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EU law and access to court: the experience of Austria in the telecommunications sector

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This article explores how Austrian administrative law rules on standing have been influenced by EU law. Firstly, the EU law requirements concerning the right to have access to a court will be briefly explained. Secondly, the Austrian administrative
  EU Law and Access to Court:The Experience of Austria in theTelecommunications Sector Georg G LAVANOVITS  and Mariolina E LIANTONIO  This article explores how Austrian administrative law rules on standing have been influenced by EuropeanUnion law. Firstly, the EU law requirements concerning the right to have access to a court will be brieflyexplained. Secondly, the Austrian administrative procedural rules on standing will be presented. Finally,the case law of the   Verwaltungsgerichtshof   in the telecommunications sector will be analysed as to whether it complies with the EU law requirements. 1.  J UDICIAL  P ROTECTION IN THE  E UROPEAN  U NION 1.1.  N ATIONAL PROCEDURAL AUTONOMY AND THE PRINCIPLES OFEQUIVALENCE AND EFFECTIVENESS In the absence of a general European Union ((EU) or hereinafter ‘Union’) competence for the harmonization of national procedural rules, 1 it is for the domestic legal system of eachMember State to lay down the detailed procedural rules governing the actions intended toenforce the rights that individuals derive from EU law. The EU is thus based upon adecentralized system of enforcement, in which EU law is mainly applied by nationalauthorities and adjudicated upon by national courts according to the rules of nationalprocedural law. This is referred to as the principle of national procedural autonomy. 2 However, EU law can only be effective if individuals can assert their rights beforenational courts. This means, first of all, that Member States are under an obligation todesignate the competent court to which individuals can turn in order to protect their rightsunder EU law. 3 Moreover, two important principles, set out by the European Court of Justice (ECJ),serve to limit the principle of national procedural autonomy. 4  LLM, Maastricht University. 1 See also Treaty of Amsterdam, Declaration 43, relating to the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality [1997], OJ C 340. 2  Joined Cases 205-215/82,  Deutsche Milchkontor GmbH and others v. Federal Republic of Germany  [1983], ECR 2633;Case C-321/96,  Edilizia Industriale Siderurgica Srl (Edis) v. Ministero delle Finanze   [1998], ECR I-4951. 3 K. Lenaerts, A. Arts & I. Maselis,  Procedural Law of the European Union , 2nd edn (London, 2006). 4 In general on the ECJ’s approach to domestic remedies, see R. Craufurd Smith, ‘Remedies for Breaches of EULaw in National Courts: Legal Variation and Selection’, in  The Evolution of EU Law  , ed. P. Craig & G. de Bu´rca (Oxford,1999), 287, for an attempt to explain the rationale underlying the ECJ’s case law on domestic remedies; R. Caranta, Glavanovits, Georg & Mariolina Eliantonio. ‘EU Law and Access to Court: The Experience of Austria inthe Telecommunications Sector’.  European Public Law   17, no. 1 (2011): 51–60.   2011 Kluwer Law International BV, The Netherlands  According to the  principle of equivalence  , the procedural rules governing EU law claimsmay not be less favourable than those governing similar domestic actions. 5 The nationalcourt thus must examine whether the procedural rules of a claim based on EU law and aclaim based on national law are similar. 6 Thereby, it has to consider whether the actionsconcerned are similar as regards their purpose, cause of action, and essential characteristics. 7 It has to establish objectively, in the abstract, whether the rules at issue are similar, takinginto account the role played by those rules in the procedure as a whole, the conduct of thatprocedure, and any special features of those rules. 8 The other principle is the  principle of effectiveness , pursuant to which national proceduralrules may not render virtually impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rightsconferred by EU law. 9 In this context, it is necessary to take into consideration theprinciples that lie at the basis of the national legal system, such as the protection of the rights of the defence, the principle of legal certainty, and the proper conduct of theproceedings. 10 Both principles are of particular importance with regard to the right to haveaccess to courts.1.2.  