The Estonian Judicial System in Search of an Effective Remedy against Unreasonable Length of Proceedings
This article will review the question of whether the Estonian national judicial system offers a domestic judicial remedy for individuals complaining that judicial proceedings in which they are involved have taken unreasonable time. The right to have a judgment rendered within reasonable time on one’s civil rights and obligations or on criminal charges is categorised as a fundamental right and as such protected under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereinafter ‘the Convention’). *1 Since Estonia is a member of the Council of Europe *2 and has ratified the Convention *3 , it has the obligation to abide by the latter and also be guided by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Estonia belongs to the group of European countries for which the Convention has a status by which it is superior to general domestic laws but remains subordinate to the national constitution. *4 Section 123 of the Estonian Constitution *5 provides that if domestic laws are in conflict with any international treaties ratified by the Parliament (Riigikogu), then the provisions of the international treaty concerned shall prevail. The Constitution has a ‘special’ status since it is the only legal act in Estonia that has been adopted by a national referendum.
The Estonian Supreme Court has on numerous occasions declared that the provisions of the Convention are superior to domestic laws. For example, in a 6 January 2004 judgment of the General Assembly, the following was expressed: “The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms constitutes an international treaty, ratified by the Riigikogu (Parliament), which has priority over Estonian laws or other legislation.” *6 Recently the Supreme Court has expressis verbis confirmed that the judgments and decisions of the ECHR are to be directly applied in Estonia in cases similar to those decided by the international court. *7 The Supreme Court has not ruled on the question of which judgments have priority in the event of conflict of opinion — the decisions of the ECHR or its own judgments. *8 The present article will touch upon this interesting question as well.
These brief introductory remarks are intended to demonstrate that there is no doubt that Estonia has an obligation to apply the Convention standards, and indeed the country has on numerous occasions expressed its willingness to do so. This commitment has been manifested both in theory and in practice — for example, through the law-making activity of the legislative branch of the Estonian state and through the application of laws by the Supreme Court. *9 The author of this article has recently argued that explanatory reports accompanying amendments to existing laws or associated with the new proposed laws discussed in the Estonian Parliament often analyse the proposed Estonian legal norm in the context of the Convention as applied by the ECHR. *10 The author has also demonstrated that in 2008 the General Assembly of the Supreme Court relied upon the ECHR case law in only one judgment out of 12 *11 , which is a considerable decrease from the proportion seen in the years up until 2005, in which era the General Assembly had relied upon ECHR case law in some capacity in 11 judgments out of 26. *12 In this way or another, it can be safely argued that both the Convention and the case law of the ECHR have found their way into the Estonian everyday legal discourse, at least at the Supreme Court level.
However, the question of whether the Estonian judicial system offers an effective remedy against unreasonable length of proceedings has become a ‘testing ground’ for the question of whether the Estonian legal system indeed is guided fully by the case law of the ECHR. This is so because until now the latter question had remained mainly theoretical. There have not been any ‘embarrassing’ judgments with respect to Estonia — that is, judgments raising serious questions about the quality of our judicial system as a whole or about certain aspects of it corresponding to the standards set by the ECHR. *13 Whether this is so because of diligent work by the Estonian judiciary, unawareness of Estonia’s legal subjects about the protection possibilities offered by the ECHR machinery, or the impact of the Strasbourg ‘filter’ on the outcome of a case — in both the formal and informal meaning of the word — remains beyond the scope of this article. *14
At the time of the writing of this article, there seems to be a different principal position taken by the ECHR and the Estonian Supreme Court as to the existence of such an effective national remedy. Both courts seem to stand firmly behind their position. It is therefore a unique possibility to follow how this conflict of courts will be resolved. It also allows one to ask whether reliance on the ECHR caselaw on the part of the Estonian Supreme Court has been only a matter of convenience or need *15 in a search for additional argumentation for its judgments, or whether the Supreme Court is indeed willing to change its understanding of certain aspects of law — by reversing or reviewing its previous position written into its judgments — in consequence of the directives stemming from judgments of international courts. Although the author of this article has not noted such change of Supreme Court positions in respect to the judgments of the ECHR *16 , the Supreme Court has declared its change of position due to developments in European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisprudence. Specifically, the Supreme Court has ruled that, since the ECJ judgment of 11 December 2007 in case C-161/06, Skoma-Lux, prohibited imposing obligations on individuals stemming from the Union Law if the respective law had not been published in the Official Journal of the European Union *17 , the Supreme Court reversed its position that professionals in the corresponding field needed to abide by the EU rules irrespective of the official publication of these norms. *18
The article begins by presenting a short overview of the position of the ECHR concerning an effective national remedy against unreasonable length of proceedings. Then, the article will review the judgments of the ECHR with respect to Estonia regarding complaints in this area — where the ECHR has established the absence of such an effective domestic remedy, counterbalanced by the findings of the Estonian Supreme Court, which suggest that such a domestic remedy is available. The article will conclude with contemplation of possible scenarios for resolving this conflict of courts.
2. The position of the European Court of Human Rights
The ECHR had until 2000 refused to review applications that claimed violation of the Convention’s Article 6 (1) due to the unreasonable length of proceedings and simultaneously argued that the applicant did not have an effective remedy in the domestic judicial system to have this argument decided. According to the position of the ECHR until 2000, the Convention did not bestow upon an individual the right to turn to domestic authorities during the ongoing judicial proceedings with a request to establish the violation of fundamental rights in view of the unreasonable length of these proceedings. The ‘victim’ of the situation had to wait until the final court judgment in the proceedings concerned. The ECHR has explained its former position in one of the most important judgments of the new millennium — Kudla v. Poland *19 — by saying that in the situations concerned the court did not examine the violation of Article 13 *20 of the Convention because it considered Article 6 (1) to be lex specialis toward Article 13 in respect of claims related to the unreasonable length of proceedings. *21
The ECHR explained its change of position through two main arguments:
1) A complaint about the unreasonable length of proceedings under the Convention’s Article 6 (1) does not incorporate the notion that the individual wishes this complaint to be reviewed by a ‘domestic authority’: “The question of whether the applicant in a given case did benefit from trial within a reasonable time in the determination of civil rights and obligations or a criminal charge is a separate legal issue from that of whether there was available to the applicant under domestic law an effective remedy to ventilate a complaint on that ground.” *22
2) The number of applications to the ECHR concerning the unreasonable length of domestic proceedings might undermine the effectiveness of the Strasbourg system as a whole. The Court noted that “the important danger that exists for the rule of law within national legal orders when ‘excessive delays in the administration of justice occur’ in respect of which litigants have no domestic remedy”. *23
For the purposes of this article, it is necessary to note two aspects of this change in the ECHR’s position.
Firstly, the fact of the change itself in the Court’s position was clearly emphasised, with the note that “the Court now perceives the needs to examine the applicant’s complaint under Article 13 taken separately, notwithstanding its earlier finding of a violation of Article 6 (1) for failure to try him within a reasonable time” *24 . From the time of this judgment, domestic legal systems had the obligation to provide a national judicial remedy for individuals’ claming to be a ‘victim’ of unreasonably long proceedings. *25 It must be noted that the Estonian Supreme Court has not questioned this obligation. Rather, the problem may lie in determining whether national judicial systems actually provide this remedy. *26
Secondly, the ECHR changed its rigid requirement concerning the meaning of ‘effective remedy’ in relation to complaints about the unreasonable length of proceedings. The ‘standard’ meaning of the concept of effective remedy was already defined in 1983 and requires simultaneous existence of two remedies — the decision about the substance of the claim and the possibility of obtaining compensation for the violation. The Court has formulated this, regarding the individual who puts forward an ‘arguable claim’ *27 of violation of his fundamental rights, as follows: “[H]e should have a remedy before a national authority in order to have his claim decided and, if appropriate, to obtain redress.” *28 This approach has remained unchanged to this day, with the clarification, dating back to the last millennium in its substance, that the redress offered for the violation does not necessarily need to be financial compensation. This formulation is the following: “However, article 13 (art. 13) does not go so far as to require any particular form of remedy. Contracting States are being afforded a margin of discretion in conforming to their obligation under this provision.” *29
The only type of violations for which the ECHR accepts a departure from this standard are violations related to the unreasonable length of proceedings. The ECHR presented this principle in the case of Mifsud v. France in the following formulation: “Article 13 therefore offers an alternative: a remedy is ‘effective’ if it can be used either to expedite a decision by the courts dealing with the case, or to provide the litigant with adequate redress for delays that have already occurred.” *30 The Court has not elaborated on this further in the decision, nor has it addressed in subsequent case-law the reasons for departing from the standard discussed in the previous paragraph. Neither has the Court explained whether this new position is applicable to other substantive Convention violations. One way or another, the ECHR accepts a situation in which violation of the Convention due to the unreasonable length of proceedings continues and the affected person is only paid compensation.
