ECtHR: Right to fair trial breached by disproportionate refusal to award legal costs
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has delivered its judgment in the case Dragan Kovačević v. Croatia (application no. 49281/15), finding that the Croatian Constitutional Court’s refusal to award costs to the applicant, despite ruling in his favour and quashing a judgment to remove his legal capacity, was disproportionate and a violation of the right to a fair trial (Article 6 ECHR).
The Constitutional Court’s ruling on costs was based on a domestic law provision providing that each participant in proceedings before the Constitutional Court must bear its own costs unless the court decides otherwise.
The ECtHR took into account the amount of the costs and whether that could be a financial burden impeding the right to access to a court. It considered that the cost of drafting a constitutional complaint (815 euros) had been more than the average salary in Croatia at the time (let alone for the applicant, who was in receipt of 164 euros per month in disability benefits). In this case the costs constituted a significant financial burden and a disproportionate restriction of the right of access to court.
It did not agree that the Constitutional Court’s aim to secure its smooth functioning is a legitimate reason to restrict the applicant’s right, given that the national law allows the Court to make an exception. That exception not only provided necessary flexibility, but also suggested that, in certain cases, application of the default rule might not be justified by the identified aims.
Finally, the ECtHR also took note that the Constitutional Court did not reason its refusal.