“Long delays in
court proceedings threaten the rule of law”
[15/10/07] Courts in Europe are not all perfect. One unfortunate reality in
many countries is the excessively lengthy proceedings. In spite of a broad
recognition that “justice delayed is justice denied”, too little has been done
to secure conclusions in courts within a reasonable time. We know this because
of the huge number of complaints which are brought before the European Court of
Human Rights in Strasbourg from France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Turkey
and other countries.
Unduly delayed court proceedings are in themselves a violation of the European
Convention which provides that “everyone is entitled to a fair and public
hearing within a reasonable time” (Article 6 § 1). This provision applies to
both civil and criminal trials, as well as certain disciplinary and
The subject matter of certain cases calls for special diligence on the part of
the authorities. So called “priority” cases include those where one of the
parties is ill, or where the issue concerns an employment dispute, a child-care matter or a claim for compensation as a result from medical
malpractice. In such cases it is particularly important that there is a quick
The European Convention also specifically mentions that everyone arrested or
detained has the right to be brought promptly before a judicial authority and is
entitled to a trial within a reasonable time (Article 5§ 3).
In a number of resolutions, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has
stated that excessive delays in the administration of justice constitute an
important danger, in particular for the rule of law.
This warning should be taken seriously. Inordinately long court proceedings tend
to undermine the credibility in the justice system as a whole. The general
public needs to feel confident that the State is able to dispense justice in a
timely fashion. Otherwise justice is illusory and citizens may be tempted to
take matters into their own hands. This is potentially dangerous.
Legal certainty requires that matters of dispute are resolved and peaceful
coexistence is restored. Court users should be able to foresee when a court
proceeding is likely end. Lack of predictability creates frustration and an
unfortunate feeling of powerlessness.
Excessive delays may also have very concrete negative implications for the
parties to the proceedings, whether claimant or defendant:
- As time passes, evidence disappears and new evidence has to be adduced. This
may cause practical as well as financial difficulties;
- Witnesses may forget the events at issue, lose credibility or move on;
- Court costs increase.
Furthermore, lengthy proceedings may themselves result in breaches of other
human rights. In custody or parental authority cases, for example, delays in
deciding matters between parents can have decisive or irreversible results for
one of the parties.
Of course, it has to be emphasized that some cases do reasonably necessitate
lengthy examination. Complex cases (either legally or factually) or those
spanning a number of levels of appeal, for example. In addition, the applicant’s
conduct cannot be ignored. However, long periods of inactivity on the part of
the court in question should be examined closely.
An effective remedy before a national authority is particularly important in
cases involving allegations of unreasonable length of proceedings. This was
emphasized by the Strasbourg Court in the Kudła v Poland judgment of 26 October
2000. National authorities are of course better placed than the European Court
to act quickly to accelerate pending proceedings and/or provide compensation.
Following the impetus given by the Court in this judgment, several solutions
have been put forward in member states in order to provide effective remedies
allowing violations to be found and adequate redress to be provided. These
include measures to accelerate proceedings in ongoing cases as well as financial
reparation for damage already incurred.
The European Convention system has an interest in ensuring that its long-term
effectiveness is not jeopardized by an ever-increasing number of applications
before the Strasbourg Court. After all, the onus on implementing the Convention
lies on the State parties themselves first and foremost.
Introducing a domestic legal remedy for lengthy court proceedings is a first
step, but not a final solution. More work still needs to be done to tackle the
problem at its root: better case management, judicial training, penalties for
late submitting of documents/evidence, the setting of strict deadlines, more
resources given to increasing the number of judges as well as court clerks and
In this way, improvements in the administration of justice help to bolster the
rule of law.
Venice Commission has evaluated the effectiveness of the domestic remedies:
the Effectiveness of National Remedies in Respect of Excessive Length of
Proceedings (CDL-AD(2006)036rev, December 2006)
The Council of Europe’s European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ)
has published in December 2006 two reports on this problem:
“Length of court
proceedings in the member states of the Council of Europe based on the case law
of the European Court of Human Rights” (CEPEJ(2006)15)
“Time management of justice systems: a Northern Europe Study” (CEPEJ(2006)14)
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