N ATIONAL RULES ON STANDING AND  EU  LAW According to Article 6(3) of the Treaty on the European Union, the rights granted by theEuropean Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms(ECHR) constitute general principles of the Union’s law. The ECHR, in turn, considersthe right to have access to a court as a fundamental right. 11 Moreover, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, having the same legal value as the treatiesthemselves, 12 guarantees in Article 47(1) everybody the right to have an effective judicialremedy. ‘Judicial Protection against Member States: A New Ius Commune Takes Shape’,  CML Rev   (1997): 703; S. Prechal, ‘ECRequirements for an Effective Remedy’, in  Remedies for Breach of EC Law  , ed. J. Lonbay & A. Biondi (Chichester, 1997),3; B. Hofsto¨tter,  Non-Compliance of National Courts – Remedies in European Community Law and Beyond   (The Hague, 2005),9 et seq.; M. Accetto & S. Zleptnig, ‘The Principle of Effectiveness: Rethinking Its Role in Community Law’,  EPL  (2005): 375; A. Ward,  Judicial Review and the Rights of Private Parties in EC Law   (Oxford, 2007), 86 et seq.; J.Delicostopoulos, ‘Towards European Procedural Primacy in National Legal Systems’,  ELJ   (2003): 599; A. Arnull, The European Union and its Court of Justice   (Oxford, 2006), 267 et seq.; P. Craig,  EU Administrative Law   (Oxford, 2006),789 et seq. 5 Case C-312/93,  Peterbroeck v. Belgian State   [1995], ECR I-4599, para. 12. The Court implies that it would haveno problem if the procedural rules would give preferential treatment to EU law; see Case 98/86,  Criminal Proceedings v.Mathot   [1987], ECR 809, concerning requirements for packaging butter; Case C-11/92,  Gallaher   [1993], ECR I-3545concerning minimum harmonization in the tobacco labelling; Case C-80/92,  Commission v. Belgium  [1994], ECR I-1019,concerning legislation applicable to radio-communications transmitters and receivers. 6 Case C-118/08,  Transportes Urbanos v. Servicios Generales , OJ C 063, 13 Mar. 2010 P. 0004–0005 para. 35 withreference to Case C-78/98,  Preston and Others  [2000], ECR I-3201, para. 49. 7 Case C-78/98,  Preston and Others  [2000], ECR I-3201, para. 57. 8 Ibid. , paras 61–63. 9 See also for the first formulation: Case C-199/98,  San Giorgio  [1983], ECR 3595, para. 12. Later formulationsalso used ‘practically impossible or excessively difficult’; see, e.g., recently Case C-63/08,  Virginie Ponti v. T-ComaluxS.A. , OJ C 312, 19 Dec. 2009 P. 0004–0005. 10 Case C-426/05,  Tele2 Telecommunication  [2008], ECR I-685, para. 55. 11 See Art. 6 ECHR. 12 See Art. 6(1) TEU. EUROPEAN PUBLIC LAW 52  By elevating the right granted in the Charter to treaty rank, the Treaty of Lisbonconfirms the case law of the ECJ. Already in  Johnston , the Court had held that the right toan effective judicial remedy reflects a general principle of law enshrined in the constitu-tional traditions of the Member States and  inter alia  Article 6 ECHR. 13 This was later confirmed in a number of cases like  Heylens , 14 Vlassopoulou , 15 Kraus , 16 and, most recently,in  Unibet  17 and  Commission v. France. 18 More specifically with regard to the national rules on standing, the ECJ said in Verholen  that national legislation may not undermine the right to effective judicialprotection. 19 Hence, although it is for national law to determine an individual’sstanding and legal interest in bringing proceedings, EU law requires that, whenever rights are conferred upon individuals, those individuals should have the opportunity toprotect these rights before a national court. Thus, if national procedural rules onstanding do not respect the principles of equivalence and/or effectiveness and the rightto have an effective judicial protection, the national court has to set these rules aside.2.  J UDICIAL  P ROTECTION IN  A USTRIA 2.1.  T HE  A USTRIAN ADMINISTRATIVE COURT SYSTEM The Austrian court system comprises only one administrative court, the  Verwaltungs- gerichtshof    (VwGH). Even though there are a number of independent administrativebodies (the so-called  Unabha¨ngige Verwaltungssenate  ) that can be understood as a kind of first instance administrative judiciary in certain cases, this is not generally the case. Incertain matters, the VwGH is the first court to decide. It is because of the VwGH’sdominating influence in Austrian administrative law that its case law is analysed in thisarticle.The first stage of appeal against an administrative decision ( Bescheid  ) is to the hier-archically higher authority. In case an independent administrative body is competent, thisbody will hear the case. Therefore, there are normally two administrative instances beforean appeal before the VwGH can be lodged. 