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European Convention on Human Rights

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In this case the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that state interference with a trade union’s right to control their membership may constitute a violation of the right to freedom of assembly and association as enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

At the time of the events, the applicant held the position of representative of a local branch of the Croatian Customs Officers’ Trade Union. Acting in this capacity and in the interests of the members of the trade union, he refused membership to 15 employees of the local Customs Office, allegedly to prevent a takeover of governing structures on behalf of the “employers people”. 

For his decision to refuse membership, the applicant was convicted of the crime of violating Freedom of Association as enshrined in Article 109 of the Croatian Criminal Code. The conviction was upheld at all levels of appeal, including the Constitutional Court, after which the applicant approached the ECtHR alleging a violation of Article 11 ECHR.

Having established that the case was admissible [Paras 52-55] and that the interference was indeed prescribed by law [para. 56], the ECtHR turned to the question of whether the interference was “necessary in a democratic society”. In addressing the question, the Court looked into the substance of Article 11 and the extent to which the State can interfere with the trade union’s right to control its membership in order to protect the right to associate of prospective members. The ECtHR reiterated that the substance of the right of association enshrined in Article 11 implies that the Contracting State in question, while in principle being free to decide what measures it wishes to take in order to ensure compliance with Article 11, is under an obligation to take account of the elements regarded as essential by the Court’s case-law (see the general principles on trade union freedom as set out in Demir and Baykara v. Turkey [GC], no. 34503/97, §§ 40-41, ECHR 2008). [Para. 59].

On this basis, the Court notes that whereas in some instances various Article 11 rights may deserve equal protection (see Sindicatul “Păstorul cel Bun” v. Romania [GC], no. 2330/09, §§ 130-135, ECHR 2013), the right to join a union “for the protection of [one’s] interests” cannot be interpreted as conferring a general right to join the union of one’s choice, irrespective of the right of the union in question to decide on its membership in accordance with the union rules (see Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) v. the United Kingdom, no. 11002/05, §§ 23-24, 27 February 2007). [Para. 60].

Having established the principle above, the Court turned to the procedural issues related to the behaviour of the applicant in relation to the rules and procedures of the union, i.e. did the applicant behave in an abusive and unreasonable manner in breach of the union rules? [para. 66].
The ECtHR found that there was no authoritative guidance on how to interpret the trade union internal rules on the admission of new members as provided for in its internal regulations [para. 68] and that furthermore there was nothing to suggest that the applicant did not act in the interests of the union and its members [para. 69].

In addition to the above, the ECtHR also identified procedural shortcomings at domestic court level, such as the refusal of the applicant’s proposal to take further evidence, a decision which contributed to an improperly reasoned decision [para. 72], and the failure to examine all the relevant circumstances of the case in the light of the principles set out in the ECtHR’s case-law [para. 73].

On the basis of all the above, the ECtHR found a violation of Article 11 ECHR.

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