After the Kudla v. Poland judgment, the ECHR took upon itself the task of reviewing situations in several Member States related to meeting of the need to offer a separate domestic remedy for claims pertaining to unreasonable length of proceedings. The case law can be generalised to argue that three types of situations meet the Convention standards in respect of this new national remedy:
1) the adoption of a special law providing the remedy for complaints against the unreasonable length of proceedings;
2) amendments to the existing procedural laws;
3) directives of the supreme court of the country to lower courts for applying the already existing procedural laws.
The author will briefly present the possibilities these make available to the Member States by considering the example cases of Slovakia, Poland, and Portugal.
According to the interpretation of the ECHR, Slovakia did not meet the Convention’s standards in this respect until 1 January 2002. On this date, change in the Slovakian Constitution took effect *31 that provided the possibility for both natural and legal persons to turn to the Constitutional Court with complaints about their fundamental rights’ violation. Here, the Constitutional Court can award just redress if it establishes that a violation has occurred. Previously, Slovakia had lost several cases in the ECHR, where the national government argued that the existing State Liability Act provided the option for potential victims of this violation to seek damages for the delays in the administration of justice. The ECHR considered this option too vague and not to offer any realistic chances of success. *32
This new situation was judged to meet the Convention’s standards. In the judgment of Andrá ik v. Slovakia, the ECHR found the remedy through the constitutional complaint to be “effective”, since it gave authority to the Constitutional Court not only to establish the fact of the violation but also to oblige the domestic authorities in question to cease the violation and to award just compensation. *33 In the stage of presenting the parties’ observations, the Slovakian government brought to the attention of the ECHR several judgments of the Constitutional Court applying Article 127, and therefore the ECHR had to conclude that “the remedy in question is effective not only in law, but also in practice” *34 .
After the Kudla v. Poland judgment, Poland passed the so-called 17 June 2004 Law, which regulates the procedure for complaints about the unreasonable length of proceedings. *35 The ECHR analysed this law in the case of Charzyński v. Poland and concluded that it “satisfies the ‘effectiveness’ test established in the Kudla judgment” *36 . It has to be mentioned here that the 17 June 2004 Law limits the amount of monetary compensation to a maximum of 10,000 Polish złotych. *37 The ECHR did not consider this problematic and indicated that the injured party always has the opportunity to seek additional damages under the amended Civil Code. *38 It must be indicated here that, although by the time of the decision in the case of Charzyński v. Poland no final judgments had been made in Poland applying this new law, the ECHR was satisfied with the existence of the legal possibility in theory. *39 This clearly signifies departure *40 from the well-established principle applied by the ECHR that for a remedy to be effective, the respective government also needs to demonstrate that the remedy is applied in practice by the national courts. *41
Still the country may not need to change any laws, but only modify the case law of its courts. This is evident in the example case of Portugal. The Government of Portugal used to submit an argument in cases of the type considered here that Portugal has a law, dating back to 1967 *42 , that regulates the state’s non-contractual liability. The ECHR considered this legal provision to be “theoretical” and indicated: “The Government has not cited a single precedent to show that such an action had real prospects of success, although the legal provision in question had been in force for more than twenty years.” *43 In the judgment of Paulino Thomas v. Portugal, the ECHR changed its view and accepted the national government’s argument that the domestic remedies for complaints against unreasonable length of proceedings are effective. This was because the government had referred to a judgment of the Supreme Court from 1998 whereby the possibility was accepted of the state being responsible for the violation of the reasonable time limit under the Convention’s Article 6 (1). The Portuguese government likewise presented several court judgments wherein the litigants were awarded monetary compensation for violation of the reasonable time requirement. On this basis, the ECHR established that an effective domestic remedy in Portugal against complaints of unreasonable time did exist. *44 This was achieved merely through the Supreme Court directives.
3. The cases from Estonia related to violation of the reasonable time requirement and absence of effective remedy
The ECHR has directed five substantive judgments toward Estonia regarding complaints of unreasonable length of proceedings. In the case of Treial v. Estonia, the ECHR established that there was violation of the Convention’s Article 6 (1). *45 In this application, no claim of absence of a domestic remedy for decision on the complaint in the Estonian national legal system was raised; consequently, the Court could not rule on this issue. Similarly, in the case of Mõtsnik v. Estonia, no complaint under the Convention’s Article 13 was raised — here the ECHR did not establish existence of a violation of Article 6 (1) either. *46 In the case of Shchiglitsov v. Estonia, violation of the Convention’s Article 6 (1) was established on account of the duration of marital property division: five years and 10 months. *47 As in the previous two cases, no argument under Article 13 was raised.
On 8 November 2007, the ECHR issued a judgment wherein it established violation of both Article 6 (1), due to unreasonable length of proceedings, and of Article 13, due to the absence of an effective remedy for having this claim decided domestically. In the case of Saarekallas OÜ v. Estonia, it was established that the litigant had spent seven years and two months in the Estonian courts. *48 For the purposes of this article, it is important to note what the arguments of the Estonian government were in defence of the availability of an effective domestic remedy for decision of such a case. The Estonian government made reference to the provisions of the Code of Administrative Court Procedure — according to which the administrative courts were empowered to adjudicate disputes under public law — and the Constitution. Furthermore, it quoted the case law of the Supreme Court, according to which administrative courts were authorised to examine whether public authorities performed their actions within reasonable time. The Supreme Court had found that the administrative courts were authorised to award compensation to individuals for actions — including delay — of public authorities even in cases where no specific legal provisions existed to that effect. The government concluded that a person could file a complaint with an administrative court against delays in judicial proceedings and against inaction of a court and also claim compensation for damage caused thereby. The government concluded that even if the Court were to find that none of the above‑mentioned remedies individually constituted sufficient and effective remedy, the aggregate of remedies nevertheless ensured effective legal protection to the individuals in respect of the length of proceedings. The government contended that there had been sufficient remedies available to the applicant company, which, however, did not make any attempts to make use of them. *49
The applicant company pointed out that no example cases had been provided wherein the remedies referred to by the government would have been used and in which they would have been effective. Furthermore, no examples had been given of situations in which compensation would have been paid for excessive length of court proceedings. *50
The ECHR noted that the provisions of the Civil Code and the Constitution, referred to by the government, were of a general nature and did not include reference to a specific remedy for complaints against the unreasonable length of proceedings. The decisive argument was as follows: “The applicant company pointed out that no examples had been provided where the remedies referred to by the Government would have been used and where they would have been effective. Furthermore, no examples had been given where compensation would have been paid for the excessive length of court proceedings.” *51 The Court did not comment on the arguments of the government regarding the aggregate effect of remedies and that the administrative courts were empowered to review complaints against the delays in general county courts.
The author of this article is of the opinion that at least until the end of 2007 there was no effective remedy available in the Estonian judicial system for having a claim against unreasonable length of proceedings decided. The ECHR may have hinted to the Supreme Court that it could create this effective remedy by directing the practice of the lower-level courts. This is because the Court commented positively on the practice of the Supreme Court when interpreting the provisions of the Constitution broadly.
The Estonian Supreme Court had an opportunity to abide by the findings of the ECHR in its decree of 30 December 2008. The case was brought to the Supreme Court as an individual constitutional complaint by ‘R.P.’, who argued that criminal proceedings (including the pre-trial investigation) directed toward him had lasted more than 12 years. At the time of submission of the application to the Supreme Court Constitutional Review Chamber, the trial was still pending in the court of first instance. R.P. asked the Supreme Court to establish violation of the reasonable time requirement, or as an alternative the absence of an effective remedy within the meaning of the Convention’s Article 13.