20 13 Case 222/84,  Johnston  [1986], ECR 1651, paras 18 and 19. 14 Case 222/86,  Heylens and Others  [1987], ECR 4097, para. 17. 15 Case C-340/89,  Vlassopoulou  [1991], ECR I-2357, para. 22. 16 Case C-19/92,  Kraus  [1993], ECR I-1663, para. 40. 17 Case C-432/05,  Unibet (London) Ltd and Unibet (International) Ltd v. Justitiekanslern  [2007], ECR I-2271, para. 37. 18 Case C-389/05,  Commission v. France   [2008], ECR I-05337, para. 93. 19  Joined Cases C-87/90 to C-89/90,  Verholen and Others  [1991], ECR I-3757, para. 24. This was later confirmedin Case C-13/01,  Safalero Srl v. Prefetto di Genova  [2003], ECR I-8679, and Case C-174/02,  Streekgewest Westelijk Noord-Brabant   [2005], ECR I-85. 20 There is an ongoing discussion on the introduction of a general administrative first instance system in order toease the workload of the VwGH. See M. Thaler, ‘Vom Wesen und Wert der Verwaltungsverfahrensgesetze’, ZO¨ R 64(2009): 433–459. In 2007, an expert group suggested the introduction of such a system. See Proposal of a Committee of State and Administrative Reform Experts in the Austrian Federal Chancellery ( Entwurf der Expertengruppe Staats- und Verwaltungsreform im Bundeskanzleramt vom 23. Juli 2007) ; 94/ME XXIII. GP. Available in German under  < >  (website of the Austrian Parliament, last visited11 Apr. 2010). The administrative courts of first instance would operate at the level of the Austrian states ( La¨nder  ) and the EU LAW AND ACCESS TO COURT  53  2.2.  A USTRIAN ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURAL LAW As regards Austrian administrative procedural law, it is noteworthy that there is no singleand uniform procedural law. The  Allgemeines Verwaltungsverfahrensgesetz  (AVG), 21 however,plays a dominant role. It has to be applied by most administrative bodies, including the Verwaltungsbeho¨rden , the  Unabha¨ngige Verwaltungssenate  , and the VwGH. 22 For all practicalpurposes, the focus of this article will lie on the AVG.Standing requirements are regulated in section 8 AVG. This paragraph reads: Persons who avail themselves of an activity of the authority or to whom the activity of the authorityrelates shall be interested parties and, in so far as they are interested by virtue of a legal entitlement or alegal interest, they shall be parties to the proceedings. 23 ( Personen, die eine Ta¨tigkeit der Beho¨rde in Anspruch nehmen oder auf die sich die Ta¨tigkeit der Beho¨rde bezieht, sind Beteiligte und, insoweit sie an der VwGH vermo¨ge eines Rechtsanspruches oder eines rechtlichen Interesses beteiligt sind, Parteien .)Since the AVG distinguishes between interested parties and parties to the proceedingsand grants the latter much more procedural rights, 24 the crucial question is whether a partycan assert a legal entitlement or a legal interest. Decisive for being granted standing iswhether the decision of an administrative body directly affects the legal position of aperson. 25 In order to find out whether a party should have standing, the interpreting courtfirst has to look at the specific administrative rules that governed the decision-makingproceedings. 26 The problem that might arise here is that not every legal provision explicitlydefines who should have standing. Secondly, should explicit provisions indeed be missing,the court has to draw a conclusion by way of interpretation of the specific provisions. It hasto take into account the object and purpose of the respective law. 27 In the end, the decisivepoint is whether the interest of an individual person should be regarded as worthy of protection.The VwGH has developed a rule for those cases. The rule says that,  in dubio , theinterest of individual persons should lead to  ius standi   whenever this interest is fundamen-tally involved in the decision-making procedure of an administrative authority and that VwGH, on the federal level. So far the suggestions had not been realized. It is also worth mentioning that, since July 2008,a separate administrative court for asylum matters is in operation. It has exclusive competence in asylum matters; an appealto the VWGH is not possible. 21 BGBl. 1991/51, as amended by BGBl. I 2004/10. 22 See section II of the Introductory Act to the Administrative Procedure Acts 2008 ( Einfu¨hrungsgesetz zu denVerwaltungsverfahrensgesetzen 2008  ), BGBl I 2008/87. Notable exceptions are tax law matters, which are governed by theFederal Tax Act [( Bundesabgabenordung  ) BGBl 1961/194, as amended by BGBl. I 2008/5] and the procedural rulesgoverning civil service [Civil Service Law ( Beamtendienstrechtsgesetz ), BGBl. 1979/133]. 