In the Chamber’s judgment in the case of ESERTAS v. LITHUANIA (2012) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
- a violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing) of the Convention;
The applicant, Tomas Esertas, is a Lithuanian national who lives in Kaunas.
In May 2001, he disconnected his flat from the heating provided by one company and installed a new heating system. The old heating provider then repeatedly sent him bills claiming he had not paid for heating. In June 2004 the court found that the old heating company had wrongfully claimed payment for heating. However, in new separate proceedings in 2006 the domestic courts decided differently, adopting a decision that was favourable to the heating company.
Complaints and procedure
Relying on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing), Mr Esertas complained that the overruling of a final judicial decision in his favour had been in breach of the principle of legal certainty.
Decision of the Court
The Court considers that a situation where the facts already determined by a final decision in one case are later overruled by the courts in a new case between the same parties, is similar to the one where, following a re-opening of the proceedings, a binding and enforceable decision is quashed in its entirety. Consequently, such a situation may also amount to a breach of the principle of legal certainty in violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
In the instant case there is no doubt that the decisive circumstances established by the final decision of June 2004 were reassessed and overruled by the courts in the second proceedings. The Court observes that such a situation was also in breach of the domestic law, which provides that the facts and legal relations that had been established by a court in one case may not be contested in another case.
Having examined the materials submitted by the parties, the Court finds that there was no justification for requiring the applicant to prove again, in the second proceedings, the fact that he was not in contractual relations with Litesko or that no heating was supplied to the flat. These circumstances had been established in the first set of proceedings. It should also be noted that no new factual circumstances were invoked during the second set of proceedings.
The Government have argued that the overruling of the court’s decision of June 2004 was necessary for the correct interpretation and application of the domestic law regulating consumers’ agreements with heating providers. The circumstances established in the court’s decision of June 2004, namely that the applicant was not in a contractual relationship with Litesko and that his flat was not provided with heating by the latter, were disregarded on the basis merely of a different interpretation and application of the domestic law and on the apparently factual argument that the new claim concerned a different period of time. That ground was not a fundamental defect within the meaning of the Court’s case-law and could not justify a departure from the principle of legal certainty. The Court also does not find that the first set of proceedings had been tarnished by a fundamental defect, such as, in particular, a jurisdictional error, serious breaches of court procedure or abuses of power. The Court is therefore of the opinion that departure from the principle of legal certainty was unjustified in the second set of the proceedings.
The Court concludes that the applicant’s rights under Article 6 § 1 of the Convention were prejudiced as the courts in the second set of proceedings ignored the previous judicial process. By ignoring res judicata and the final decision of June 2004, the national courts acted in breach of the principle of legal certainty inherent in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
The court held that Lithuania was to pay the applicant 142.47 Euros in respect of pecuniary damages, 4,000 Euros in respect of non-pecuniary damages and 10.94 Euros in respect of costs and expenses.