The possibility of submitting an individual constitutional review claim to the Estonian Supreme Court is limited. The Constitutional Review Court Procedure Act does not allow an individual to bring a constitutional complaint to the Supreme Court directly. The Constitution provides the right for anyone to ask that a legal norm be declared unconstitutional or not applied, but only in the context of one’s legal dispute. *52 However, the Supreme Court has taken a ‘broad’ approach to this limitation. It has reviewed an individual constitutional complaint on 11 occasions and only in one instance issued a substantive judgment. *53 In the latter case, the Supreme Court introduced a position according to which the Court “verifies which judicial remedies are available to the litigant for the control of the alleged violation of his fundamental rights” *54 In ten cases out of eleven, the Supreme Court has taken the position that proceedings in the administrative or county court provide sufficient effective remedy for the person’s claim concerning violation of fundamental rights. *55 It is debatable whether only one judgment decided on the merits through individual constitutional review proceedings satisfies the requirement of an effective remedy or whether instead this should be viewed as theoretical and illusory *56 protection of the fundamental rights.
The Supreme Court applies here the so-called gapless court protection doctrine of fundamental rights, which in the view of the Supreme Court is provided by § 15 of the Estonian Constitution. *57 In other words, even if the capacity of the administrative or another court to decide a case does not specifically derive from the text of the procedural law, the court is still empowered to discuss the case and issue a judgment on account of the authority granted to it by the Constitution.
Thus the Supreme Court faced a dilemma when deciding on the case brought forward by R.P. It could have decided it on the merits, which would have meant a second judgment on the merits made in an individual constitutional complaint case. This, in turn, would have meant that the Supreme Court could face a mounting number of applications arguing the same type of violation. Or the Supreme Court could have decided that there indeed is no effective remedy available, which could have meant an equivalent situation with complaints mounting. Instead, the Supreme Court applied the ‘gapless court protection’ doctrine. *58 It indicated that in its view the reasonable time limit was violated in R.P.’s case, but it did not establish this violation in the formal judgment. While the Supreme Court did not give leave for the application it explained, that county courts discussing criminal cases had to decide on this claim concerning reasonableness of time. The county courts need to decide the claim immediately after it is presented in the course of the proceedings and not wait until the stage of the substantive judgment in the case. Since the criminal courts do not have the authority to decide on appropriate monetary compensation, the Supreme Court provided guidance stating that such claims need to be decided separately in administrative courts under the provisions of the State Liability Act.
As for the remedies, the Supreme Court indicated three possible actions that the county court could take. These are:
1) termination of the criminal court proceedings;
3) taking into account the fact of the violation of fundamental rights at the time of sentencing.
The author of this article is of the opinion that the latter option — using the fact of the violation as a mitigating argument in the sentencing — does not meet the criteria for effective remedy. This is because an effective remedy needs to take immediate effect. By contrast, when the criminal court establishes violation of the reasonable time requirement during the proceedings, then it is not known how long the proceedings still may take. In general, during the proceedings it is not known whether the court will find the accused guilty. If it does not, then the person would remain without a remedy for the reasonable time violation.
At first sight, neither the termination of proceedings nor summary acquittal seems to correspond to the meaning of effective remedy either. *59 However, on deeper contemplation, this possibility cannot be excluded. According to the position of the ECHR and with application of the principle of subsidiarity, the Member States are in a better position than the international Court to decide which exact type of redress is most suitable for a particular violation. *60 Monetary compensation is only one possible type of compensation, and the latter may also constitute actions by the state authority or courts that are intended to remedy the situation.
