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You got too much money for protecting your reputation?

The European Court of Human Rights passed a judgement in a case last year where the main issue was whether or not the court had ordered excessively large compensation for non-pecuniary damage for defamation. More precisely, was the 1,25 million euros ordered by the Court of Justice of Ireland too big a sum for publishing defaming articles.

The question of compensation limits

Irish newspaper Independent Newspapers filed an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights regarding a deformation case where the Court of Justice of Ireland ordered the newspaper a payment of 1,25 million euros, and, in the opinion of the newspaper, unfairly and extremely inhibiting the freedom of expression. In cases of press publication violations, the courts in Ireland and in the United Kingdom have previously ordered payments reaching into hundreds of thousands. But the sum of 1,25 million euros was record-shattering, superseding all previous compensations. It was stated in the appeal that during the past five years Irish newspapers have been ordered to pay 30 million euros altogether and a question of inhibition of freedom of expression by the courts has arisen.

In this particular case, there was a situation where an Irish newspaper had published a series of defaming articles. It was claimed that adviser of the minister had won several public procurement contracts due to her intimate relationship with the minister. The newspaper admitted that they had published false arguments but found, that the ordered compensation was not proportional or reasonable.

The European Court of Human Rights does not normally interfere in the decision-making process of a member-country when determining the compensations and usually it even can’t. Since the European Court of Human Rights is not a court of fourth instance and its competence is only to supervise if the courts of the member-country. In this case, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Irish courts had not explained the extreme need and why it was such a serious violation and justified such a large compensation in the context of Ireland. [1]


Compensation for non- pecuniary damage in the Baltics

Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian courts, too, have the right to order compensation for not only material damage but also for non- pecuniary damage if a person’s rights have been violated. Unlike the United Kingdom or Ireland, the compensations for non- pecuniary damage for whatever violations don’t reach to hundreds of thousands.

Larger compensations have been ordered in cases that have caused a person’s death. For example, in Estonia in the case of seeing a car-accident which caused a loved-one’s death, the court ordered a compensation of 10 000 euros. In the case of drunk driving and causing an accident while driving over the speed limit, resulting in a child’s death, the court ordered a compensation of 50 000 euros. The compensation median for defamation is 1000 euros in Estonia, i.e. the courts generally don’t order a larger payment.

Even though the compensation for deformation does not generally exceed 1000 euros, it does not mean that the decision by the European Court of Human Rights would be irrelevant in the context of the Baltic states. The decision is also important for Baltic’s legal space because it emphasizes that in a situation where the court orders a compensation which is times larger compared to the usual practice, the court has to justify and deliberate on if and why the violation is so harsh that the record-shattering compensation is justified.

[1] The decision has not yet taken effect which means that the case can also be heard by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights which is the last instance of the court.