However, an element which would appear to raise some doubts is the reference by the CJEU to the possibility, provided for by Article 43 of the Directive, to establish special procedures, to be applied at the border, for assessing the admissibility of applications for international protection “where the conduct of the applicant suggests that his or her application is manifestly unfounded or abusive” (§ 74).

While the reference to the conduct of applicants bears some resemblance with the N.D. and N.T. jurisprudence concerning the conduct of migrants who lose the benefit of the protection against collective expulsions by crossing a State border in an unauthorised manner outside existing border checkpoints (§ 211), it must be noted that the eventuality being addressed by the CJEU in the present ruling potentially covers a much wider range of situations occurring at State borders. This might render the suggestion by the CJEU that the mere conduct of an applicant could indicate that his/her application is unfounded or abusive difficult to reconcile with the safeguards required by Article 4 of Protocol no. 4 to the Convention when no unlawful crossing of a State border has taken place. In such cases this provision indeed requires the State authorities to ensure that each of the aliens concerned has a genuine and effective possibility of submitting arguments against his or her expulsion (§ 198).

d. Detention

Finally, by not allowing asylum-seekers to be placed in detention for the sole purpose of the processing of their application, EU law applies a higher protection standard than the Convention, as demonstrated by the present CJEU ruling (compare with Z.A. and Others v. Russia, § 162).

Non bis in idem: between Menci and bpost – Judgment of the CJEU in the BV case

In the case of BV (C-570/20, 5.5.2022), the CJEU again ruled on the requirements of the non bis in idem principle (prohibition of double jeopardy) laid down in Article 50 of the EU-Charter on fundamental rights. The referring court in this case, the French Court of cassation, had doubts as to whether, basically, the French legislation allowing VAT-related offences to be punished through a combination of a financial administrative penalty of a criminal nature and a custodial sentence was precise enough to comply with the EU law requirements in this area.

What is somewhat surprising in this ruling, from a Convention point of view, is yet again an apparent lack of methodological coherence by the CJEU as regards the exceptions which can be made to the non bis in idem principle in respect of dual proceedings. Whereas the CJEU in its recent Grand Chamber ruling in the bpost case seemed willing to somewhat close the methodological gap between its own Menci jurisprudence and the Strasbourg A and B jurisprudence, the present judgment seems to take a step back in this respect, by not at all referring to either A and B or bpost and even seemingly ignoring the progress achieved by the latter in bringing some more coherence between the Strasbourg and Luxembourg case-law on this issue. All case-law references are indeed to the sole Menci case which, one could have thought, had been complemented or superseded by bpost in the meantime.

In concrete terms, whereas bpost took on board some of the Strasbourg criteria which in Menci had played no role, notably the fact that for a duplication of proceedings to be acceptable, the two sets of proceedings at stake had to be complementary in nature and form a “coherent whole” (§ 49), or indeed that there was to be a “sufficiently close connection in substance and time” between them (§ 53), in the present ruling these elements are completely left out of the enumeration made by the CJEU of the requirements to be fulfilled under Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter (§§ 30-36), despite their importance, as underlined both in bpost and A. and B.

Perhaps one should not read too much into the present judgment, bearing in mind that the focus in BV was on the precision of the domestic legislation. The fact remains, though, that in an area which is already highly complex and has over the years been the subject of a succession of varying approaches, any additional confusion as to the applicable standards should preferably be avoided. From this perspective, a clear indication about the methodological continuity between bpost and BV would have been welcome, thus dispelling the – hopefully false – impression that Menci still looks like the leading case when it comes to dual proceedings in Luxembourg.

National legislation on the resolution of credit institutions compatible with the right to property: judgment of the CJEU in the case of BPC Lux 2 and Others

In the case of BPC Lux 2 and Others (C-83/20, 5.5.2022), the CJEU examined the compatibility of Portuguese legislation on the resolution of credit institutions with the right to property protected by Article 17 of the EU-Charter of fundamental rights. It concluded that the legislation at issue was compatible with it.

The preliminary ruling is noteworthy in that for the interpretation of Article 17 the CJEU relied to a large extent on the Strasbourg methodology and case-law relating to Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, notably the “three distinct rules” approach developed by the ECHR (see §§ 37-44 and 56). This comes after a reminder about Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter the effect of which is to require that the case-law of the ECHR on Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 be taken into account as minimum protection level (§ 37).

