In Panteliou-Darne and Blantzouka v Greece, the European Court on Human Rights has elaborated on the protection which entitlements or receivables enjoy under article 1 of Protocol 1 to theEuropean Convention on Human Rights.
The applicants were former air hostesses, who had worked for the then state owned air company Olympic Airlines. In this position, they were considered public servants. Greek law provided that public servants with children were entitled to a family allowance under certain conditions. Yet an exception applied to such employees, whose spouse was employed in the public sector as well.
The applicants had children in 1986 and 1996. Since their respective husbands worked in the public sector, they did not receive family allowances in compliance with the aforementioned regulation. Although their pay-slips contained a clause inviting employees to raise objections against the calculation of their salaries if they deemed that it was erroneous, the applicants never questioned the correctness of their remuneration.
In 2001, they filed a civil action against their employer demanding payments of the family allowances starting from the birth of their respective children. Briefly after the submission of the law suit, the Greek Supreme Court declared the provisions which excluded public servants, whose spouses worked in the public sector from the entitlement to a family allowance unconstitutional. Despite this decision, the Greek courts rejected the applicants’ claim. Relying on a provision of the Greek civil code according to which exercising a right was prohibited if it is not exercised in good faith or exercising the right is clearly not in accordance with the social or economic objective of the entitlement, they held that the applicants’ claim amounted to an abuse of law.
The applicants contended that the rejection of their claim violated their right to property under article 1 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR. They stated that they had not complained about the calculation of their salaries earlier because they had not been aware that their statutory exclusion from the family allowance had been illegitimate. In view of the balance, which the European Court of Human Rights strikes between the interests of the general public and the interests of the individual when assessing the justification of an interference with the right to property, they advanced that the sums they claimed were too small to touch upon public interests.
The European Court of Human Rights examined whether the ruling of the Greek courts to reject the applicants’ claim interfered with the applicants’ right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions pursuant to article 1 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR. It reiterated its long standing jurisdiction that entitlements, rights or legitimate expectations fall within the scope of the right to property if they have a sufficient basis in domestic law.
Since all Greek courts concerned with the matter had recognized that the applicants had in principle been entitled to the family allowance, the ECtHR concluded that the claim of the applicants satisfied this requirement and was thus protected by the right to property. Consequently, the denial of the claim had interfered with the right to property.
The Court went on to examine whether this interference had been justified. Satisfied that the interference had been based on a law and pursued a legitimate aim, the ECtHR reiterated that article 1 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR required that a fair balance be struck between the interests of the individual and the interests of the public at large. This implies that the measure taken has to be in reasonable proportion to the aim pursued.
In accordance with its long standing jurisdiction, the Court pointed out that the contracting states enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in the economic and social sphere. It also stressed that it is chiefly for the authorities and courts of the member states to interpret their domestic law and that the ECtHR examines the application of domestic law only with view to their compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court stated that all Greek courts concerned with the matter had recognized that the entitlement claimed by the applicants existed in principle, but could not be exercised because the applicants had failed to do so for such a long time. It rejected the argument that the applicants had been unable to complain about their being denied a family allowance earlier since they had been unaware of this right pointing to the fact that numerous other employees of Olympic Airlines had put their demands on record earlier. The ECtHR stated that the procedure followed by Greek courts had given the applicants sufficient opportunity to advance their arguments. With respect to the aim pursued, the Court referred to the economic consequences a ruling in favor of the applicants could have had for Olympic Airlines. The applicants had demanded approximately 14.700 Euros. If similar sums were to be granted to all former employees of Olympic Airlines, this might have had grave repercussions for the air company. On the basis of these considerations, the Court found that the measure had been proportionate to the aim pursued. It ruled that there had been no violation of the right to property.