ECtHR: Hungary did not breach article 6 ECHR by refusing to refer question to CJEU
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held by a majority that the Hungarian Supreme Court did not breach a man’s right to a free trial by refusing to refer a question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) for a preliminary ruling.
However, the ECtHR found that applicant Gábor Somorjai’s rights under article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached owing to the length of proceedings.
In 1995, Mr Somorjai, who had worked before in Hungary and Austria, was awarded a disability pension. In April 2006, following Hungary’s EU accession in 2004, he requested a review of his pension rights in accordance with EU Regulation 1408/71/EEC. In September 2006, a first-instance pension authority reviewed Mr Somorjai’s monthly pension and increased it from 74,361 Hungarian forints (HUF) (around €250) to HUF 134,566 (around €449) per month with effect from 1 May 2004. Mr Somorjai appealed against that decision and a second-instance pension authority increased his monthly pension to HUF 135,450 (around €452).
Mr Somorjai challenged the final administrative decision in court and requested that a question concerning the correct interpretation of the Regulation be referred to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. On 12 October 2007, the Budapest Labour Court dismissed the action and upheld the pension authority’s decision.
Mr Somorjai lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court and in June 2009 it reversed the Labour Court ruling and ordered new proceedings, insisting that the relevant EU law principles be taken into account. Regarding the request for a reference for a preliminary ruling, the Supreme Court held that the procedure appeared to be unnecessary “because the conditions had not been fulfilled”.
In the remitted case, the Labour Court quashed the pension authority’s decision and instructed it to recalculate the pension in accordance with EU rules and in July 2010 the amount was increased to HUF 139,545 (around €465). The 1997 Pensions Act provides that if a pension authority has made a mistake, the difference is to be paid for only the five years preceding the date the mistake was discovered, so payment of the difference to Mr Somorjai was ordered for the period after 19 March 2005 only. He appealed, claiming arrears for the whole period following Hungary’s EU accession (1 May 2004), but to no avail.
Mr Somorjai, relying on the EU Regulation, requested a court review of the pension authority’s decision. He contended that he had a right, as per the EU Regulation, to an adjusted pension for the whole period following 1 May 2004 and that the national rule restricting the very payment of that pension constituted a “limitation of rights” prohibited by the Regulation. The decision was, however, upheld by the Budapest Labour Court in February 2012. Three weeks later Mr Somorjai submitted a petition for review of the Labour Court’s judgment. He did not request that the case be referred to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling; instead, he requested what he considered to be a correct application of the Regulation. Nevertheless, he argued that the judgment had violated article 234 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community, without providing a detailed explanation on this point.
On 26 June 2013 the Supreme Court, renamed the Kúria in 2012, upheld the Labour Court’s judgment, reasoning that the Regulation concerned only the acquisition of rights, not the actual payment of allowances. In the Kúria’s view, the applicant’s rights were not subject to any forfeiture or limitation; it was only the actual payment of the increased amount which had been limited, there was thus no conflict between the 1997 Pensions Act and the Regulation. The Kúria’s judgment contained no reasoning on the alleged violation of article 234 of the EC Treaty.
Mr Somorjai had also lodged a petition with the Constitutional Court on 2 February 2008, which rejected his case, arguing that it lacked competence to examine an alleged conflict between Hungarian and EU law.
Relying on article 6 § 1 of the European Convention, the applicant complained to the ECtHR on 23 September 2013 that the Hungarian authorities had not taken due account of the applicable EU law provisions which, in particular, placed an obligation on national courts of final instance to provide reasons for not referring a question to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. He also complained about the length of the proceedings.
In a 5-2 majority judgment, the ECtHR ordered Hungary to pay Mr Somorjai €2,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage and €500 in respect of costs and expenses.
Judges András Sajó (Hungary) and Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque (Portugal) expressed a joint dissenting opinion.