Slaughter of diseased animals: lack of compensation for a company which had failed to comply with health regulations did not infringe its property rights

JUDGMENT

S.A. Bio d’ Ardennes v. Belgium 12.11.2019 (no. 44457/11)

see here

SUMMARY

The case concerned the Belgian authorities’ refusal to compensate the applicant company for the
compulsory slaughter of 253 head of cattle infected with brucellosis.

The Court found, among other things, that the applicant company had been refused compensation
because of numerous breaches of animal health regulations; this had been provided for under
domestic law. It further observed that the national authorities had a degree of discretion when it
came to protecting public health and food safety in their territory and determining the penalties for
breaches of the health regulations, depending on the risks arising from the failure to comply and the
nature of the animal diseases which the regulations were designed to eradicate. Hence, in view of
the importance for States of preventing such diseases and of the margin of appreciation left to them
in that regard, the Court held that the applicant company had not had to bear an individual and
excessive burden as a result of the refusal to grant it compensation for the slaughter of its cattle

PROVISION 

Article 1 of the First Additional Protocol

PRINCIPAL FACTS 

The applicant company, S.A. Bio d’Ardennes, is a Belgian limited company with its registered office in
Bastogne (Belgium).

Trading as a beef producer, the company bought 27 head of cattle of Portuguese origin in July 1998,
then 62 more in August 1998, and placed them on its farms. In March 2000 the veterinary inspector
notified the company of an outbreak of brucellosis in one of its herds and served it with an order to
slaughter the animals concerned. On 22 March 2000, 118 head of cattle were slaughtered. On the
same day, another outbreak of brucellosis was detected and another slaughter order was served and
executed. Finally, on 28 April 2000, in accordance with the Law of 24 March 1987 on animal health,
76 head of cattle were seized and were also slaughtered.

On 26 July 2000 the veterinary services of the Animal Health Administration of the Ministry for Small
and Medium-sized Enterprises and Agriculture (succeeded in 2003 by the Federal Agency for the
Safety of the Food Chain, the AFSCA) refused to pay out the slaughter compensation requested by
the company for 253 head of cattle on the basis of Article 23 § 3 of the Royal Decree of 6 December
1978 on the prevention of bovine brucellosis. They found that the applicant company had
committed numerous infringements which had resulted or could have resulted in the spread of the
contamination to its entire stock of cattle.

In December 2001 the applicant company brought proceedings against the Belgian State in the
appropriate court seeking compensation for its slaughter-related losses. In November 2003 the
AFSCA replaced the Belgian State as respondent in the proceedings. In February 2006 the applicant
company served notice for the approved association DGZ to be joined to the proceedings, claiming
that this association had failed to provide it with the correct information, otherwise it would not
have bought the Portuguese cattle. In February 2007 the court dismissed all the applicant’s claims.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the AFSCA’s conduct had been legal, legitimate and fair. The Court of
Cassation quashed the judgment in so far as it addressed the liability of the DGZ and referred that
part of the case back to the Court of Appeal. On 22 February 2013 the Court of Appeal ordered the
DGZ to pay an amount of 29,058.48 euros (EUR), corresponding to the value of 27 slaughtered
cattle. The applicant company and the DGZ appealed to the Court of Cassation and then reached a
friendly settlement under which the DGZ paid compensation of EUR 55,000 for the loss of 62 cattle.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT…

Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (protection of property)

The Court observed at the outset that the slaughter orders in question amounted to interference
with the applicant company’s property rights. The interference had been provided for by law (Royal
Decree of 6 December 1978) and had pursued a legitimate aim in the public interest.

The Court went on to state that it would verify whether, in the instant case, the slaughter of the
cattle without payment of compensation had struck a fair balance between the general interest and
the fundamental rights of the applicant company, or whether it had imposed an individual and
excessive burden on the company. In that regard the Court noted the following.

Firstly, the Royal Decree of 6 December 1978 provided in principle for partial compensation for the
slaughter of cattle with brucellosis. However, the applicant company had been refused such
compensation because of its numerous breaches of the regulations. The refusal of compensation in
such cases was expressly provided for by Article 23 § 3 of the Royal Decree, and the applicant
company had not claimed that it had been unaware of its obligations under the regulations or that it
had not committed the breaches in question.

Secondly, the domestic courts had verified that the conditions warranting interference with property
rights as interpreted by the Court had been satisfied. The Court saw nothing in the courts’ reasoning
that would lead it to conclude that their decisions had been arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable.
Thirdly, the Court noted the fact that the applicant company had obtained financial compensation
for 89 of the slaughtered cattle on account of the DGZ’s negligence, and took that fact into account
in assessing the proportionality of the measures complained of.

Fourthly, the fact that other legislation penalised failure to comply with the health regulations laid
down therein by reducing the entitlement to compensation rather than excluding it, was not apt in
the present case to upset the fair balance to be struck between the protection of property and the
requirements of the general interest. The domestic authorities had a degree of discretion when it
came to protecting public health and food safety in their territory and determining the penalties for
breaches of the health regulations, depending on the risks arising from the failure to comply and the
nature of the animal diseases which the regulations were designed to eradicate.

Finally, the applicant company had been able to continue its activities by acquiring new cattle once
the health measures had been lifted, and it had not maintained that this had been impossible or
excessively difficult.

Consequently, the Court held that, in view of the importance for States of preventing animal
diseases and of the margin of appreciation left to them in that regard, the applicant company had
not had to bear an individual and excessive burden on account of the refusal to compensate it for
the slaughter of its cattle. There had therefore been no violation of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.


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