Same national legislation examined in Luxembourg and Strasbourg: decision by the ECtHR in the case of Freire Lopes

In the case of Freire Lopes v. Portugal (31.1.2023, 58598/21), the ECtHR examined the application of the Portuguese legislation which organised the rescue of credit institutions by allowing their resolution and the transfer of part of their assets and liabilities to a bridge bank. The applicant was among the account holders of the Banco Espirito Santo (“BES”), one of the credit institutions to which that legislation had been applied. He complained about the financial losses which he had incurred as a consequence of the resolution of the BES. In his opinion, they were disproportionate and amounted to a breach of his right to property protected by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention.

Interestingly, the legislation at issue in this case is the same as the one declared compatible with the right to property (Article 17(1) of the EU-Charter) by the CJEU in BPC Lux 2 and Others, in which the CJEU adopted the methodology followed by the ECtHR in assessing compliance with Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, except for the assessment of the limitations applied to the property rights involved, which it examined applying Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter.

Yet, the test provided for by Article 52(1) is slightly different from the one applied in Strasbourg under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, which is 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”. Thus, it was the latter test which the ECtHR applied in Freire Lopes and which led to the finding that, having regard to all the general and individual circumstances of the case, the complaint about a violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 was manifestly ill-founded, because a fair balance had been struck between the competing interests.

While the European Courts came to similar conclusions on the substance, some lessons can nonetheless be drawn from these parallel cases.

First, the same fundamental rights can have to be applied to similar cases by each of the European Courts acting at different stages of the respective proceedings involved and from a different perspective: Luxembourg will examine in abstracto, Strasbourg in concreto.

Secondly, the final ex post assessment of compliance with fundamental rights in such cases only takes place in Strasbourg, on the basis of the sole Convention. Thus, the liability which may be incurred by domestic judges in Strasbourg is only with respect to their compliance with the Convention, even when the domestic law at stake, as in the present case, is based on Union law.

Thirdly, in Freire Lopes the ECtHR repeatedly relied on the assessments made by the CJEU on the basis of the criteria which it borrowed from the Convention case-law on property rights. This not only demonstrates the impact on the outcome of a case in Strasbourg of the use by the CJEU of harmonised criteria, it also considerably facilitates the task of national judges.

The fact remains, though, that national judges are (partly) confronted with a duality of methodologies when dealing with property rights.