The explanations relating to Article 17 of the EU-Charter indeed state that while the wording of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 has been updated in Article 17 of the EU-Charter, “in accordance with Article 52(3), the meaning and scope of the right are the same as those of the right guaranteed by the ECHR and the limitations may not exceed those provided for there.”

Interestingly, though, when examining the lawfulness of the limitations imposed by the legislation at issue, notably its detrimental impact on shareholders and creditors, the CJEU applied Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter, which is the provision laying down the requirements to be fulfilled by limitations to the rights of the EU-Charter. It did so without subsequently addressing the question whether those criteria – or at least their effect in the present case – were meeting the Strasbourg minimum standards, even though the test provided for by Article 52(1) is slightly different from the one applied in Strasbourg under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The latter is indeed based on the “fair balance to 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 implicit conclusion from the CJEU’s silence on this issue seems to be that the Luxembourg limitations applied in this case met the Strasbourg standards.

This conclusion could indeed find some support in the relevant Strasbourg case-law heavily relied on in the judgment, as well as in the use of a good deal of the conceptual framework emerging from it, including the consideration that because national authorities are better placed to assess the economic situation, they should enjoy a wide margin of appreciation (§ 55).

On these issues, see also the following post.

The right to a new trial following a conviction in absentia: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Spetsializirana prokuratura

In the case of Spetsializirana prokuratura (trial of an absconded suspect) (C-569/20, 19.5.2022) the CJEU applied Directive 2016/343 on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings on a situation arising from the fact that an accused in domestic criminal proceedings had absconded. The issue was whether under that Directive the accused could be tried in absentia and, if so, would be, after reappearing, entitled to a new trial or, alternatively, another legal remedy allowing a fresh determination of the merits of the case.

The judgment is already noteworthy in that it represents another contribution by the CJEU to the interpretation of one of the directives on procedural rights in criminal proceedings, the list of those contributions being still rather short (see, for another recent example, the judgment in the case of IS).

A further interesting feature of this case is certainly the fact that it confronted the CJEU with a situation not explicitly covered by Directive 2016/343, i. e. the situation created by an accused who may be considered to have waived the right to a new trial laid down in Article 9 of the Directive. The Directive indeed covers the situations whereby an absent suspect is either properly informed about the upcoming trial or represented by a mandated lawyer (Article 8(2)) or indeed cannot be located by the authorities (Article 8(4)). It does not, however, deal with a suspect who, while being informed of his or her trial, waives his or her right to be present at it.

In the absence of an explicit provision addressing that eventuality, the CJEU therefore engaged into an interpretation of Article 8(2) of the Directive – which sets out the circumstances under which a judgment in absentia does not give rise to a right to a retrial –, with a view to determining when there could be such a waiver and whether it came within the scope of that provision.

Interestingly, the CJEU thereby relied on the case-law of the ECtHR on the requirements to be fulfilled for a waiver of procedural rights to be compliant with Article 6 of the Convention (Sejdovic v. Italy, Vilches Coronado and Others v. Spain) and, more specifically, on the fact that such a waiver can be inferred from the circumstance that the summons to appear could not be served on an accused on account of a change of address which the accused failed to communicate to the competent authorities (Lena Atanasova v. Bulgaria). In light of that case-law, the CJEU concluded that:

“It is only where it is apparent from precise and objective indicia that the person concerned, while having been officially informed that he or she is accused of having committed a criminal offence, and therefore aware that he or she is going to be brought to trial, takes deliberate steps to avoid receiving officially the information regarding the date and place of the trial that that person may, subject however to the particular needs of the vulnerable persons referred to in recitals 42 and 43 of Directive 2016/343, be deemed to have been informed of the trial and to have voluntarily and unequivocally foregone exercise of the right to be present at it. The situation of such a person who received sufficient information to know that he or she was going to be brought to trial and, by deliberate acts and with the intention of evading justice, prevented the authorities from informing him or her officially of that trial in due time by means of the document referred to in paragraph 41 of the present judgment is thus covered by Article 8(2) of that directive. (§ 48, emphasis added)

According to the CJEU, it was for the referring court to examine, in the light of its interpretation of Article 8(2), whether the accused could be deemed to have, tacitly but unequivocally, waived his right to be present at his trial, in which case he would not be entitled to a new trial.

