Two drivers who launched human rights action against France over motoring fines have won the backing of Strasbourg judges.
In today’s Chamber judgments in the cases of Cadène v. France (application no. 12039/08) and Célice v. France (no. 14166/09), which are not final, the European
Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
a violation of Article 6 § 1 (access to court) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned two French drivers who complained that the denial by the public prosecutor of their requests for exemption from fines had deprived them of their right to the determination of a criminal charge against them by an independent and impartial tribunal.
The applicants are Jean Cadène, a French national who was born in 1936 and lives in Perpignan, and Damien Célice, a French national who was born in 1970 and lives in
Paris. Their cars were caught by speed cameras in August 2007 and June 2008 respectively, following which they received notice that they had committed a minor offence under the Road-Traffic Code and had to pay a standard fine of 68 euros.
After paying the amount of the fine by way of deposit, Cadène applied to the public prosecutor’s office to be exempted from the penalty, complying with the requisite timelimit and formalities, arguing that he was unable to recognise any offence without receiving the photograph identifying the person responsible. Célice did the same,
claiming that he had not been the driver at the time of the offence.
In a letter of 19 October 2007 a police superintendant of the prosecution service declared inadmissible Mr Cadène’s application for exemption on the ground that it did not give reasons. In a letter of 3 September 2008 Mr Célice received a similar letter, declaring his application inadmissible because it had not been accompanied by an explicit
denial of responsibility for the offence. In both cases, the deposit was retained as payment of the fine itself.
On 31 December 2007 and 21 November 2008, respectively, the Interior Ministry informed the applicants that the offences had been established as a result of their payment of the fine and that they would consequently lose one point from their licence.
Decision of the Court
Article 6 § 1
The Government had argued that the two applications were inadmissible on account of a failure to exhaust domestic remedies, as the applicants could have appealed against the enforcement of the penalty in a community court (juridiction de proximité).
In the Célice case, the government further argued that the applicant could also have brought proceedings to establish State liability for shortcomings in the justice system.
The Court reiterated that only remedies capable of providing effective redress for an alleged violation had to be exhausted. It first observed that the applicants had not had access to the community court procedure, as that could only be used to appeal against enforceable fines after addition of the surcharge.
As to a claim of State liability, such proceedings did not entail any judicial review of the “charge” capable of providing redress for the alleged violation. The Court thus dismissed the Government’s arguments on this point and declared the applications admissible.
On the merits, the Court pointed out that the right to a court, of which the right of access was one aspect, was not absolute; it was subject to limitations permitted by
implication, in particular where the conditions of admissibility of an appeal were concerned. However, these limitations could not restrict or reduce a person’s access in
such a way or to such an extent that the very essence of the right was impaired. They must pursue a legitimate aim and there must be a reasonable relationship of
proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be achieved.
In the applicant’s case the Court observed, firstly, that the official from the public prosecutor’s office, a police superintendent, had declared inadmissible the applicants’
applications for exemption on erroneous grounds, namely, because Cadène’s application had not given reasons and that of Mr Célice had not explicitly denied responsibility for the offence. On the appropriate application form, the applicants had, in fact, clearly indicated that they denied having committed the offence and, in a supporting letter, had duly explained their reasons.
In addition, the Government had not disputed the fact that the police superintendant, whose discretionary power was confined to examining the formal admissibility of the application, had misused his authority.
Moreover, in both cases, the inadmissibility decision of the public prosecutor’s office had led to the retention of the deposit, which was equivalent to the amount of the standard fine. Thus, in spite of the applicants’ challenge, the process had led to the completion of the public prosecution without any determination of the “criminal charge” or the hearing of the applicants’ arguments by a “tribunal”, within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention. Accordingly, the very essence of the applicants’ right of access to a court had been impaired.
Lastly, the Court took note of the decision by the French Constitutional Council to the effect that, where an official of the prosecution service declared inadmissible an
application for exemption from a standard fine, after the deposit had been paid, and where that declaration had the effect of converting the deposit into the fine itself, the inability to appeal against such a decision before the community court was incompatible with the “right to an effective judicial remedy.”
The Court thus found that there had been a violation of Article 6 § 1.
Article 6 § 2
Célice had argued that the obligation to pay a deposit in order to submit an application for exemption or an appeal to the public prosecutor breached the right to be
presumed innocent. On this point the Court confirmed its previous case-law, reiterating that the fact of subjecting the admissibility of such an application or appeal to the prior payment of a deposit corresponding to the amount of the standard fine did not, as such, entail a violation of Article 6 § 2. The Court thus declared this part of the application inadmissible.
Cadène had complained that, by refusing to send him the photographic evidence in support of the charge against him, the public prosecutor’s office had deprived him of the possibility of defending himself, in breach of his right to be presumed innocent. In view of its finding of a violation of Article 6 § 1, the Court found that no separate question arose under Article 6 § 2.
Under this Article the Court held in particular that the finding of a violation constituted sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage sustained.