A court judgment ordering an attorney to pay an excessively determined amount of damage compensation violated his freedom of expression

The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights the case of Pais Pires de Lima v. Portugal (application no. 70465/12, 12.02.2019).

The case concerned a complaint alleging a breach of freedom of expression following a civil judgment ordering a lawyer to pay damages to a judge whose personal and professional honour and reputation he had attacked.

The applicant wrote to the High Council of the Judiciary (HCJ) to complain of a lack of impartiality on the part of a judge R.P., denouncing a case of “corruption” and a “scam”, in the wake of a case in which he had been a defence lawyer.

The applicant was found responsible in civil proceedings for charges against the judge R.P. in a letter addressed to the HCJ, in which he suggested the opening of a disciplinary investigation against the judge. Following a lawsuit filed by a judge R.P., the domestic courts unanimously held that the allegations of “fraud,” the bias and corruption alleged by the applicant in his letter were particularly serious and challenged the judge’s personality, honor and professional integrity as a representative of judiciary. Since the applicant also charged the judge with bribe, the ECtHR considered it appropriate that the domestic courts required relevant evidence to substantiate the allegation made by the applicant. The domestic considered the applicant’s allegations to be unfounded.

The Court found in particular that the grounds given by the national courts for imposing civil liability appeared relevant and sufficient. However, the Court considered that the amount of compensation that the applicant had been ordered to pay to Judge R.P. was excessive, especially as the accusations had not been made publicly but through a complaint in a letter sent to the HCJ. Although the statements in question had been discussed in judicial circles, the Court held that the applicant could not be held responsible for leaks from proceedings that were supposed to remain confidential. The Court concluded that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of expression had not been “necessary in a democratic society”.

References from the official website of the European Court of Human Rights