The standard of human rights review for recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments: ‘due satisfaction’ or ‘flagrant denial of justice’?
Note on Dolenc v. Slovenia (ECtHR no. 20256/20, 20 October 2022)
by Denise Wiedemann, Hamburg
1. Facts and Holding
On 20 October 2022, the ECtHR issued a decision that provides guidance regarding the human rights review of recognition and enforcement decisions. The decision concerns the recognition of Israeli civil judgments by Slovenian courts. The Israeli judgments obliged Vincenc Vinko Dolenc, an internationally renowned neurosurgeon, to compensate a former patient for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage in an amount equivalent to approximately 2.3 million euros (para. 22). Dolenc had performed surgery on the claimant, who was left severely disabled. After Slovenian courts recognized the Israeli judgments, Dolenc applied to the ECtHR. He contended that Slovenia had violated Art. 6(1) ECHR because it had recognized Israeli judgments that resulted from an unfair proceeding. Specifically, he argued that he had been unable to participate effectively in the trial in Israel because the Israeli court had refused to examine him and his witnesses by way of the procedure provided under the Hague Evidence Convention (para. 61).
The ECtHR found that the Slovenian courts had not examined the Israeli proceedings duly and had not given enough weight to the consequences that the non-examination of the witnesses had for the applicant’s right to a fair trial (para. 75). Therefore, the ECtHR unanimously held that Slovenia had violated Art. 6(1) ECHR.
2. Standard of Review
In its reasoning, the Court confirmed the standard of review that it had laid down in Pellegrini v. Italy (no. 30882/96, ECtHR 20 July 2001). In Pellegrini, the ECtHR found that Contracting States to the ECHR have an obligation to refuse recognition or enforcement of a foreign judgment if the defendant’s rights were violated during the adjudication of the dispute in the state of the judgment’s origin (para. 40). As in Dolenc v. Slovenia, the ECtHR in Pellegrini did not examine whether the proceedings before the court of origin complied with Art. 6(1) of the Convention. Instead, the Court scrutinized whether the Italian courts, i.e. courts in the state of enforcement, applied a standard of review in reviewing the foreign judgment which was in conformity with Art. 6(1) ECHR. As regards the standard of review, the ECtHR required the Italian courts to ‘duly satisfy’ themselves that the proceedings in the state of the judgment’s origin fulfilled the guarantees of Art. 6(1) ECHR (para. 40). Thus, when recognizing or enforcing a civil judgment from a non-Contracting State, Contracting States have to verify that the foreign proceedings complied with Art. 6(1) ECHR.
Yet, in respect of other issues, the ECtHR has limited the standard of review from due satisfaction to that of a ‘flagrant denial of justice’. In the criminal law context, the ECtHR held in Drozd and Janousek v. France and Spain that Contracting States are obliged to refuse the enforcement of a foreign sentence only if ‘it emerges that the conviction is the result of flagrant denial of justice’ (para. 110). The same limited review has been applied to extradition cases (Othman (Abu Qatada) v. the United Kingdom) and to child return cases (Eskinazi and Chelouche v. Turkey). A flagrant denial of justice is a breach that ‘goes beyond mere irregularities or lack of safeguards in the trial procedures such as might result in a breach of Article 6 if occurring within the Contracting State itself. What is required is a breach of the principles of fair trial guaranteed by Article 6 which is so fundamental as to amount to a nullification, or destruction of the very essence, of the right guaranteed by that Article.’ (Othman, para. 260).
It has been argued that in cases regarding the recognition or enforcement of a foreign civil judgement, the review should likewise be limited because the fundamental rights violation in the state of recognition or enforcement would be only of an indirect nature (e.g. Matscher, ‘Der Begriff des fairen Verfahrens nach Art. 6 EMRK’ in Nakamura et al. (eds), Festschrift Beys, Sakkoulas, Athens 2003, pp. 989–1007, 1005). Contrary to this view, the ECtHR confirmed in Dolenc v. Slovenia the requirement of an unlimited review of the proceeding in the state of origin; the Court saw ‘no reason to depart from the approach set out in Pellegrini’ (§ 60).
