- Under the European Convention on Human Rights, people have the right to possess property that is lawfully theirs. Governments cannot take property away without proper reasons - and neither can other people.
- For example, if a government takes land away from someone for public use, the former owner has to be properly compensated.
- Judgments from the Strasbourg court have helped people recover houses and money that had been unlawfully taken away. They have also led countries to create rules to make sure that the right to property is protected.
After fleeing the horrors of war, genocide survivor Fata Orlović returned to her home near Srebrenica, only to find that a church had been built on her land. Over the next two decades, Fata fought tenaciously to get the land back. Her legal battle ended in victory at the European Court of Human Rights. The court’s judgment caused Bosnia and Herzegovina to finally remove the church.
Detonations from an open-pit coalmine shook Dimitar Yordanov’s home after the state failed to rehouse him and his family. The European court found Bulgaria responsible for the fact that the house remained in an environmental hazard zone, in breach of Dimitar’s right to property. The court awarded him compensation for the house that he was ultimately forced to abandon.
Thousands of people could not access their ‘old’ foreign currency savings for decades after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The European court ruled that Serbia and Slovenia’s delay in enabling savers to recover their funds had breached their rights. It ordered both countries to make changes to allow depositors to access their savings. Serbia and Slovenia then set up successful repayment schemes.
When Karol Rummi’s husband died, his valuable possessions were arbitrarily confiscated by the police. When Mrs Rummi tried to get them back, she was not allowed to make her case in court and told that the property now belonged to the state. The European court ruled that her right to property had been breached. She was compensated and the law was changed to prevent similar problems happening again.
After the fall of communism in Romania, laws were passed giving people the right to claim back property nationalised by the old regime. Tens of thousands of people made such claims, but a huge number faced delays and failures to deal with their applications. The European court ruled that the system must be reformed – leading to a new law which made the restitution system more effective.
Ruža Jeličić was a citizen of the former Yugoslavia. She worked in Germany in the 1970s and 80s and kept savings of German marks in a bank in the former Yugoslavia. However, along with thousands of others with foreign currency savings, she was banned from withdrawing the money after moving back home. After Mrs Jeličić stopped working and her husband died, she had no money to live on.
The government evicted the inhabitants of a small village for counter-terrorism purposes. They were not allowed to return for over 10 years. In the meantime, they were given no alternative housing or money, and they lived in extreme poverty. The Strasbourg court ruled that their rights had been violated. A new law introduced compensation for damages suffered during anti-terrorist activities.
Anatoliy Burdov was exposed to radiation whilst working on the emergency response to the Chernobyl disaster. He was entitled to certain social benefits, but the authorities refused to pay - even when ordered to do so by Russian courts. The Strasbourg court said that this violated Mr Burdov’s rights. As a result, reforms were introduced to improve the enforcement of judgments.
Two families owned some land in Thessaloniki. The authorities took away part of the land to carry out public works - but the families were paid only a fraction of the land’s true value. The Strasbourg court found that this violated their right to property. Greek case-law was subsequently changed, requiring courts to properly compensate people when their property is expropriated.
Catherine Schneider was ethically opposed to hunting, but she was forced to allow it on her land under an old law. The Strasbourg court ruled that forcing her to be part of a hunting syndicate breached her basic rights. The law was changed to allow people to follow their conscience on hunting.