European Court of Human Rights - case of Zimmermann and Steiner v. Switzerland (1983) (excerpts)

European Court of Human Rights - case of Zimmermann and Steiner v. Switzerland (1983) (excerpts)

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29.   The Court would point out in the first place that the Convention places a duty on the Contracting States to organise their legal systems so as to allow the courts to comply with the requirements of Article 6 § 1 (art. 6-1) including that of trial within a "reasonable time". Nonetheless, a temporary backlog of business does not involve liability on the part of the Contracting States provided that they take, with the requisite promptness, remedial action to deal with an exceptional situation of this kind (see the above-mentioned Buchholz judgment, Series A no. 42, p. 16, § 51, and the Foti and others judgment of 10 December 1982, Series A no. 56, p. 21, § 61).

Methods which may fall to be considered, as a provisional expedient, admittedly include choosing to deal with cases in a particular order, based not just on the date when they were brought but on their degree of urgency and importance and, in particular, on what is at stake for the persons concerned. However, if a state of affairs of this kind is prolonged and becomes a matter of structural organisation, such methods are no longer sufficient and the State will not be able to postpone further the adoption of effective measures.

3O.  The statistics supplied by the Government show that since 1969 there has been a progressive increase in the volume of litigation before the Federal Court, above all in the area of administrative law.

Initially, the Swiss authorities may have thought that it was a matter of a temporary excess of work, but as early as 1973 the situation - which, moreover, finds an equivalent in many other Contracting States - was seen by the Federal Court to be one that depended on questions of structural organisation (see paragraph 12 above).

31.  However, although the steps taken during the period ending on 15 October 1980, the date of the Federal Court’s judgment, reflected a genuine willingness to tackle the problem, they did not give sufficient weight to the structural aspect and therefore only produced results that were not very satisfactory. The Federal Court did recommend in 1973 certain urgent measures, but it asked for them to be deferred pending a full-scale revision of the Constitution of the Courts Act (see paragraph 12 above). It renewed its request therefore in December 1977, when the position became more critical; they were adopted by the Federal Assembly in 1978, entered into force on 1 February 1979 and consisted, inter alia, of an increase in the number of judges from 28 to 30 and in the number of registrars and secretaries from 24 to 28. In addition, the Federal Court effected a general revision of its Rules of Procedure (see paragraph 13 above). Nevertheless, these measures could not be regarded as sufficient, even at that time; in fact, the backlog of cases grew progressively worse, the reason being that the volume of litigation continued to increase. The more drastic measures voted on 20 March 1981 - that is, after the appeal by Mr. Zimmermann and Mr. Steiner had been dismissed - will probably prove to be more effective (see paragraphs 11, 14 and 15 above); however, the Court does not have to make any assessment thereof.

32.  The proceedings in question lasted for nearly three and a half years, and during most of that period the applicants’ case remained stationary. Having regard to all the circumstances of the case, the Court finds this lapse of time excessive; the difficulties undeniably encountered by the Federal Court could by then no longer be considered to be temporary, nor could they deprive the applicants of their right to a hearing within a "reasonable time" (see the above-mentioned Foti and others judgment, Series A no. 56, p. 23, § 75).

There has therefore been a violation of Article 6 § 1 (art. 6-1). The Court does not have to specify to which national authority this violation is attributable: the sole issue is the international responsibility of the State (see the above-mentioned Foti and others judgment, ibid., p. 21, § 63).