23 Translation from the judgment in Case C-426/05,  Tele2 Telecommunication GmbH v. Telekom-Control-Kommission [2008], ECR I-685, para. 9. 24 See s. 43(3) AVG. 25 R. Thienel & E. Schulev-Steindl,  Verwaltungsverfahrensrecht  , 5th edn (Verlag O¨ sterreich, 2009), 92. 26 VwGH 27 Apr. 1992, Zl. 91/19/0059. 27 VwGH 18 Apr. 1994, Zl. 92/03/0259. EUROPEAN PUBLIC LAW 54  decision has a direct effect on the legal position of the person. 28 This principle is referred toas the  Schutznormtheorie  . 29 It is worth mentioning that not every activity of an administrative body automaticallytriggers  ius standi  . Provisions that only serve to protect the general public – thus,  not   anindividual – do not trigger the right to have standing.Crucially, the right to have access to an administrative court may not only result fromAustrian law alone, but also from EU law. In such situations, Individuals need to obtaineffective judicial protection for the rights conferred upon them by EU law. 30 Nationalprocedural rules, however, may restrict access to courts, for example, by applying narrower criteria, like the  Schutznorm , which requires that the legal rule on which the applicant reliesserves to protect his/her individual interest. In a situation where national procedural rulesconflict with the requirement of effective judicial protection and/or the principles of effectiveness and equivalence, the national judge is called upon to disapply the national rule.Theoretically, three constellations are possible. First, should EU law be broader thanthe  Schutznorm , the national administrative court must, in application of the principle of effectiveness, hear the case and thereby disapply the relevant national provision. 31 Second,if the scope of both provisions is essentially the same, there is no problem at all. 32 Finally, if the national provision is broader than the one resulting from EU law, the principle of equivalence would demand the application of the national provision. The next section willanalyse the VwGH’s case law, which arose with regard to the first and second category of cases. It is not possible to refer to cases where the national provision is broader than EU lawbecause, in those cases, the issue is generally not contentious.3.  T HE  C ASE  L AW OF THE  V ERWALTUNGSGERICHTSHOF WITH  R EGARDTO  A CCESS TO  C OURT IN THE  T ELECOMMUNICATIONS  S ECTOR Until 1 May 2010, the VwGH has passed some thirty-eight judgments in cases that dealtwith standing requirements in an EU law context. 33 Most of the cases deal with 28 See VWSlg 9151 A/176 and recently VwGH 25 Feb. 2004, Zl. 2002/03/0186: ‘ Nach der Rechtsprechung desVerwaltungsgerichtshofes, streitet – wenn eine Person ein Interesse an der Erfu¨llung einer Pflicht hat, das fu¨r die gesetzliche Festlegung der verpflichtenden Norm maßgebend war – im demokratischen Rechtsstaat eine Vermutung fu¨r ihre Befugnis zur Rechtsverfolgung  ’,para. 2.3. See also VwGH 25 Feb. 2004, 2002/03/0186. 29 See W. Wessely,  Eckpunkte der Parteistellung   (Springer, 2008), 147; M. Po¨schl et al.,  Gleichheit vor dem Gesetz (Springer, 2008), 808 et seq. For a detailed analysis of subjective public rights ( subjective-o¨ffentliche Rechte)  in Austria, seeE. Schulev-Steindl,  Subjektive Rechte: Eine rechtstheoretische und dogmatische Analyse am Beispiel des Verwaltungsrechts (Springer, 2008). Compare also the identical German concept of the  Schutznormtheorie  : an individual may only assertthe impairment of his/her individual rights by the state if the legal rule on which he/she relies serves to protect his/her individual interest. See J.H. Jans et al.,  Europeanisation of Public Law   (Europa Law Publishing, 2007), 289 et seq. andF. Schoch, E. Schmidt-Aßmann & R. Pietzner,  Verwaltungsgerichtsordnung  , 18th edn (C.H. Beck, 2009), Rn 94–97. 30 E. Schulev-Steindl, ‘Parteistellung im Verwaltungsverfahren, im Lichte des Gemeinschaftsrechts’, in  Abgaben-verfahrensrecht und Gemeinschaftsrecht  , ed. M. Holoubek (Linde, 2006), 89–114. 31 Case C-462/99,  Connect Austria Gesellschaft fu¨r Telekommunikation GmbH v. Telekom-Control-Kommission, and Mobilkom Austria AG   [2003], ECR I-5197, para. 41. 32 See VwGH 28 Feb. 2006, 2005/03/0232. 33 This number results from a scan of the Austrian database for law ( Rechtsinformationssystem  at < > ) in the subcategory of VwGH judgments. The database provides access to all judgments handeddown by the Court from 1980 onwards. Therefore, all possible connections to EU law with regard to standing EU LAW AND ACCESS TO COURT  55
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