The statute of limitations for criminal proceedings is the period of time after which the offender can no longer be convicted for his alleged wrongdoing.

To the chagrin of the complainants, this can result in the investigation not progressing quickly enough and the statute of limitations running out before a trial judgment can be rendered. And they are deprived of the possibility of being compensated by the offender.

When the statute of limitations is reached because the State, through its agents (police, prosecutors, magistrates), has “dragged” in its investigation, the closing of the case may then seem unjust.

But all is not lost. For the plaintiffs, there is still life after the statute of limitations has expired…

This was made clear in a recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in an Italian case Petrella v. Italy of March 18, 2021 published a few days ago.

A. The facts

A potentially defamatory article was published on July 22, 2001 on the front page of an Italian daily newspaper.

On July 28, 2001, Mr. Petrella filed a complaint, stating that he intended to be a civil party in the proceedings and to claim ten billion Italian lire (equivalent to five million euros). The complaint was forwarded to the Public Prosecutor on September 10, 2001.

More than 5 years later, the prosecutor asked for the dismissal of the complaint of the interested party because of the intervention of the prescription of the denounced criminal offence.

On that basis, the preliminary investigation judge closed the proceedings on January 17, 2007.

B. The Law

The complainant appealed to Strasbourg, claiming a violation of articles 6 § 1 ECHR, 13 ECHR. The First Section of the European Court accepted the application on the following grounds:

Ar. 6 § 1 ECHR : Fair and expeditious trial

The substance of this provision is as follows: ” Everyone is entitled to a fair hearing (…) within a reasonable time by a court (…) which shall decide (…) disputes concerning his civil rights and obligations (…) “.

On this point the Court recalls that art. 6 § 1 ECHR is violated: ” when the termination of the criminal proceedings and the failure to examine the civil action were due to circumstances attributable mainly to the judicial authorities, in particular to excessive delays in the proceedings which led to the statute of limitations on the criminal offence”.

And in this case: ” the Court found that the applicant had made use of the rights and faculties available to him under domestic law in the criminal proceedings and which would have enabled him, at the time of the preliminary hearing, to seek compensation for the civil damage he claimed to have suffered. In this case, the applicant was unable to submit his claim for compensation solely because of the delay in processing the file by the prosecution authorities and the statute of limitations on the offence reported and that, consequently, he could not have this request ruled upon in the criminal proceedings “.

Consequence: Violation of article 6 § 1 ECHR: ” The consequence of this wrongful conduct by the authorities was that the applicant was deprived of having his civil claims decided in the proceedings which he had chosen to pursue and which were available to him under the domestic legal system. Indeed, one cannot require a person to bring an action for the same purposes in civil liability before the civil court after the criminal action has become statute-barred due to the fault of the criminal court “.

Art. 13 ECHR Effective remedy

This provision states that: “Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in the (…) Convention are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity .

However, under Italian domestic law, the “Pinto” law, which would be applicable to the liability of public officials, was not applicable to the injured party who was unable to bring a civil action in criminal proceedings, which was the case of the Applicant Petrella due to the statute of limitations of the criminal action pronounced by the judge of the preliminary investigation.

Thus ” the Court considers that there has been a violation of Article 13 of the Convention on account of the absence of a remedy under domestic law enabling the applicant to obtain the sanction of his right to have his case heard within a reasonable time, within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention “.

C. In conclusion

This case shows that when the criminal action becomes statute-barred due to the inaction of the prosecuting authorities, all is not lost for the plaintiff.

Indeed, on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights, the complainant must have an effective remedy before a national authority to have the violation of his or her rights established, even if the violation of the Convention is committed by State agents.

NB: To go further, note also the dissenting opinions of Justices WOJTYCZEK and SABATO, which can provide the defense with interesting argumentative leads in such situations

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