The approach taken in Pellegrini and Dolenc is convincing with regard to Art. 1 ECHR, which obliges the Contracting States to fully secure all individuals’ rights and freedoms. A deviation from the requirement set out in Art. 1 ECHR is not justified by the fact that recognition or enforcement of a decision issued in violation of Art. 6(1) ECHR would only be of an indirect nature; rather, such a recognition or enforcement would exacerbate the violation and would, therefore, be in direct breach of the Convention. The ECtHR explained the restricted level of review in extradition and child return cases with the fact that, unlike in a recognition or enforcement situation, ‘no proceedings concerning the applicants’ interests [had] yet been disposed of’ (see Eskinazi and Chelouche v. Turkey).
However, it is not obvious why the ECtHR applies different standards for the enforcement of foreign criminal judgments (‘flagrant denial of justice’) and the recognition or enforcement of foreign civil judgment (‘due satisfaction’). Whereas Contracting States are not required to verify whether a foreign criminal proceeding was compatible with all the requirements of Art. 6(1) ECHR, they are obliged to do so when a foreign civil proceeding is at issue. In justifying the reduced effect of Art. 6(1) ECHR in criminal cases, the Court explained that a review of all the requirements of Art. 6(1) ECHR would ‘thwart the current trend towards strengthening international cooperation in the administration of justice, a trend which is in principle in the interests of the persons concerned.‘ (Drozd and Janousek v. France and Spain, para. 110). Thus, the ECtHR seems to place greater importance on cooperation in criminal matters than on cooperation in civil matters. A reason is not apparent.
3. Situations Allowing for a More Limited Review
Despite the confirmation of Pellegrini v. Italy in Dolenc v. Slovenia, the ECtHR left open the possibility of a more limited review in certain civil recognition and enforcement cases. First, the Pellegrini case and the Dolenc case concerned judgments emanating from non-Contracting States. If, in contrast, the recognition or enforcement of a judgment from a Contracting State was at issue, debtors would be obliged to challenge violations of Article 6(1) ECHR in the state of the judgment’s origin. If debtors fail to do so – e.g. if they miss the time limit for lodging a complaint at the ECtHR (Art. 35(1) ECHR) –, a further review in the state of enforcement would not be successful. Otherwise, procedural limits for human rights challenges would lose their preclusive effect.
Second, the ECtHR qualified Pellegrini as a case having ‘capital importance’ (para. 40) and Dolenc as a case of ‘paramount importance to the defendant’ (para. 60). While Pellegrini concerned a decision annulling a marriage, i.e. determining personal status, the foreign judgment in Dolenc caused serious financial and reputational damage to the applicant. However, it is questionable why a judgment for payment of a small amount of money should allow for a more limited review as Art. 1 ECHR does not differentiate between important and less important matters.
Finally, different standards would in any event apply to recognition and enforcement within the EU: In the case of recognition and enforcement under strict EU procedures (without the possibility of refusal), Member States benefit from the ‘presumption of compliance’ (Sofia Povse and Doris Povse v. Austria; Avoti?š v. Latvia). With this presumption, the ECtHR seeks to establish a balance between its own review powers vis-à-vis states and its respect for the activities of the EU. In cases with a margin of manoeuvre, in particular through the public policy clause, the ECtHR will not require the Member State of recognition or enforcement to ‘duly satisfy’ itself that the adjudication proceeding in the Member State of origin complied with Art. 6(1) ECHR. Rather, the ECtHR will assess only whether the application of the public policy clause has been ‘clearly arbitrary’ (Royer v. Hungary, para. 60).
Thanks for this report. Concerning intra-EU relations, don’t you think that Avotins has introduced significant change, in particular in comparison to Povse?
Thank you very much for the question. Both, Povse and Avotins, are cases where the Contracting States (Austria/Latvia) had a strict liability to enforce the respective judgment (this was, however, disputed in Avotins). Thus, the ECtHR applied the presumption of compliance. But in Povse, the ECtHR seems to indicate that it had accepted that a fundamental rights review takes place only in the Member State of the judgment’s origin. In Avotins, the ECtHR discarded this reading of Povse. The presumption of compliance will be rebutted if it can be shown, in the ‘individual case’, that the protection of Convention rights has been ‘manifestly deficient’.