The dismissal of a Serbian language teacher for not using the standard Croatian language violated the Convention

In the case of Mile Novaković v. Croatia (application no. 73544/14, 17.12.2020) the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The case concerned a teacher’s complaint about being dismissed in 1999 for giving his classes in Serbian rather than in Croatian. Of Serb ethnicity, he had lived and worked in Croatia for most of his professional life and at the time of his dismissal was working at a secondary school in Eastern Slavonia, in an area which had been peacefully reintegrated into Croatian territory after the war. 

Following an inspection carried out only on teachers of Serb ethnicity, the applicant was initially prohibited from teaching in administrative proceedings. The Administrative Court ultimately set aside that decision in 2006, on the grounds that the question of which language the classes at the applicant’s school were meant to be taught in at the time had not been conclusively established. In the meantime, the school dismissed the applicant in March 1999 for failing to use the standard Croatian while teaching, as provided for under the relevant domestic law. It concluded that it could not transfer the applicant because there were no posts in the school for teaching in Serbian. Nor could he be provided with training as he could not be expected to learn Croatian given that he was 55 years old at the time.

The Government argued that the applicant’s dismissal had been necessary to protect the right of pupils to an education in the Croat language. While the Court in no way wished to undermine that aim or its importance in the specific context of the Eastern Slavonia region at the time, it noted that no alternatives to dismissal which would have allowed the applicant to align his teaching with the legislation in force had ever been contemplated in his case.

The Court found that neither the school nor any of the domestic courts had ever provided a detailed and convincing explanation as to why the applicant’s age would have been an insurmountable impediment to him adjusting his teaching plan so that he could teach in the standard Croatian. Moreover, the school had rejected the possibility of additional training, purely on the grounds of the applicant’s age and years of service. Indeed, given the undeniable proximity of the two languages concerned, as well as the fact that the applicant had lived and worked in Croatia for most of his professional life, it was difficult to understand why the option of providing him with additional training had not been explored.  

Lastly, no teachers of Croat ethnicity had been inspected at the applicant’s school. In the post-war context of the Eastern Slavonia region at the time, singling out a certain group of persons on the basis of language, which was closely related to their ethnicity, could potentially raise an issue of compatibility with the European Convention and the Croatian Constitution. The Court concluded that the applicant’s dismissal from work had not corresponded to a pressing social need, nor had it been proportionate to the aim sought to be achieved, in violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

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