8 November 2016
- Violation of Article 6 § 1 – on account of the refusal of legal aid
The applicants, Rimanta Irena Urbšienė and Dalius Urbšys, are Lithuanian nationals who were born in 1963 and 1964 respectively and live in Kaunas (Lithuania). They are a married couple. The case concerned the fairness of civil proceedings that they had been party to.
Between 2001 and 2009, the applicants were involved in protracted litigation brought against a company owned by Mrs Urbšienė, consisting of a claim for rent arrears brought by another company, and also bankruptcy proceedings. The proceedings involved a large number of hearings, judgments and appeals in various courts. On some occasions, the applicants were granted legal aid. However, on multiple occasions the applicants were denied legal aid, on the grounds that their cases were directly related to their commercial or independent professional activities. The claim for rent arrears ended when the Court of Appeal found against the applicants in October 2009, following an oral hearing where none of the parties were present. The applicants were denied legal aid to make a cassation appeal. This meant that one could not be made, as under domestic law such appeals had to be submitted by a lawyer. The applicants alleged that the decisions of the domestic courts had been unlawful, and brought proceedings against the State for damages. Among their allegations, they complained about not being granted legal aid. However, their claim was rejected by the Vilnius Regional Court, the Court of Appeal and eventually the Supreme Court, the last judgment being on 24 February 2015.
Relying in particular on Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing and access to court), the applicants complained that they had been refused legal aid and that that refusal, based solely on the fact that they as individuals had been engaged in commercial activities, had notably limited their access to court. They also complained that they had not been properly notified of the Court of Appeal hearing in October 2009.
The Court recalls that there is no obligation under the Convention to make legal aid available for all disputes in civil proceedings. Nevertheless, the question of whether the provision of legal aid is necessary for a fair hearing must be determined on the basis of the specific facts and circumstances of each case. The Court finds that by being denied legal aid to prepare claims with regard to the bankruptcy and rent arrears proceedings, to prepare the cassation appeal against the Court of Appeal’s refusal to transfer the applicants’ cases to the Vilnius Regional Court and to prepare the claim concerning the reopening of the bankruptcy case and for their representation in the reopened rent arrears case on several occasions the applicants were deprived of an adequate opportunity to present their case effectively to the domestic courts.
As regard to the applicants’ complaint that they had not been properly notified of the Court of Appeal hearing in October 2009, the Court concludes that there has been no violation of the applicants’ right to a fair hearing enshrined in Article 6 § 1 of the Convention on account of a lack of proper notification of a hearing before the appellate court as the substance of the case made the applicants’ personal participation in the hearing before the Court of Appeal unnecessary
Just satisfaction: EUR 3,000 (non-pecuniary damage) and EUR 500 (costs and expenses).