Friday, 29 October 2010
ECHR Rules Against Société Cofinfo In French Property Eviction Row
The applicant, the company Cofinfo, successor in the rights of the company Kentucky, which was wound up on 23 November 2005, is incorporated under French law and has its registered office in Paris.
In 1997 the company Kentucky acquired a building in the 11th district of Paris. On 26 December 1999, 16 families, consisting of 62 people, including 39 small children, decided to move into the building which was unoccupied.
On 22 March 2000 the urgent applications judge of the Paris tribunal de grande instance ordered the squatters’ eviction. The company Kentucky made three requests, between August 2000 and 2003, for police assistance with the eviction. The first and third requests were denied for lack of urgency and the second was denied on public order grounds, as 62 occupants would have to be evicted with no alternative housing.
The company Kentucky also put the building up for sale in 2001 but discontinued the sale after Paris City Council exercised its right of pre-emption.
On 14 March 2006, ruling on a compensation claim by the applicant company, the Paris Administrative Court acknowledged the State’s liability without fault and set the company’s award for damage on the basis of the fair rent and the procedural costs incurred as a result of the authorities’ implicit refusal. The amount of the damage was subsequently reduced on appeal as the court took the view that the property could not, in its current state, be rented out under market conditions. Proceedings concerning the compensation are still pending.
In October 2007, after the property had been vacated following a fire, an order prohibiting its occupation was issued. It was then expropriated for the benefit of the SIEMP (public-private real-estate partnership of the City of Paris), by decision of the Paris tribunal de grande instance, in the context of proceedings that had previously been brought by the State on public-interest grounds. An appeal on points of law lodged against that decision by the applicant company is still pending.
Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court
Relying on Article 6 (right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time) of the European Convention on Human Rights, the applicant company complained about the failure to enforce the order to evict the occupants from its building and about the length of the resulting proceedings. It further relied on Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property), complaining of its inability to secure the peaceful enjoyment of its property and to receive rent from it.
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 9 May 2008.
Decision of the Court
The Court reiterated that the right to a court would be illusory if a final, binding judicial decision remained inoperative to the detriment of one party. However, a stay of execution of a court’s decision could be justified in exceptional circumstances for the time strictly necessary to find a satisfactory solution to public order problems.
The compensation awarded to the applicant company for State responsibility in the failure to enforce, for seven years, the eviction order of 22 March 2000, did not strictly speaking constitute execution of the decision because it had not enabled the applicant to recover the enjoyment of its property.
However, the Court noted that no fault on the part of the authorities had been found . The authorities had in fact sought to address the serious risk that the eviction of a number of families, mostly children, would cause a serious breach of the peace, especially as the squatting had been a militant action to attract media attention and the squatters, whose situation was precarious and unstable, seemed to deserve reinforced protection. In addition, the refusal to grant police assistance had been referred to the administrative court and the authorities had tried to find a solution to the problem. The Court emphasised the discretion left to States in applying legislation in matters of social and economic policy, especially in the area of housing or social assistance for tenants in difficulty.
Moreover, the company Kentucky had belatedly challenged the first refusal to grant police assistance and, after the refusal of its third request, had no longer directly sought the enforcement of the eviction order. In addition, it had not indicated any plan to develop the premises in the two years prior to their occupation. In those conditions, the unquestionable interference with its interests had not been disproportionate in relation to the social and public order considerations.
Therefore, the substance of the applicant company’s right of access to a court, as guaranteed by Article 6 § 1, had not been breached. Consequently, its complaint was rejected as manifestly ill-founded.
The applicant company’s complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) largely overlapped with its complaint under Article 6, so the Court also rejected it as manifestly ill-founded.