The disciplinary penalty of demotion to a Senior Prosecutor for a misdemeanor investigation into a sexual abuse case did not violate the Convention.
Čivinskaitė v. Lithuania 15.09.2020 (app. no. 21218/12)
The case concerned disciplinary proceedings against the applicant, a senior prosecutor, for failing to
carry out her duties properly in a high-profile investigation into the alleged sexual abuse of a child.
The proceedings led to her demotion. Her case before the European Court dealt in particular with
her complaint that the administrative court decisions dismissing her appeals against her demotion
were not fair because of political and media interference in her case.
The Court found no grounds to believe that the independence and impartiality of the administrative
courts had been compromised by the public statements of State officials and politicians or by media
reporting on the case. Nor was there anything in the case file to make the Court doubt the overall
fairness of the proceedings in the Lithuanian courts.
The applicant, Rita Čivinskaitė, is a Lithuanian national who was born in 1965 and lives in Skriaudžiai,
in the Prienai Region (Lithuania).
A 2008-2009 investigation into allegations of sexual molestation, with the possible involvement of
the child’s mother and public officials, amid the murder of two of the suspects and the deaths of
another suspect and of the child’s father, triggered a wide-scale scandal. The investigation attracted
considerable attention from the public, politicians and the media because of the way in which it had
been handled by the law-enforcement authorities.
In particular, between October 2009 and March 2010 the President of Lithuania and high-ranking
politicians publicly criticised the pre-trial investigation, calling for those who were responsible for its
shortcomings to be held to account and harshly punished.
The Prosecutor General’s Office carried out an inquiry into the investigation, finding multiple
shortcomings in the work of the police and prosecutors, including the Kaunas City District
Prosecutor’s Office (“the KCDPO”) where the applicant was Deputy Chief Prosecutor. Following
disciplinary proceedings, the applicant was demoted at the end of October 2009.
A Parliamentary committee of inquiry found in a report in January 2010 that the KCDPO had
“obviously procrastinated” in the pre-trial investigation and that the applicant had been one of the
officials responsible. The findings were based on documents provided by the authorities, including
the Prosecutor General’s Office. Several recommendations were made for improvements to the
functioning of prosecutors’ offices and child protection authorities. The Prosecutor General himself
resigned in February 2010.
The applicant appealed to the administrative courts about the disciplinary penalty. However, the
courts dismissed her appeals, ultimately in October 2011, without addressing her complaints that
political interference and the media coverage on the case had influenced the decision to discipline
her. The courts found that she had failed to properly supervise the investigator in charge of the case
and to ensure that essential investigative measures were taken promptly. They also upheld her
demotion, finding that it had been proportionate to the offences committed.
THE DECISION OF THE COURT…
The Court examined in particular whether the independence and impartiality of the administrative
courts had been affected by the political and media involvement in the applicant’s case.
It emphasised that a fair hearing could still be held after intense adverse publicity. In a democracy,
high-profile cases would inevitably attract comment by the media, but that did not mean that it
would inevitably prejudice a defendant’s right to a fair hearing. In such cases, the Court had to
examine whether there were sufficient safeguards to ensure that the proceedings as a whole were
fair. It also noted that it would require cogent evidence showing that concerns about the impartiality
of judges were objectively justified before any breach of Article 6 § 1 could be found.
As for the political involvement in the case, the Court found that neither the statements in the
Parliamentary Inquiry report concerning the procrastination in the investigation nor those made by
high-ranking politicians had given cause to doubt the independence and impartiality of the
administrative courts in the applicant’s case. Overall, the statements had been of a general nature
and had not held any specific KCDPO official liable for the shortcomings in the investigation.
While one statement in the Parliamentary report had specifically referred to the applicant as one of
those responsible for the inaction in the investigation, the Parliamentary Committee had made it
clear that that finding was based on documents provided by the Prosecutor General’s Office. It had
made no assessment of its own on the accuracy of that finding, neither endorsing nor criticising it.
Furthermore, while the President of Lithuania had called for harsh penalties for the Kaunas
prosecutors after the conclusion of the disciplinary proceedings, the administrative courts had not
ultimately given the applicant a harsher penalty, but had upheld the decision taken by the
Prosecutor General to demote her, finding it to be proportionate.
Moreover, the Court accepted that politicians wishing to react to the shortcomings in the work of
the law enforcement authorities and to keep the public informed about the measures taken to
address them had been justified by the circumstances of the case, involving a large-scale scandal.
Nor could the media be blamed for their interest in the case, in view of the seriousness and nature
of the criminal complaints and the apparent inability of the authorities to adequately address them.
As to the alleged media campaign, the Court found no cogent evidence to suggest that the judges
who had assessed the arguments put forward by the applicant had been influenced by any of the
publications in the press. The language used in the media reports with regard to the applicant while
the court proceedings against her were ongoing had not been such as to create the perception of
her being responsible for any specific offences. Indeed, the case had been decided by professional
judges who had been less likely than a jury to be influenced by the press campaign on account of
their professional training and experience. In addition, domestic courts at two levels of jurisdiction
had issued well-reasoned decisions, upholding some of the applicant’s complaints.
Lastly, although the administrative courts had not explicitly examined the applicant’s complaint
about political and media interference prejudicing the proceedings, the Court found that she had
formulated that argument in a rather general way and that, in any case, the courts had given
detailed reasons justifying the decision to demote her. The Court was therefore prepared to accept
that the courts’ silence with regard to her complaint could reasonably be construed as an implied
rejection. It therefore found that there was nothing in the case file to make it doubt the overall
fairness of the proceedings before the administrative courts.
In conclusion, there had been no violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
Judge Bošnjak expressed a dissenting opinion, which is annexed to the judgment.