Justified dismissal of a whistleblower

In the case of Gawlik v. Liechtenstein (application no. 23922/19, 16.02.2021) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned a doctor who raised suspicions that euthanasia had been taking place in his hospital. The applicant complained to the prosecutor’s office (he did not go through the hospital’s complaints system first). The police took several investigative steps. Much media attention followed. e applicant was suspended on 26 September 2014. On 17 October 2014 he was dismissed without notice, with failure to go through the hospital’s internal complaints system cited.

The Court reiterated that an interference with freedom of expression must be, among other things, “necessary in a democratic society”, and proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. The Court agreed with the domestic courts that the applicant should have verified the information better, considering the seriousness of the allegations, by cross-referencing with paper medical files. 

The Court did not rule on whether the applicant had been obliged to raise his suspicions inhouse first, but it did determine that the information he had disclosed was of considerable public interest. The Court took note of the severity of dismissing the applicant, considering that it must have had a chilling effect. The Court noted that the applicant had not acted with improper motives. Nevertheless, the applicant’s dismissal had been justified, especially given the effect on the hospital’s and another staff member’s reputations. 

The Court concluded that the interference with the applicant’s rights had been proportionate. There had accordingly been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention.

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