Violation of the right to fair a trial within a reasonable time before the Constitutional Court of Montenegro

In the case of Siništaj v. Montenegro (application no. 31529/15, 23.09.2021), the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention on account of the excessive length of the proceedings before the Constitutional Court.

The case concerned the conviction of the applicant by the High Court in Podgorica of associating with others for the purposes of anticonstitutional activities and preparing actions against the constitutional order and security of Montenegro, and sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment. That judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court on 18 June 2009 and 25 December 2009 respectively. The proceedings involved sixteen other defendants. On 26 March 2010 the applicant and one co-defendant lodged a constitutional appeal, but in the mean, time the judge rapporteur serving at the time, who prepared a draft judgment died and the case was assigned to another judge. On 23 July 2014 the Constitutional Court dismissed the applicant’s constitutional appeal. 

The Court noted that the period to be taken into consideration began on 26 March 2010, when the applicant lodged his constitutional appeal, and ended on 18 December 2014, when the Constitutional Court’s decision was served on his representative. It thus lasted four years, eight months and twenty-two days.

As regards the complexity of the case, the Court can accept that the applicant’s case was somewhat complex on account of the issues that it raised. However, the Court does not consider that these issues were exceptionally complex, or that the impact of the Constitutional Court’s judgment went beyond the individual application.

The Court took due note of the arguments raised by the Government. However, it considers that they cannot sufficiently explain the delay in the proceedings at issue. In particular, the constitutional changes referred to by the Government did not relate to the issues raised by the applicant in his constitutional appeal, but rather to the election, mandate and dismissal of the Constitutional Court judges and its president. In addition, further legislative changes explicitly provided that the judges in office at the time would continue their work until the new judges were elected, thereby ensuring the continuous functioning of the Constitutional Court. Moreover, the applicant’s case was assigned to another judge in August 2013 at the earliest, by which time it had already been pending for three years and four months.

With regard to the conduct of the applicant, the Court observes that the Government did not submit that he had contributed to the length of the Constitutional Court proceedings in any way. The Court has no reason to hold otherwise. As regards what was at stake for the applicant, this concerned, inter alia, his right to a defence in the criminal proceedings and, ultimately, his conviction for serious criminal offences. Had the Constitutional Court ruled in his favour, it would have quashed the final decision given in the criminal proceedings and would have ordered that the case be re-examined.

Although the Court accepts that its role as guardian of the Constitution sometimes makes it particularly necessary for a constitutional court to take into account considerations other than the mere chronological order in which cases are entered on the list, such as the nature of a case and its importance in political and social terms, the Court finds that a period exceeding four years and three months to decide on a case such as the applicant’s, and in particular in view of what was at stake for him, was excessive and failed to meet the “reasonable time” requirement.

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