State moratorium on evictions lawful in property acquirer’s case
In today’s Chamber judgment1 in the case of Béla Németh v. Hungary (application no. 73303/14) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
no violation Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned the applicant’s not being able to take possession of a property he had bought owing to a legal moratorium on evictions. State bodies had been exempt from the moratorium. He had had to wait two years before ultimately being able to exercise his ownership rights.
The Court found that the moratorium had had a basis in law, had served a legitimate interest, and, in particular, had not deprived him of his legitimate expectation regarding ownership of the property, merely delayed it.
The Court also found that the applicant’s situation had not been comparable to that of State actors and as such he had suffered no discrimination.
The applicant, Béla Miklós Németh, is a Hungarian national who was born in 1948 and lives in Kistarcsa (Hungary).
In 2014 the applicant bought a property at auction. It was being sold in judicial enforcement proceedings which had arisen from a debt.
A legal amendment to the Enforcement Act was introduced, placing a moratorium on evictions caused by the recovery of debts in an effort to mitigate the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. The moratorium did not apply to agents of the State. It initially had no set end date.
The applicant had not yet been given title to the property and the debtor could now not be evicted. The applicant submits that he was able to get title to and possession of the property only two years after he had purchased it.
Relying on Articles 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination), the applicant complained that he had been denied use of his property and that he had been discriminated against in that the relevant legislation had protected State-owned actors to the detriment of the private sector.
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 14 November 2014.
Decision of the Court
Article 1 of Protocol No. 1
The Government argued that the applicant had had an expectation that he would acquire the assetwhen he had bought the property. However that had been insufficient to engage his Convention rights, as he had not as yet been the owner. The Government also highlighted the societal need for the measures the State had taken. The applicant, however, stated that the property had been part of his portfolio of assets.
The Court considered that the applicant had at least a legitimate expectation of ownership under Hungarian law, constituting a possession for the purposes of the Convention. The application was admissible.
The Court reiterated that interferences with private property had to be lawful, had to pursue a legitimate aim in the public interest, and had to strike a balance between the general interest and the individual’s rights.
The parties did not dispute that the applicant had had his use of his property “controlled” by the State. The Court agreed.
The Court noted that the moratorium had had a basis in law. Questions around uncertainty in the relevant law were questions of fair balance, in the Court’s opinion.
The Court adjudged that the actions of the national legislature in enacting the moratorium had fallen within its discretion and had not been “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. The moratorium had met the public-interest requirements of the Convention.
The Court noted that a temporary suspension or staggering of enforcement of court orders fell within the discretion of the national authorities. The Court was aware of the crisis in Hungary at the time and the need to prevent large numbers of its citizens being made homeless. It furthermore found that the moratorium had not deprived the applicant of his legitimate expectation vis-à-vis the property, merely delayed his taking ownership. The Court also noted that the legislation had been quickly amended, with a sunset provision being added.
As the applicant had not had to bear an excessive individual burden, the Court found that there had been no violation of his rights.
The Court found Article 14 of the Convention applicable. It reiterated that States enjoyed wide discretion in the area of housing regulation, because of the complex social and political issues. In the present case the Court considered that although State actors had been exempted from the moratorium, that had been with a number of stipulations regarding actions to be taken.
Furthermore, the main operators in the area – that is to say providers of rental accommodation – were in the private sector, so inevitably the moratorium had applied more to them.
Ultimately, as the applicant’s situation had not been “relevantly similar” to those of State bodies, the Court stated that he could not be said to have suffered discrimination. There had accordingly been no violation of the Convention.
The judgment is available only in English.
(1) Under Articles 43 and 44 of the Convention, this Chamber judgment is not final. During the three-month period following its delivery, any party may request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court. If such a request is made, a panel of five judges considers whether the case deserves further examination. In that event, the Grand Chamber will hear the case and deliver a final judgment. If the referral request is refused, the Chamber judgment will become final on that day. Once a judgment becomes final, it is transmitted to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for supervision of its execution. Further information about the execution process can be found here: www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/execution.