Tech & Rights

The Right to Information Is a Human Right, Strasbourg Rules

Hungarian authorities erred when they refused to provide a human rights NGO access to information – an essential part of freedom of expression – about the employment of pro deo lawyers.

by Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled in the case of Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary that Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was violated by Hungarian authorities.

Access to information

The case concerned the Hungarian authorities' denial to provide the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO, with information about the employment of pro deo lawyers. The denial was made because authorities had qualified the information as personal data that cannot be revealed under Hungarian law.

The ECtHR considered that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee needed the information they requested in their capacity of an NGO to finish research on the functioning of the pro deo lawyer system. The research conducted by the NGO was intended to contribute to a debate on a matter of general interest.

"By denying it access to the requested information, which was ready and available, the domestic authorities impaired the applicant NGO’s exercise of its freedom to receive and impart information, in a manner striking at the very substance of its Article 10 rights," the court found.

The ECtHR noted that the subject of research concerned the efficiency of the Hungarian system of pro deo lawyers, a topic that is closely related to the fundamental right to fair and speedy trial. The court pointed out that, in its intended survey, the NGO wished to explore its theory that the pattern of recurrent appointments of the same lawyers was dysfunctional, casting doubt on the adequacy of the scheme.

'Margin of appreciation'

The Strasbourg court determined that the privacy rights of pro deo lawyers would not be negatively affected by fulfilling the request of the organization, because the data did not concern information outside of the public domain. The court added that in this specific case, any restriction of the publication by the NGO - which aimed to add to the public discourse - should have been thoroughly assessed.

Finally, the court opined that the arguments of the Hungarian authorities were insufficient to prove that the restriction of freedom of information of the NGO were "necessary in a democratic society."

The court judged, with reference to the "margin of appreciation" of the state, that there had been no proportionate relationship between the restriction of freedom of information on the one hand (the refusal to provide the names of the pro deo lawyers, as well as the amount of times that they were appointed as pro deo lawyers in certain districts), and the goal (the protection of the rights of the lawyers involved) on the other.

The decision was reached with fifteen votes to two that in this case Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of expression), had been violated.

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