ECtHR: Lawyer should not have been fined for telling joke in court
A lawyer who was fined after telling a joke in court suffered a violation of his right to freedom of expression, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled.
Mirko Simic, a lawyer in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told the joke – about a professor who expected his students to provide not only the number but also the names of all the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima – to illustrate his criticism of the proceedings in which he was representing a client.
He likened the way in which a second-instance court had treated him to the way in which the students in the joke had been treated by their professor.
Considering Mr Simic’s remarks to have been insulting, the third-instance subsequently court fined him 1,000 convertible marks (around €510) for contempt of court, a decision which was upheld on appeal.
Mr Simic subsequently lodged an application with the ECtHR, complaining that his freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights had not been respected.
In today’s judgment, a committee of three judges found that although the tone of Mr Simic’s remarks had been caustic or even sarcastic, the use of such a tone in remarks about judges has already been regarded as keeping with fredom of speech.
Although the ECtHR agreed that it was important that lawyers behaved in a discreet, honest and dignified way in order for members of the public to have confidence in the administration of justice, it also took into account that they had to be able to represent their clients effectively.
It considered that the domestic courts had failed to give sufficient weight to the context in which the remarks had been made and had not provided relevant and sufficient reasons to justify the punishment.
Finding that the domestic courts had not based their decisions on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts, the ECtHR concluded that the interference with Mr Simic’s right to freedom of expression had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. There had therefore been a violation of Article 10 of the ECHR.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was ordered to pay €510 to Mr Simic in respect of pecuniary damage, €4,500 in respect of non-pecuniary damage and €2,550 in respect of costs and expenses.