In 1959, the European Court of Human Rights was established in Strasbourg under the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Since its establishment, the Court has found more than 24,000 violations of the fundamental rights and freedoms which are guaranteed to every person under the Convention. What, however, should be done in a situation where the addressees of decisions made by state authorities, that violate the law, are legal persons acting
in legal and economic turnover in the form of commercial law companies?
The basis for lodging an individual complaint to the ECHR is Article 34 of the aforementioned Convention. This provision states that any person, non-governmental organization, or group of individuals who believes that their rights or freedoms have been violated by the administrative organs of a state, that is a signatory to the Convention, may bring a complaint.The first criterion in that provision, therefore, defines the catalog of entities capable of bringing such a complaint. The second criterion is that the applicant believes that the state authorities have infringed his or her rights or freedoms guaranteed to him by the Convention. The second criterion is that the applicant believes that the state authorities have infringed fundamental rights or freedoms guaranteed to him by the Convention.
The catalog of entities indicates that any person, non-governmental organization, or group of individuals has the right to lodge a complaint. The use of the term “any person” in the Polish translation does not unequivocally determine whether it should be understood to mean only natural persons, or natural persons together with legal persons. In this context, one may also point to the discrepancy between the French and English translations of the Convention. The French translation “toutte persone physique” clearly indicates a natural person, whereas
the English translation “any person”, similarly to the Polish one, leaves the field of interpretation open.
A direct answer concerning the rules of interpretation may be found in Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention. This provision extends the catalog of rights protected by the Convention with the right to property and explicitly indicates that every natural and legal person has the right to respect his property. In the light of the above, the right of legal persons to bring a complaint before the Court can be regarded as indisputable, which has also been reflected in the Court’s case law.
Furthermore, due to the discrepancies in the legislation of the States signatory to the Convention, the catalog of entities indicated in Article 34 of the Convention also includes the term “non-governmental organization”, which is not defined under Polish law. The objective term, using a negative criterion, directly indicates that the addressee in question is an organization that does not constitute an element of state authority. Therefore, on the basis of this criterion, it is also possible to derive the legitimacy of legal persons, which are not public administration entities, to make an individual complaint to the ECtHR.
However, the status of a legal entity does not in itself determine the possibility of filing a complaint to the ECtHR. The second criterion adopted in the text of Article 34 of the Convention clearly states the necessity of violation by public authorities of the rights or freedoms of these individuals. The Convention and its subsequent protocols establish a broad catalog of protected rights and freedoms guaranteeing fundamental issues in the 21st century such as the right to life, the right to a fair trial and the right to protection of property. Infringement of any of the established rights or freedoms constitutes grounds for a complaint. It is also obvious that a legal person can only challenge a violation of the right to which it may be an addressee therefore a joint-stock company will not be able to accuse state authorities of a violation of the prohibition of torture, but only of those rights that actually affect it, i.e., for example, the right to a fair trial or the aforementioned right to respect for property.
Summing up the discussion on the legitimacy of legal persons, including commercial law companies, to bring an individual complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, it should be indicated that these entities are entitled to bring such complaints in situations where their rights or freedoms have been violated. The aim of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is to guarantee respect for the rights of every person, whether natural or legal. Failure to guarantee any of those persons the right to challenge the actions of state authorities by means of an individual complaint would therefore be contrary to the very nature of the Convention and the reasons for which the Court was established.
Trainee Attorney-at-Law Aleksander Husar