The European Court of Human Rights (Fifth Section), in the case Goldnagl v. Austria – 7 September 2017 (Application no. 6822/12) was faced with a complaint of a violation of the “reasonable time” requirement ex Article 6 par. 1 of the Convention in respect of a proceedings on spousal maintenace started in 1991 and still pending.
The applicant maintained that the length of proceedings was in breach of the “reasonable time” requirement laid down in Article 6 of the Convention. She contended that the proceedings had been delayed by the domestic courts, as they could have estimated T.G.’s income and, on that basis, fixed an amount of maintenance from the very beginning of the proceedings.
The Government contended that the length of proceedings has not yet violated the applicant’s right to an adequate procedural duration due to the complexity of the proceedings. They argued that the maintenance proceedings were so comprehensive, because T.G.’s complex income and property situation made it necessary to hold numerous hearings, to question thirty witnesses, to obtain three expert opinions and several supplements and to request information from the Swiss authorities by means of letters of request. The fact that the applicant had amended her claim several times, requested suspension of the proceedings for more than two years and the postponement of several hearings due to her health significantly contributed to the length and complexity of the proceedings. In addition, T.G. challenged several interim decisions, which further contributed to their duration.
The Court first reiterated that the reasonableness of the length of proceedings must be assessed in the light of the circumstances of the case and with reference to the following criteria: the complexity of the case, the conduct of the applicant and the relevant authorities and what was at stake for the applicant in the dispute (see, among many other authorities, Frydlender v. France [GC], no. 30979/96, § 43, ECHR 2000-VII).
In the present case, the Court found that the proceedings at issue were quite complex, in particular because there were a number of sets of proceedings running simultaneously. Apart from the main maintenance proceedings before the District Court and the parallel pending provisional maintenance proceedings, there were also T.G.’s private insolvency proceedings and later further maintenance proceedings at the Salzburg District Court against T.G.’s liquidator. Some of the delays in the main maintenance proceedings were caused by T.G.’s and his liquidator’s requests and others by necessary procedural steps. The applicant, who modified her claim several times and requested the questioning of further witnesses by means of letters, further contributed to delays.
However, the fact that T.G. made use of all legal remedies available in order to oppose the applicant’s claim could not be held against either of the parties. Even though some of the delays in the proceedings, such as the interruption of the main maintenance proceedings for more than two years, could be attributed to the applicant, the Court did not lose sight of the overall duration of the proceedings. Moreover, it appeared that major delays occurred because of long periods of inactivity by the domestic courts. The Court therefore took the view that the complexity of the proceedings and the conduct of the parties were insufficient to explain an overall duration of the proceedings of twenty-five years and more than eleven months.
Having regard to its case-law on the subject (see Baumann v. Austria, no.76809/01, § 45, 7 October 2004; Eigenstiller v. Austria, no. 42205/06, § 38 et seq, 14 October 2010; and Hauptmann v. Austria [Committee], no. 61708/12, § 30, 24 April 2014), the Court considered that in the instant case the length of the proceedings was excessive and failed to meet the “reasonable time” requirement. It then concluded that there was a breach of Article 6 par. 1 of the Convention.
As to the applicability of Article 41 of the Convention (“If the Court finds that there has been a violation of the Convention or the Protocols thereto, and if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made, the Court shall, if necessary, afford just satisfaction to the injured party.”), the Court did not discern any causal link between the violation found and the pecuniary damage alleged; it therefore rejected this claim. However, the Court found that the applicant must have sustained non‑pecuniary damage, which could not be compensated by the finding of a violation. Assessing the claim on an equitable basis, it awarded the applicant EUR 17,000 under this head.