08 November 2016
The Hungarian authorities’ refusal to provide the HHC with information relating to ex officio defence counsels was in breach of the right of access to information.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in its judgment delivered today that Hungary violated the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s right to freedom of expression when the police refused to disclose the names of ex officio defence counsels and the number of cases in which they were appointed in a given year. The importance of the judgment goes beyond the Hungarian case: the Grand Chamber, consisting of 17 judges, confirmed for the first time that the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right of access to information.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (Magyar Helsinki Bizottság, HHC) submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2011, after the Supreme Court of Hungary decided in three of its lawsuits that the names of ex officio defence counsels and the number of cases in which they were appointed were not of a public nature, and did not have to be disclosed to the HHC. These data would have served to prove that it is a widespread practice that appointments by the police are obtained by the same handful of attorneys, which endangers the defendants’ right to effective defence.
Denying the access to the data restricted the HHC’s ability to act a social watchdog without an appropriate legitimate aim. In the lack of access to public interest data, it is not possible to form an opinion on public matters, thus, such a denial violates the right to freedom of expression.
Accordingly, the case goes beyond the data on ex officio appointed defence counsels: this was the first time that the Grand Chamber had to take a stand as to whether Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of expression protects the right of access to information as well. The significance of the case is shown by the fact that jurisdiction was relinquished in favour of the ECtHR’s Grand Chamber, consisting of 17 judges, given that even though the ECtHR treated the right of access to information in more of its earlier decisions as a right protected by the Convention, the Grand Chamber has not took a stand on the issue yet.
The Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary gained a significant interest also on an international level: for example, both other European NGOs and the Government of the United Kingdom submitted a third party intervention in the case.
In its judgment delivered today, the ECtHR concluded that Hungary violated the HHC’s right to freedom of expression. The decision is relevant also because it may open the door to making access to information legally enforceable also if that would not be possible under the domestic legal provisions.
At the hearing before the Grand Chamber, the HHC was also represented by the attorneys of the investigative news portal atlatszo.hu.
For more details on the background of the case and the arguments of the HHC, see: