Jeg har tidligere kritiseret en afgørelse fra Den Europæiske Menneskerettighedsdomstol (EMD) her på Punditokraterne, hvilket jeg desværre føler mig kaldet til igen. Afgørelsen er ikke ny (2004) men fortjener alligevel opmærksomhed idet den demonstrerer hvor langt visse dommeres opfattelse af menneskerettigheder ligger fra den opfattelse af menneskerettigheder disse blev født ud af.
Faktum i Pla and Puncernau v. Andorra, var at en kvinde i 1939 anførte i sit testamente, at hendes arving alene kunne give hendes ejendom videre til et barn eller barnebarn født ud af et "legitimate and canonical marriage". Kvindens søn havde indgået ægteskab og med sin hustru adopteret et barn. Et par andre familiemedlemmer gjorde nu ved de andorranske domstole gældende, at den adopterede søn ikke kunne arve, idet han ikke opfyldt betingelserne herfor, som fastsat af kvinden i hendes testamente. Heri erklærede domstolene sig enige.
EMD fik nu forelagt sagen med påstand om at retten til familieliv (artikel) og diskriminationsforbuddet (artikel 14 i forbindelse med artikel 8) i EMRK var overtrådt.
Flertallets konklusion lyder bl.a. som følger:
Clearly the Andorran authorities cannot be held liable for any interference with the applicants' private and family life any more than the Andorran State can be held liable for a breach of any positive obligations to ensure effective respect for family life. The applicants confined themselves to challenging a judicial decision that had declared a private deed disposing of an estate to be contrary to the testatrix's wishes. The only outstanding question is that of the alleged incompatibility with the Convention of the Andorran courts' interpretation of domestic law.
The Court considers that, contrary to the Government's affirmations, no question relating to the testatrix's free will is in issue in the present case. Only the interpretation of the testamentary disposition falls to be considered. The Court's task is therefore confined to determining whether, in the circumstances of the case, the first applicant was a victim of discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the Convention.
Admittedly, the Court is not in theory required to settle disputes of a purely private nature. That being said, in exercising the European supervision incumbent on it, it cannot remain passive where a national court's interpretation of a legal act, be it a testamentary disposition, a private contract, a public document, a statutory provision or an administrative practice appears unreasonable, arbitrary or, as in the present case, blatantly inconsistent with the prohibition of discrimination established by Article 14 and more broadly with the principles underlying the Convention
In the present case the High Court of Justice's interpretation of the testamentary disposition in question had the effect of depriving the first applicant of his right to inherit under his grandmother's estate and benefiting his cousin's daughters in this regard. Furthermore, the setting aside of the codicil of 3 July 1995 also resulted in the second applicant losing her right to the life tenancy of the estate assets left her by her late husband.
Since the testamentary disposition, as worded by Carolina Pujol, made no distinction between biological and adopted children it was not necessary to interpret it in that way. Such an interpretation therefore amounts to the judicial deprivation of an adopted child's inheritance rights.
61. The Court reiterates that a distinction is discriminatory for the purposes of Article 14 if it has no objective and reasonable justification, that is if it does not pursue a legitimate aim or if there is not a "reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised". In the present case the Court does not discern any legitimate aim pursued by the decision in question or any objective and reasonable justification on which the distinction made by the domestic court might be based. In the Court's view, where a child is adopted (under the full adoption procedure moreover) the child is in the same legal position as a biological child of his or her parents in all respects: relations and consequences connected with his family life and the resulting property rights. The Court has stated on many occasions that very weighty reasons need to be put forward before a difference in treatment on the ground of birth out of wedlock can be regarded as compatible with the Convention.
Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that reasons of public policy required the degree of protection afforded by the Andorran appellate court to the appellants to prevail over that afforded to the applicant.
62. The Court reiterates that the Convention, which is a dynamic text and entails positive obligations for States, is a living instrument, to be interpreted in the light of present-day conditions and that great importance is attached today in the member States of the Council of Europe to the question of equality between children born in and children born out of wedlock as regards their civil rights. Thus, even supposing that the testamentary disposition in question did require an interpretation by the domestic courts, that interpretation could not be made exclusively in the light of the social conditions existing when the will was made or at the time of the testatrix's death, namely in 1939 and 1949, particularly where a period of fifty-seven years had elapsed between the date when the will was made and the date on which the estate passed to the heirs. Where such a long period has elapsed, during which profound social, economic and legal changes have occurred, the courts cannot ignore these new realities. The same is true with regard to wills: any interpretation, if interpretation there must be, should endeavour to ascertain the testator's intention and render the will effective, while bearing in mind that "the testator cannot be presumed to have meant what he did not say" and without overlooking the importance of interpreting the testamentary disposition in the manner that most closely corresponds to domestic law and to the Convention as interpreted in the Court's case-law.
63. Having regard to the foregoing, the Court considers that there has been a violation of Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 8.
