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Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary

29 November 2016

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee reports an auspicious moment in international human rights law. On November 8, 2016, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human rights ruled that Hungary has violated the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s (HHC) right to freedom of information and expression. By refusing to disclose information relating to ex officio defence counsels, Hungary breached these rights.

After extensive research, the HHC concluded that the Hungarian system of ex officio appointed defence counsels is not on par with European standards. The HHC found that certain police headquarters tend to appoint defence counsels who do not “make the investigation more difficult”. This is an unfavourable system for defendants, who are not always ensured a strong defence as a result. Data obtained by the HHC in 2009 from 28 police headquarters supported these conclusions:

“The data obtained demonstrated the disproportionate practice of appointments: some attorneys received more hundreds of appointments per year, and at certain police headquarters the same attorney was appointed in more than 80% of the cases.”

The HHC maintained that this data was of public interest, an argument which was widely acknowledged by courts in the lawsuits that followed. However, the HHC noted that in three cases that went before the Supreme Court, the judges ruled that the requested information was in fact not public, but rather the personal data of ex officio defence counsels. The HHC then opposed this ruling on the grounds that it violated the right to freedom of expression as included in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was supported by the Grand Chamber’s ruling on November 8.

The HHC also noted the significant international influence of this ruling:

“The importance of the judgment goes beyond the Hungarian case: the Grand Chamber, consisting of 17 judges, confirmed for the first time that the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right of access to information.”

The NHC congratulates the HHC for this positive outcome, which was made possible by their perseverance throughout a lengthy legal process.

Read more about the arguments of HHC, the Hungarian government, and the Court’s ruling here: