Ignorance of procedures before the European Court reduces human rights protection

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) with concern points to the increase of applications submitted by citizens of Montenegro to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as well as the fact that a significant number of these applications are rejected for procedural reasons. Namely, these trends indicate a deep-rooted problem of mistrust in Montenegrin judicial institutions, but also to the absence of adequate protection for citizens who are not legally educated to independently prepare and represent their case before this Court, along with an evident deficit of proper legal expertise within the legal community to carry out these processes in a legally valid manner.

According to the data that CCE received from the Office of the Agent of Montenegro before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which correspond to the data presented by this Court in its annual reports, a total of 7,525 applications have been submitted from Montenegro since the restoration of Montenegro’s independence until the end of 2022. Out of these, 3835 were pending before the Court, and 3690 (49%) of the applications were swiftly declared inadmissible. It is noteworthy that 90% of applications declared inadmissible met that fate in the initial phase of the procedure due to not fulfilling the necessary admissibility criteria, containing technical errors and not complying with the prescribed guidelines outlined in the Guide for Submission of Applications. In this regard, the Court did not even consider the merits of these cases.

By 17 July 2023, the European Court has issued 150 decisions (71 judgments and 79 decisions) concerning Montenegro, of which 67 judgments (app. 45%) have established a violation of at least one convention right in Montenegro. The most common violation is the violation of the right to a fair trial (as many as 46 cases, or almost 67%).

It is important to point out that by dismissing these applications in the early stages of the proceedings without delving into the merits, the possibility of pointing out the existence of a violation of any convention right may be missed. This makes this problem even more complex because, due to technical mistakes or lack of legal knowledge, parties are deprived of the opportunity to present the violation of their rights and receive adequate compensation.

The decision on inadmissibility, made by an individual judge in the initial phase, is final, and there is no legal remedy against it nor a clarification can be requested from the Court. This inability to appeal further victimizes citizens who, apart from being unable to adequately exercise their rights before domestic courts, remain denied protection before the European Court in Strasbourg due to insufficient legal knowledge or inadequate legal advice they received.

All this indicates the urgent need for informing and raising awareness among citizens about the proper procedure for submitting applications in order to avoid technical errors and enable qualified consideration of their rights before this Court. This includes ensuring adequate legal advice for citizens to guide them through legal process before this Court, which is a prerequisite for the protection of their rights.

The CCE assesses that the state, through the system of free legal aid institutionalized through the Offices of free legal aid in basic courts, must provide citizens with the necessary support in preparing applications to avoid procedural and legal errors. In this context, the CCE highlights the key role of the Office of the State Agent in providing proactive support to citizens as well as strengthening the capacity of legal professionals involved in preparing applications before the European Court of Human Rights.

Ensuring accessible and quality legal assistance for citizens who face difficulties in submitting applications is not only important for protecting their rights, but also for preserving the integrity and reputation of the legal system of Montenegro. Successfully addressing these challenges requires the engagement of all relevant institutions and civil society organizations to create an environment in which citizens can adequately and efficiently present their cases before the European Court in Strasbourg, leading to the preservation of citizens’ rights and the strengthening of rule of rights in Montenegro.

Tamara Milaš, Human Rights Programme Coordinator