While the harmony thus being created between Luxembourg and Strasbourg on the issue at stake is of course a welcome development, this case also illustrates the risks involved in trying to codify a subject matter such as procedural fundamental rights, which is primarily the result of a dynamic case-law resulting from the application of Articles 6 of the Convention and 47-48 of the EU-Charter (right to a fair trial).

It is indeed a well-known fact that the Convention is a « living instrument » and is interpreted accordingly by the ECHR, with the consequence that its rights must on occasion be adapted to new situations and their requirements refined. Yet, the present case reveals that not only does Directive 2016/343 not address the waiver of one of the main rights laid down by it, but also that, for obvious chronological reasons, it could not take on board more recent case-law developments such as those resulting from the more recent ECHR judgments referred to by the CJEU. Against this background, the question arises whether such Directives are intended to be updated accordingly or whether they might gradually turn into static alternatives to a dynamic case-law (on this, see No more common understanding, at p. 27-28)?

“Non bis in idem” in dual proceedings: CJEU judgment in the bpost case

In the case of bpost (C-117/20, 22.3.2022) a Grand Chamber of the CJEU gave another ruling on the requirements of the non bis in idem principle (prohibition of double jeopardy), enshrined in Article 50 of the EU-Charter, when applied to dual proceedings concerning the same facts. In the present case, the company bpost was successively fined by two national authorities: first by the Belgian postal regulator, on account of discrimination against some of its clients, and subsequently by the Belgian competition authority, on grounds of abuse of a dominant position.

From a Convention point of view, the ruling is noteworthy in that it represents some evolution of the CJEU’s doctrine on the application of the non bis in idem principle to dual proceedings, i.e. a combination of administrative and/or criminal proceedings applied in respect of the same reprehensible conduct. To the extent that the administrative part of such dual proceedings is to be considered, by virtue of an autonomous interpretation, as criminal for the purposes of the Convention and/or the Charter, an issue about non bis in idem may indeed arise. Yet the methodological differences which existed between the Strasbourg and the Luxembourg approach in this field and resulted in different protection levels had given rise to some concerns (on this, see Do we still need Article 6(2) TEU?, at pp. 1707 et seq.).

In A and B v. Norway, the ECtHR upheld the ban on duplication of trial or punishment laid down in Article 4 of Protocol No. 7 to the Convention, but accepted that depending on the circumstances, some dual proceedings could be seen as complementing each other so as to form a single coherent whole not breaching that provision. This required that they be combined in an integrated manner, notably through a sufficiently close connection in substance and in time. By contrast, in Menci and two other cases decided on the same day, the CJEU accepted the possibility of a duality of criminal proceedings in certain circumstances, by considering such a duality as a limitation permitted under Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter.

This resulted in two different approaches to the same provision, based on criteria which partly overlap and partly differ from each another. While these different criteria did not necessarily appear mutually exclusive or incompatible, their coexistence nonetheless confronted the domestic courts, who may have to combine them, with a new source of complexity and legal uncertainty.

In the bpost case, while sticking to its own methodology based on Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter, the CJEU now took on board some of the Strasbourg criteria which it had previously ignored in Menci. It did so notably by referring to the notion of the “coherent whole” which, according to the ECtHR, the two sets of proceedings at stake must build in order for them to be complementary (A. and B., § 130) and by adding the requirement of a proximate timeframe to the relevant criteria for determining whether that is the case (§§ 51, 53 and 56). It now also relied on A. and B. in confirming its own case-law on the requirement that dual proceedings must be foreseeable and proportionate in their effects. Most significantly, the CJEU mentioned side by side, as the source of its relevant case-law, the Luxembourg judgment in Menci and the Strasbourg judgment in A. and B. (§§ 51 and 53), thereby suggesting that its case-law had a common basis. This is a significant move towards common standards, considerably facilitating the work of domestic courts.

Overall, there would therefore appear to be increasing convergence between Strasbourg and Luxembourg as regards the application of non bis in idem on dual proceedings, despite the remaining methodological differences. This, it is suggested, should hardly come as a surprise in light of the fact that, as recalled by the CJEU itself (§ 23), Article 50 of the EU-Charter, when applied within the same Member State, corresponds to Article 4 of Protocol No. 7 to the Convention and should therefore, by virtue of Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter, be given the same meaning and scope.

