Károly Nagy v Hungary: the Grand Chamber judgment

Background

The applicant, Károly Nagy, brought a compensation claim against the Hungarian Reformed Church following his dismissal as minister of Gödöllő parish. Disciplinary proceedings had been brought against him in June 2005 after a local newspaper had reported him as saying that state subsidies to a Calvinist boarding school had been paid unlawfully. He was immediately suspended and eventually dismissed, with effect from 1 May 2006, following a decision by the ecclesiastical courts. His attempts to sue in the labour and the civil courts failed for want of jurisdiction and the Supreme Court held that there was no enforceable contract between Mr Nagy and the Church.

The Second Section ECtHR rejected his application on the grounds that he had not exhausted domestic remedies in respect of the employment proceedings. But it did so by four votes to three, in a fairly involved series of opinions: of the majority, Lemmens J agreed without dissent, while Raimondi P and Keller and Kjølbro JJ concurred in part and dissented in part. Sajó, Vučinić and Kūris JJ dissented completely.

The Grand Chamber judgment

Mr Nagy lost before the Grand Chamber by ten votes to seven.

In Károly Nagy v Hungary [2017] ECHR 782, the GC noted that under his Letter of Appointment he was to perform “tasks defined by ecclesiastical laws and legal provisions … and the [relevant] code of conduct”. Moreover, the statutes of the Reformed Church provided that its relationship with its pastors should be governed by ecclesiastical law and that legal disputes over matters such as appointment, remuneration and retirement came within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts [68].

However, instead of taking his claim to the ecclesiastical courts he had gone to the labour court, claiming that his relationship with the Church was akin to employment. When the labour court discontinued the proceedings on the grounds that his claim was unenforceable before them, instead of applying to the Supreme Court for review he turned to the secular courts and claimed that his relationship with the Church was contractual within the meaning of the Civil Code [69]. The first-instance civil court had concluded that it was not: in particular, Mr Nagy’s ecclesiastical services had no market value. That had been confirmed by the Supreme Court, which had noted that his claim was ecclesiastical rather than civil and, therefore, unenforceable in the secular courts [70].

He had pleaded Article 6 ECHR before the GC [71]. However, all the national courts had examined his case in detail and had concluded that his situation was governed by ecclesiastical rather than secular law; and those findings were in line with the principles set out by the Constitutional Court in 2003 [72].  And though s.15(2) of the Church Act 1990 was limited to issues involving the internal laws and rules of the Church in question and did not give Churches unfettered immunity against all civil claims [74], his claim was of the kind that was excluded by s.15(2); and the domestic courts’ conclusion that his pastoral service had been governed by ecclesiastical law was therefore neither arbitrary nor manifestly unreasonable [76]. As a result, he had no ‘right’ that was recognisable under domestic law and

“To conclude otherwise would result in the creation by the Court, by way of interpretation of Article 6 §1, of a substantive right which had no legal basis in the respondent State” [77].

Article 6 was therefore inapplicable [78] and his claim was inadmissible.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Károly Nagy v Hungary: the Grand Chamber judgment" in Law & Religion UK, 15 September 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/09/15/karoly-nagy-v-hungary-the-grand-chamber-judgment/

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