Med andre ord var EMD villig til at blande sig i en ren privat konflikt og indlade sig på en særdeles indgående og konkret fortolkning af et frit oprettet testamente, hvis indhold man desuden tilsidesatte. EMDs dom er således ikke bare undergravende for nationale retssystemer men indskrænker samtidig individets ret til at disponere over sin ejendom som det vil. Dommen er et frontalangreb på "the rule of law", idet national privatret gøres vilkårlig, og dermed mister sin forudsigelighed for de individer, hvis dispositioner hviler derpå. Heldigvis forstod både den engelske dommer Sir Nicholas Bratza og den polske dommer Lech Garlicki flertallets skråplan og skrev et par dissenser som indeholder meget visdom.
The fact that, under the Convention, the legislative or judicial organs of the State are precluded from discriminating between individuals (by, for instance, creating distinctions based on biological or adoptive links between children and parents in the enjoyment of inheritance rights) does not mean that private individuals are similarly precluded from discriminating by drawing such distinctions when disposing of their proper
ty. It must in principle b
e open to a testator, in the exercise of his or her right of property, to choose to whom to leave the property and, by the terms of the will, to differentiate between potential heirs, by (inter alia) distinguishing between biological and adoptive children and grandchildren. As pointed out in the opinion of Judge Garlicki the testator's right of choice finds protection under the Convention, namely in Article 8 and in Article 1 of Protocol No. 1. The State must in principle give effect, through its judicial organs, to such private testamentary disposition and cannot be held to be in breach of its Convention obligations (including its obligations under Article 14) by doing so, save in exceptional circumstances where the disposition may be said to be repugnant to the fundamental ideals of the Convention or to aim at the destruction of the rights and freedoms set forth therein. This remains true even if there may appear to be no objective and reasonable justification for the distinction made by a testator.
This case relates to two important principles which determine the scope of the Court's jurisdiction: the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of state action. In respect of the latter, it should be noted that the case did not involve any direct interference by the national courts with the applicant's Article 8 rights. The courts were confronted with a will which contained a clause discriminating against adopted children vis-à-vis biological children. The courts first determined the correct interpretation of the will and, in accordance with that interpretation, gave effect to it. Thus, the real question before our Court is to what extent the Convention enjoys a "horizontal" effect, i.e. an effect prohibiting private parties from taking action which interferes with the rights and liberties of other private parties. Consequently, to what extent is the State under an obligation either to prohibit or to refuse to give effect to such private action? However, under our case-law it is obvious that there may be certain positive obligations of the State to adopt measures designed to secure respect for Convention rights, even in the sphere of the relations of individuals between themselves.
Nevertheless, it seems equally obvious that the level of protection against a private action cannot be the same as the level of protection against state action. The very fact that, under the Convention, the State may be prohibited from taking certain action (such as introducing inheritance distinctions between children does not mean that private persons are similarly precluded from taking such action. In other words, what is prohibited for the State need not necessarily also be prohibited for individuals. Of course, in many areas such prohibition may appear necessary and well-founded. However, it should not be forgotten that every prohibition of private action (or any refusal to judicially enforce such action), while protecting the rights of some persons, unavoidably restricts the rights of other persons. This is particularly visible in regard to "purely" private-law relations, such as inheritance. The whole idea of a will is to depart from the general system of inheritance, i.e. to discriminate between potential heirs. But at the same time, the testator must retain a degree of freedom to dispose of his/her property and this freedom is protected by both Article 8 and Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention. Thus, in my opinion, the rule should be that the State must give effect to private testamentary dispositions, save in exceptional circumstances where the disposition may be said to be repugnant to the fundamental ideals of the Convention or to aim at the destruction of the rights and freedoms set forth therein.
As in respect of all exceptional circumstances, however, their presence must be clearly demonstrated and cannot be assumed. No exceptional circumstances of the above-mentioned kind existed in the Pla and Puncernau case. The testatrix had taken a decision, which was perhaps unjust, but cannot, even by present-day standards, be regarded as repugnant to the fundamental ideals of the Convention or otherwise destructive of Convention rights. Thus, the State was under a duty to respect and give effect to her will and was neither allowed nor expected to substitute its own inheritance criteria for what had been decided in the will. Accordingly, the State cannot be held to be in breach of the Convention by giving effect to this will.
EMD har truffet mange vigtige afgørelser, men vildskud som Pla underminerer EMDs status og gør dens praksis ujævn og usammenhængende. Det er ikke troværdigt på den ene side, at kræve at staterne i Europarådet undlader at krænke deres borgeres rettigheder og på den anden side kræve, at samme stater blander sig aktivt i borgernes private sfære. Jeg vil i en senere post sammenligne EMDs og Amerikanske Højesterets praksis vedrørende positive forpligtelser og horisontal effekt af grundrettigheder, hvilket vil afsløre nogle sigende forskelle om opfattelsen af statens rolle i forhold til dens borgere hos de to organer.