The Case of Gestur Jónsson and Ragnar Halldór Hall v Iceland: Between Two Paradigms of Punishment

By Agnė Andrijauskaitė, LL.M (PhD Researcher at German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer and Vilnius University)

The year of 2020 ended with an epic battle over admissibility taking place in Strasbourg. More precisely, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has passed a judgment in the case of Gestur Jónsson and Ragnar Halldór Hall v Iceland concerning fines imposed on two Icelandic lawyers for displaying contempt of court. This case – yet again – has raised a question on which fines should fall within the criminal scope of Articles 6 and 7 ECHR. Put otherwise, the ECtHR has had the opportunity to refine the scope of the so-called Engel criteria anew. These criteria were developed as early as the ‘70s in order to combat the ‘mislabelling’ tendencies and allow the ECtHR to afford the protection of the Convention to sanctions of punitive and deterrent nature – regardless of their domestic classification – autonomously. Such protection, however, was not warranted in this particular case because the impugned fines enabling a court to sanction the applicants for their contempt of court were deemed ‘more akin to the exercise of disciplinary powers’ as contrasted with the ‘classical’ criminal measures. This contribution shall seek to decipher the rationale behind these measures and whether such a stance does not overly dilute individual rights. It will argue that the current judgment is a consistent logical extension of previous teachings of the ECtHR, in which fines devised to ensure orderly administration of justice found no place under the criminal limb of Article 6 ECHR. In fact, there are valid reasons as to why they should not be ‘upgraded’ to criminal measures under the ECHR and be rather accepted as ‘sui generis’.

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