Risk of breach of the right to a tribunal established by law following the execution of a European arrest warrant: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Openbaar Ministerie (Tribunal established by law)

In the case of Openbaar Ministerie (Tribunal established by law in the issuing Member State) (joined cases C-562/21 PPU and C-563/21 PPU, 22.2.2022) the CJEU gave another ruling on the execution of a European arrest warrant (EAW) in the face of a (risk of a) breach of the right to a fair trial (Article 47(2) of the EU-Charter) in Poland. This time, the question asked by the executing judicial authority, the Amsterdam District Court, was about the consequences to be drawn from generalised deficiencies relating to the independence of the judiciary in that country.

In terms of the interaction between EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights, the picture resulting from the CJEU’s ruling is a contrasted one. On the one hand, as regards the requirements flowing from the right to an independent tribunal, the CJEU underscored the common ground existing between its own case-law and that of the European Court of Human Rights (§§ 56-57).

As a consequence, and probably for the first time, the CJEU considered that the case-law of the ECtHR finding a breach of the Convention requirements in respect of a tribunal established by law, by reason of the procedure for the appointment of judges, could be taken into account by the executing judicial authority for the purpose of establishing the existence of systemic or generalised deficiencies in the issuing Member State (§ 79). In the same vein, the CJEU considered of equal relevance in this context the case-law of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal challenging the primacy of EU law and the binding nature of the Convention, as well as the binding force of judgments of the CJEU and of the ECtHR (§ 80). In other words, and indeed very interestingly, in the CJEU’s opinion violations of the Convention seem to be part of the picture to be considered when assessing the existence of systemic or generalised deficiencies within the meaning of EU-law.

On the other hand, however, differences remain in terms of the methodology applied to the fundamental rights concerned in a case like this, with the CJEU confirming and further elaborating on the two-step examination required for the assessment of whether (the risk of) a breach of fundamental rights can justify an exception to the obligation to execute a EAW (on this issue, see also Openbaar Ministerie (Independence of the issuing judicial authority and The EAW under the Convention).

In this connection, the CJEU elaborated at great length on the need for systemic or generalised deficiencies to be individualised, i.e. for their impact on the personal situation of the person concerned to be duly demonstrated by that same person. This should be done on the basis of a several criteria which are enumerated by the CJEU but which at the same time would appear, in their combination, to be of a rather complex handling (§§ 84 et seq.). At this point, one may therefore ask whether taken together, the overall amount and the nature of the evidence required does not represent a standard of proof which in the end is higher than the one applied by the ECtHR. If so, this would result in lesser protection for the person concerned. In support of this rather strict approach, the CJEU referred to the preservation of the effectiveness of the EAW system (§§ 47 and 63), the fundamental rights of the victims of the offences concerned (§ 60) as well as the fight against impunity (§ 62).

By contrast, the ECtHR does not consider systemic or generalised deficiencies in the country of destination to be a precondition for a real and individual risk of a breach of the Convention in that country to be established (see, concerning Article 3 of the Convention, Bivolaru and Moldovan). This would seem to be in line with the well-established principle according to which the Court’s role is not to decide in abstracto whether the law is compatible with the Convention, but rather to verify whether the manner in which the law was applied in the particular circumstances of a case complied with the Convention (see, among many others, Denis and Irvine v. Belgium, § 195).

Yet, it is also true that under Article 6 of the Convention, only a flagrant breach of the right to a fair trial in the country of destination can stand in the way of a deportation (see Soering v. United Kingdom, Stapleton v. Ireland). However,  it would not appear too difficult to consider an established lack of independence of a court to amount to such a flagrant breach.

In the end, as the case of Bivolaru and Moldovan shows, should a decision to execute a EAW be challenged before the ECtHR, the latter will focus on the individual circumstances of the person concerned. Under this approach, the absence of (proof of) systemic or generalised deficiencies cannot dispense the national authorities from nonetheless examining the personal risk incurred in the event of a deportation of that person. In other words, such deficiencies are no obligatory starting point or requirement under the Convention.

