Case C‑286/12, Commission v Hungary


Lowering retirement age Hungarian judges unjustified discrimination
 
>> By this application, the European Commission sought a declaration from the Court that, by adopting a national scheme requiring the compulsory retirement of judges, prosecutors and notaries on reaching the age of 62 – which gave rise to a difference in treatment on grounds of age which was not justified by legitimate objectives and which, in any event, was not appropriate or necessary as regards the objectives pursued – Hungary had failed to fulfil its obligations under Arts 2 and 6(1) of the Employment Equality Framework Directive (Directive 2000/78, picture: Hungarian Parliament)
 
The Court reiterated that under Art. 2(1) of Directive 2000/78, “the “principle of equal treatment” should mean that there should be no direct or indirect discrimination on any of the grounds referred to in Art. 1 of that directive. Article 2(2)(a) of that directive stated that, for the purposes of the application of Art. 2(1), direct discrimination was to be taken to occur where one person was treated less favourably than another in a comparable situation, on any of the grounds referred to in Art. 1 of that directive (Case C447/09 Prigge and Others [2011])
 
The Court held that the disputed national measures, pursuant to which the fact that a worker had reached the retirement age laid down by that legislation lead to automatic termination of his employment contract, had to be regarded as directly imposing less favourable treatment of workers who had reached that age as compared with all other persons in the labour force. Such legislation therefore established a difference in treatment directly based on age, as referred to in Art. 2(1) and (2)(a) of Directive 2000/78 (see, to that effect, Case C411/05 Palacios de la Villa [2007]).
 
Hungary claimed that it had lowered the age-limit for compulsory retirement in order to redress a situation of positive discrimination in favour of judges, prosecutors and notaries under the scheme previously in force, in so far as they, unlike other public sector employees, could remain in their posts until the age of 70.
 
The Court however held that such a fact was not, however, capable of calling into question the existence of a difference in treatment between persons compulsorily obliged to retire because they had reached the age of 62 and those who, having not yet reached that age, might remain in their post. The difference in treatment on grounds of age was based on the very existence of an age-limit above which the persons concerned must retire, regardless of the age fixed for that limit and, a fortiori, for the previously applicable limit.
 
The Court added, however, that according to the first subparagraph of Art. 6(1) of Directive 2000/78 a difference in treatment based on age did not constitute discrimination if, within the context of national law, it was objectively and reasonably justified by a legitimate aim and where the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary (see: Case C141/11 Hörnfeldt (2012).
 
Hungary invoked, essentially, two objectives ostensibly pursued by the legislation at issue, that was to say, primarily, the standardisation of the rules relating to retirement for all persons and, secondarily, the facilitation of the entry of young lawyers into the judicial system with a view to establishing a “balanced age structure”.
 
 
The Court   reiterated as regards the aim of establishing a more balanced age structure facilitating access for young lawyers to the professions of judge, prosecutor and notary the aim of establishing an age structure that balances young and older civil servants in order to encourage the recruitment and promotion of young people, to improve personnel management and thereby to prevent possible disputes concerning employees” fitness to work beyond a certain age, while at the same time seeking to provide a high-quality justice service, could constitute a legitimate aim of employment and labour market policy (Joined Cases C159/10 and C160/10 Fuchs and Köhler [2011).
 
The Court however added that while it was clear from the foregoing that the contested provisions were justified by legitimate aims, it was still necessary, finally, to establish whether the national provisions at issue were an appropriate and necessary means of achieving those two aims.
 
The Court held that in order to examine whether the provisions at issue went beyond what was necessary for achieving that objective and unduly prejudice the interests of the persons concerned, those provisions must be viewed against their legislative background and account must be taken both of the hardship they might cause to the persons concerned and of the benefits derived from them by society in general and the individuals who made up society (Case C45/09 Rosenbladt [2010]).
 
As regards the first aim, the relevant provisions were, according to the Court in principle, an appropriate means of achieving the aim of standardisation pursued by Hungary, in that they were designed precisely, if not to eliminate, at least to reduce significantly the diversity of the age-limits for compulsory retirement for all the professions attached to the public justice service.
 
The Court however added that it still remained to establish whether those provisions also constituted a necessary means to those ends.
 
The Court reiterated that in order to examine whether the provisions at issue go beyond what was necessary for achieving that objective and unduly prejudiced the interests of the persons concerned, those provisions must be viewed against their legislative background and account must be taken both of the hardship they might cause to the persons concerned and of the benefits derived from them by society in general and the individuals who made up society (Case C45/09 Rosenbladt [2010]). The Court found that the provisions at issue were not necessary to achieve the objective of standardisation invoked by Hungary.
 
As regards the second objective purporting to establish a more balanced age structure facilitating access for young lawyers to the professions of judge, prosecutor and notary and guaranteeing them an accelerated career, the Court also found that the provisions at issue were not appropriate to achieve the objective of establishing a more balanced “age structure’.
 
In those circumstances, the Court found that the contested national provisions gave rise to a difference in treatment which did not complied with the principle of proportionality and that, therefore, the Commission’s action must be upheld.
 
The Court thus concluded that, by adopting a national scheme requiring compulsory retirement of judges, prosecutors and notaries when they reach the age of 62 – which gave rise to a difference in treatment on grounds of age which was not proportionate as regards the objectives pursued – Hungary had failed to fulfil its obligations under Arts 2 and 6(1) of Directive 2000/78.