It still remains open to debate whether these remedies referred to by the Estonian Supreme Court meet the requirements of foreseeability and universality. For example, an individual may not agree to termination of the criminal proceedings, since he is interested in his reputation being cleared via a direct court judgment. It also seems disproportionate to discontinue proceedings in cases involving crimes against life or other serious offences. Therefore, the author of this article is of the opinion that in its 30 December 2008 decree the Supreme Court preferred to rely on the ‘gapless court protection’ doctrine rather than acknowledge that there are indeed gaps in the Estonian judicial system. The latter would have meant admission that there is no effective remedy against claims of unreasonable length of proceedings. The Supreme Court directed the county courts — at least in criminal matters — to apply the ‘gapless court protection’ doctrine while there are not very suitable remedies in the ‘arsenal’ of the county courts. The county courts cannot award monetary compensation in relation to criminal matters to the accused, nor are the remedies of termination or acquittal the most suitable ways of compensating the person concerned for the unreasonable length of proceedings.
Shortly after the 30 December 2008 Supreme Court decree, the ECHR published yet another judgment directed toward Estonia, establishing violation of the Convention’s Article 13 — the judgment in the case of Missenjov v. Estonia. *61 Since the arguments of the government were submitted before the 30 December 2008 Supreme Court decree, it is safe to argue that the government could not have been aware, at the time of submitting its arguments, of the Supreme Court’s position. In this case, a litigant who had allegedly taken out a loan from one of Estonia’s commercial banks (AS Eesti Maapank) failed to pay the sums back and the bank lodged a claim against him on 19 October 1999. After years of inactivity, the parties finally reached a settlement, which was approved by the Viru County Court (maakohus)on 29 May 2006. The government advanced arguments similar to those applied in the Saarekallas OÜ v. Estonia case. It further stated that the injured party could have initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge and also asked for jurisdiction to be transferred to another court. *62
If one compares the arguments in the two cases — Saarekallas OÜ v. Estonia and Missenjov v. Estonia —decided on the merits regarding the violation of Article 13 of the Convention, it appears that the arguments of the government are not entirely consistent. While in the Saarekallas case the government admitted that the litigant could not appeal against the decisions to adjourn the hearings *63 , in the Missenjov case the government stated that the applicant could have appealed even in the absence of a separate written court ruling whereby the hearing was adjourned. *64 In the Saarekallas case, there was no reference to the possibility of requesting disciplinary proceedings. *65
Although the ECHR referred to the government’s arguments in the Missenjov case only in part, stating that they mainly followed arguments similar to those in the Saarekallas case *66 , it seems that the cornerstone of the government’s position is that the applicants could have filed a complaint with an administrative court against delays in judicial proceedings and against inaction of a court and also claim compensation for damage caused thereby. *67 The ECHR has responded to this argument by stating that the provisions of the Code of Administrative Court Procedure were general in nature and, secondly, that the government had failed to produce any court precedents where the litigant’s case was decided by an administrative court and compensation was awarded. *68
One needs to distinguish between the position of the government and that of the Supreme Court on the question referred to above. The arguments in proceedings at ECHR level are prepared by the government of the Member State concerned, and the government is not obliged to argue its case via the legal doctrine of the national courts. Furthermore, in the two cases discussed above, the government made minimal reference to the case law of the Supreme Court, probably for the simple reason that such case law was not available. So these were the arguments of the government that the ECHR had to evaluate and analyse. The government’s belief in the existence of an effective remedy through administrative court proceedings is supported also by the information it provided about the measures for complying with the judgment in the case of Treial v. Estonia.The following statement is included in the information: “Anyone may file a complaint before the administrative courts against delays in judicial proceedings or inaction by the courts. In doing so, he may rely on the relevant provisions of the Constitution or of the Convention as well as on the provisions of the Code of Administrative Procedure and the case law of the Supreme Court. It is possible during such proceedings to demand compensation for damage caused by such delays/inaction, and the administrative courts have competence to order payment of compensation.” *69 Following the logic of the ECHR, one can only conclude that this remedy is theoretical and illusoryand that until there emerges case law to support this argument it will not be a practical and effectiveremedy. *70 Since the ECHR has even considered the provisions of the Code of Administrative Court Procedure to be of too general a nature to satisfy the Convention’s standards, the current position of the ECHR on the remedies suggested by the government needs to be read as stating that there is no such effective remedy in Estonia at any level — not in theory and not in practice.