Seen from this perspective, the position of the CJEU comes down to considering that only such risks can be relevant for the protection of fundamental rights in an extradition context which originate in systemic or generalised deficiencies. Yet, while such deficiencies are often likely to have an impact on individual situations, this would not appear to justify the conclusion that they represent the only possible source of relevant individual risks. As the Strasbourg case-law shows, such risks can indeed also have their roots, for example, in specific circumstances or, as the CJEU itself suggests, in statements made in the context of a specific case (§ 97).

The right to information and interpretation in criminal proceedings: judgment of the CJEU in the case of IS

In the case of IS (C-564/19, 23.11.2021), a Grand Chamber of the CJEU dealt with the preliminary ruling procedure under Article 267 TFEU and the rights and obligations flowing from that provision for the courts of the Member States. It also gave a detailed explanation of the requirements of Directive 2010/64 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings and Directive 2012/13 on the right to information in criminal proceedings, which it interpreted in light of the Strasbourg case-law relating to these matters.

The case in the main proceedings concerned criminal proceedings in absentia brought in Hungary against a Swedish national born in Turkey, who was prosecuted for an infringement of the Hungarian legislation on firearms and ammunition; this followed an investigation during which he had been questioned by the police in the presence of a Swedish-language interpreter, but without the assistance of a lawyer, even though this was the interview at which he was informed that he was suspected of having committed offences under that national legislation.

On the issue of the rights of the accused, the CJEU first recalled that according to Article 52(3) of the EU-Charter, in so far as that Charter contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the meaning and scope of those rights must be the same as those laid down by that Convention. Consequently, the CJEU must ensure that its interpretation of Article 48 of the Charter (presumption of innocence and rights of the defence) ensures a level of protection which does not disregard that guaranteed by Article 6 of the Convention (fair trial), as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (§ 101). Interestingly and in contrast with most of its previous rulings on this subject, the CJEU did not mention here the autonomy of EU law as a limitation on the effects of Article 52(3). Whether that is intended or not remains to be seen.

On the issue of the interpretation and translation facilities offered to the accused, the CJEU ruled, with reference to the landmark judgment by the ECtHR in the case of Hermi v. Italy, that Article 5 of Directive 2010/64 requires Member States to take concrete measures in order to ensure that the quality of the interpretation and translations provided is sufficient to enable the suspect or accused person to understand the accusation against him or her and in order that that interpretation can be reviewed by the national courts.

With reference to Strasbourg case-law on the importance of proper information of an accused person for the fairness of his or her trial (Simeonovi v. Bulgaria, Pélissier and Sassi v. France and Sejdovic v. Italy), the CJEU furthermore interpreted Article 2(5) of Directive 2010/64 and Articles 4(5) and 6(1) of Directive 2012/13, read in the light of Article 48(2) of the Charter (rights of the defence), as requiring that if the interpretation provided was not of a sufficient quality to enable the accused person to understand the reasons for his arrest and the accusations against him, this would preclude the criminal proceedings from being continued in absentia.

Bosphorus presumption applicable to the storing of biometric data on a passport: decision of the ECHR in the case of Willems v. the Netherlands

The case of Willems v. the Netherlands (57294/16, 9.11.2021) concerned the refusal by the applicant to provide fingerprints that would be digitised and saved in his passport and in a database. Applying Regulation 2252/2004 on standards for security features and biometrics in passports and travel documents issued by Member States, as amended by Regulation 444/2009, the Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Dutch Council of State dismissed as ill-founded the objections which the applicant had raised in this connection. The applicant then complained before the ECHR inter alia about a violation of Article 8 of the Convention (right to respect for private life).

In respect of the applicable EU legislation, the Administrative Jurisdiction Division considered, after referring questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, that it left no room for the Member States to use alternatives to the prescribed way of storing the biometric data, nor did it provide for any applicable exceptions to the obligation to provide fingerprints.

In light of this finding, the ECHR recalled the requirements for the presumption of equivalent protection (“Bosphorus presumption”) to apply and concluded that they were fulfilled in the present case. As a consequence, there would only be a violation of the Convention in case of a “manifest deficiency” in the protection afforded by it (on this notion, see also Bivolaru and Moldovan v. France). As such a manifest deficiency had not been shown to exist by the applicant, the ECHR declared manifestly ill-founded the applicant’s complaint about a violation of Article 8.