With its first issued ruling with respect to a complaint which a resident of Latvia had filed against her country the European Court of Human Rights the court in Strasbourg became closer to Latvia. The precedent of Ls 5,000 in compensation provides a good example for other people.
Until now, people in Latvia have spoken about the European Court of Human Rights, its processes, rulings and possible consequences only at the theoretical level. Now the time has come when the first ruling has been handed down. It creates legal consequences and demands specific action on the part of the state. The first case that was filed against Latvia and that was reviewed by the ECHR on 18 October confirmed a friendly settlement via which the petitioner, Nina Kulakova, will be paid Ls 5,000 in compensation for the state’s failure to investigate a criminal case in which she was the victim and the civil case plaintiff.
What are the conclusions which government institutions, society and each of us – people who have access to this ECHR process – should draw from this?
The case is interesting in several respects, because it touches upon a variety of related areas that are still problematic in Latvia – housing legislation, procedural guarantees, effective defense when one’s rights are violated and overall respect toward the rights of the individual. In the case of Kulakova, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation concerning fraud in a transaction which involved an exchange of apartments in 1994. Prosecutors delayed the investigation of the case until the point at which the statute of limitations expired in 2001.
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights was the article in the scope of which this case was considered. It says that everyone must have the right to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and objective tribunal established by law, and that the ruling must be made public. The ECHR has developed a unified understanding of these rights in its practice. Courts must be accessible to people, and court processes must be in line with all of the aforementioned criteria. The right to a fair trial applies to criminal and civil cases, and the rights belong not only to defendants, but also to victims and people who are party to a civil dispute.
In analyzing this case and the result, we find a series of important problems in Latvia which have to be resolved at the national level so as to avoid any violations of the Convention.
First of all, law enforcement institutions are careless when it comes to individual rights, and they do not want to investigate and bring to an effective end the unimportant criminal cases which, in essence, touch upon a whole series of individual rights.
Secondly, the long processes of investigation and court hearings – something about which there has been a great deal of talk at the political level and at the level of society in Latvia – have not been improved in any fundamental way. A particularly critical situation exists in those cases when someone has been arrested and ends up spending months or years in jail. This is a person who has not been convicted of a crime but nevertheless has to spend a long time in incarceration – a situation in which his or her rights and freedoms are limited.
Senior government officials have said that the main reason for ineffective court operations is insufficient financing for the system of courts. The result is that we cannot increase the number of judges, provide facilities that are appropriate for court functions, hire enough technical employees and do other things. The analyzed precedent, however, shows that the state has to spend money as a result of inactivity, too. Many of the cases that have been filed at the ECHR against the Latvian state involve the right to a fair trial and relevant violations in this area. Sadly, we can expect rulings which are not favorable to the state, given the existing situation.
The European Convention on Human Rights, in the context of these precedents, is in any event becoming a more easily touched and understood document for individuals and for the people who should be applying the principles of the convention in their work – judges, prosecutors and other government officials. This is the area in which the state must feel the consequences of its international obligations, and it must shape precedents in terms of obeying court rulings, paying compensation and determining the responsible institutions in these cases. The state must be far more interested in bringing better order to this sector, and the beginning to this process might be serious analytical work which involves all of the relevant institutions.
The rule of law is one of the ways in which human rights are protected, but in this situation, individuals often see the courts not as effective protectors of the rights that have been violated, but rather as a repressive institution or as one that involves ineffective and excessively drawn-out procedures.
This precedent provides a good example for other people – now each person who feels that there is no hope of defending his or her rights through local government institutions can successfully use international opportunities instead. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is now closer to Latvia’s residents.