Engel and Others v. The Netherlands (Application nos. 5100/71; 5101/71; 5102/71; 5354/72; 5370/72)

A selection of key paragraph(s) can be found below the document.

81. (…) The Convention without any doubt allows the States, in the performance of their function as guardians of the public interest, to maintain or establish a distinction between criminal law and disciplinary law, and to draw the dividing line, but only subject to certain conditions. The Convention leaves the States free to designate as a criminal offence an act or omission not constituting the normal exercise of one of the rights that it protects. This is made especially clear by Article 7 (art. 7). Such a choice, which has the effect of rendering applicable Articles 6 and 7 (art. 6, art. 7), in principle escapes supervision by the Court.

The converse choice, for its part, is subject to stricter rules. If the Contracting States were able at their discretion to classify an offence as disciplinary instead of criminal, or to prosecute the author of a “mixed” offence on the disciplinary rather than on the criminal plane, the operation of the fundamental clauses of Articles 6 and 7 (art. 6, art. 7) would be subordinated to their sovereign will. A latitude extending thus far might lead to results incompatible with the purpose and object of the Convention. The Court therefore has jurisdiction, under Article 6 (art. 6) and even without reference to Articles 17 and 18 (art. 17, art. 18), to satisfy itself that the disciplinary does not improperly encroach upon the criminal.

In short, the “autonomy” of the concept of “criminal” operates, as it were, one way only.

82. Hence, the Court must specify, limiting itself to the sphere of military service, how it will determine whether a given “charge” vested by the State in question – as in the present case – with a disciplinary character nonetheless counts as “criminal” within the meaning of Article 6 (art. 6).

In this connection, it is first necessary to know whether the provision(s) defining the offence charged belong, according to the legal system of the respondent State, to criminal law, disciplinary law or both concurrently. This however provides no more than a starting point. The indications so afforded have only a formal and relative value and must be examined in the light of the common denominator of the respective legislation of the various Contracting States.

The very nature of the offence is a factor of greater import. When a serviceman finds himself accused of an act or omission allegedly contravening a legal rule governing the operation of the armed forces, the State may in principle employ against him disciplinary law rather than criminal law. In this respect, the Court expresses its agreement with the Government.

However, supervision by the Court does not stop there. Such supervision would generally prove to be illusory if it did not also take into consideration the degree of severity of the penalty that the person concerned risks incurring. In a society subscribing to the rule of law, there belong to the “criminal” sphere deprivations of liberty liable to be imposed as a punishment, except those which by their nature, duration or manner of execution cannot be appreciably detrimental. The seriousness of what is at stake, the traditions of the Contracting States and the importance attached by the Convention to respect for the physical liberty of the person all require that this should be so (see, mutatis mutandis, the De Wilde, Ooms and Versyp judgment of 18 June 1971, Series A no. 12, p. 36, last sub-paragraph, and p. 42 in fine)

83. It is on the basis of these criteria that the Court will ascertain whether some or all of the applicants were the subject of a “criminal charge” within the meaning of Article 6 para. 1 (art. 6-1).

In the circumstances, the charge capable of being relevant lay in the decision of the commanding officer as confirmed or reduced by the complaints officer. It was undoubtedly this decision that settled once and for all what was at stake, since the tribunal called upon to give a ruling, that is the Supreme Military Court, had no jurisdiction to pronounce a harsher penalty (paragraph 31 above).


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