Ironically, the ECHR thus far has been unable to evaluate the position of the Estonian Supreme Court regarding the existence or absence of an effective national remedy against unreasonable length of proceedings. In this respect, it cannot be argued that there is open conflict of opinion between the ECHR and the Supreme Court in this matter — the former being of the opinion that there is no such effective remedy available and the latter directing the lower courts to apply this remedy immediately in their proceedings once the relevant claim by the litigant or accused has been made. The ‘testing’ of the national remedy suggested by the Supreme Court will be done sooner or later by the ECHR.
If the Supreme Court wishes to follow the Portuguese model and create this remedy through the lower courts’ case law, it is inevitable that this remedy will meet the Convention’s standards as required by the ECHR. Soon the government will be required to be able to produce for the ECHR lower-court judgments implementing the directives of the Supreme Court regarding immediate review of complaints about unreasonable length of proceedings. Then the ECHR may have to decide whether the rather unique remedy suggested by the Estonian Supreme Court — termination of criminal proceedings or acquittal — can be regarded as an appropriate form of redress. If it is, then the concept of ‘gapless court protection’ by the Estonian courts finds a strong supportive argument and perhaps can be regarded as a contribution of Estonian legal thought to European jurisprudence.
As for the potential ‘victim’ of excessive length of proceedings and the legal profession, it is not clear which path to follow in this ‘conflict’ of courts. From one side, the applicant is not supposed to rely on the remedy that in his view is not effective. The belief in the non-effectiveness or even unavailability of a national remedy has been confirmed by the ECHR, so the argument that the potential applicant has not exhausted the domestic remedies would probably not hold water in proceedings with the ECHR. On the other hand, should the remedy suggested by the Supreme Court prove effective, the applicant would lose much time in the ECHR proceedings and in the end may be advised to turn back to the domestic remedy. Therefore, the current situation may be regarded as a ‘window of opportunity’ for only those who may wish to use the ‘conflict of courts’ to their procedural advantage. For purposes of legal certainty, it is advisable that Estonia fulfil its obligations under the Convention soon — whether through the legislative initiative of the Parliament, via the developing case law of the lower courts, or through a combination of these two measures.
This article has provided a brief overview of the case law of the ECHR in relation to the Convention’s Article 13 standards in cases arguing the violation of fundamental rights due to unreasonable length of proceedings in civil or criminal matters. The ECHR has, beginning with its judgment in the case Kudla v. Poland *71 , requiredthat there be a national remedy under domestic law for having the associated claim decided and, if appropriate, adequate redress made. The ECHR accepts three venues whereby Member States can meet their obligations: the adoption of a special law to deal with the relevant claims, amendment of the existing procedural laws, and directives by the country’s highest court to the lower-level courts on how to guarantee the respective domestic remedy.
The ECHR is of the opinion that there is no such domestic remedy available in Estonia. In the cases of Saarekallas OÜ v. Estonia *72 and Missenjov v. Estonia *73 , the Estonian government advanced the argument that the administrative courts are empowered to decide claims against delays in court proceedings and also award compensation, if the violation is established. The ECHR has rejected these claims by stating that the provisions of the Code of Administrative Court Procedure are of too general a nature to satisfy the Convention’s standards. The ECHR has also stated that the government has not produced a single court judgment wherein the administrative court has rendered judgment concerning the associated claim. This leads the author to conclude that in the view of the ECHR the respective national remedy does not exist in Estonia — neither in theory nor in practice.
The Estonian Supreme Court’s Constitutional Review Chamber has in its decree of 30 December 2008 directed the lower-level criminal courts to decide any claims about unreasonable length of proceedings immediately after it is presented to the court. The Supreme Court has proposed three possible remedies: termination of the proceedings, acquittal, and taking the fact of the violation into account during sentencing. The author of this article has shown above why the last of these does not meet the conditions for being an effective remedy. As for the other two, although their suitability as an effective remedy cannot be excluded, they cannot at the same time meet the requirements of universality and foreseeability. The ECHR has not yet analysed this approach to effective remedy proposed by the Supreme Court, which differs substantially from what has been offered in the arguments of the government. If the ECHR approves of this position, then the ‘gapless court protection’ doctrine advanced by the Estonian Supreme Court is given great impetus.