The case concerned a claim for damages brought against - amongst others - the Holy See. The claim was brought by 24 victims of sexual abuse. They claimed to have suffered damages as a result of the structurally deficient way in which the Holy See dealt with the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The Belgian court declared itself incompetent against the Holy See because of foreign sovereign immunity from jurisdiction. According to the victims, they were thus denied access to justice and invoked Article 6(1) ECHR before the ECHR.
In its ruling, the ECtHR found that there had been no violation of Article 6(1) of the Convention. First, the ECtHR reiterated that the grant of immunity is not to be regarded as a limitation on a substantive right but as a procedural impediment to the jurisdiction of national courts to adjudicate on that right (par. 59). Subsequently the Court considered that it has accepted that the grant of State immunity in civil proceedings pursues the legitimate aim of observing international law in order to promote comity and good relations between States through respect for the sovereignty of another State (par. 60). Such grant of immunity is also proportionate. Measures taken by a State which reflect generally recognised principles of international law on State immunity cannot in principle be regarded as imposing a disproportionate restriction on the right of access to a court as guaranteed by Article 6(1). Just as the right of access to a court is inherent in the guarantee of a fair trial granted by that Article, so certain restrictions on access must be regarded as inherent in it. State immunity from jurisdictions is such a restriction (par. 61).
Insofar as the applicants allege that State immunity from jurisdiction cannot be maintained in cases involving inhuman or degrading treatment, the ECtHR recalled that it has already considered similar arguments on several occasions. However, it had concluded on each occasion that, in the state of international law, it cannot be said that States no longer enjoy jurisdictional immunity in cases involving serious violations of human rights law or international humanitarian law, or violations of a rule of jus cogens. In Jones and Others, the ECtHR referred in this regard to the judgment of the International Court of Justice in Germany v. Italy, which had "clearly" established that "no jus cogens exception to State immunity had yet crystallised". Reiterating this finding, the ECtHR held in J.C. et al. v. Belgium that while in this area a future development of customary international law cannot be ruled out, the applicants had not adduced any evidence to suggest that the current state of international law includes such exception. (par. 64).
Finally, the applicants argued that the immunity of the Holy See from jurisdiction has the effect that victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are completely denied access to justice. Referring to its previous case law (which in turn refers to para. 101 of the ICJ’s judgement in Germany v. Italy), the ECtHR recalled that the compatibility of the grant of immunity from jurisdiction to a State with Article 6(1) ECHR does not depend on the existence of reasonable alternatives for the resolution of the dispute. However, it is also aware that the interests at stake for the applicants are very serious and relate in an underlying manner to serious acts of sexual abuse falling within the scope of Article 3 ECHR and that the existence of an alternative is at least desirable. In this respect, however, the ECtHR noted that the applicants did not find themselves in a situation where there was no remedy at all (par. 71).
This brings the ECtHR to the decision that the Belgian courts' rejection of their jurisdiction to hear the civil liability action brought by the applicants against the Holy See did not depart from the generally recognised principles of international law on State immunity and that the restriction on the right of access to a court cannot therefore be regarded as disproportionate to the legitimate aims pursued. There had therefore been no violation of art. 6(1) ECHR.
More information? Please contact Cathalijne van der Plas.
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