Helsinki Figyelő

In April 2013, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found Hungary to be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for not ensuring accessibility to banking services. The applicants were represented by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. According to the decision, Hungary should have submitted to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a written response within six months after the decision was delivered, including information on action taken in the light of the Committee’s recommendations. The reporting deadline expired in October 2013; however, no steps were taken so far to remedy the complainants and to improve the accessibility of financial services.

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“The court may not intervene into a legal longstanding relationship existing between private parties.” “The court may not direct the defendant to fulfill an obligation which was not included in the contract itself.” “Retrofitting would not ensure that the Applicants could use the ATMs completely by themselves, the safety risk would increase due to the retrofitting.” “Having to depend on the help of others does not violate human dignity.”

These are some quotes from Hungarian court decisions in a case launched by two visually impaired individuals in 2005. The lawsuit was initiated by two clients of OTP Bank who were not able to use the bank's ATMs without help, because the keyboards were not marked with Braille fonts and voice assistance was not provided for bank card operations. The first-instance court confirmed that their rights had been violated, noting that they pay the same fee as other customers despite their lack of access to the same services. The higher courts however did not find any violations; their reasoning included the shameful sentences cited above.

It was at this point that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee took over the case from De Jure Foundation and their attorney, Zoltán Peszlen. Since Hungary signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Convention) and ratified it along with the Optional Protocol, the obvious path was to file a complaint with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Committee). This is exactly what we did in 2010.

The government, in its communications to the Committee, noted that it fully “agree[d] with the decision of the Supreme Court”. In our reply we pointed out that the government's position constituted a clear violation of the Convention, since it would mean that Hungary had not adopted the necessary legislative measures for the Convention’s implementation. If the government was wrong in its assessment and Hungarian laws could be interpreted in a way that complies with the Convention, then the Convention was violated by the Supreme Court’s failure to uphold these laws.

Finally, in April 2013, after almost three years of back-and-forth communication, the Committee delivered its decision, finding that the Hungarian state had failed to comply with its obligations set out by the Convention. The Committee also made numerous recommendations: among others, that Hungary provide regular training to judges on the scope of the Convention, establish minimum standards for accessibility of banking services, and ensure that all legislation and the manner in which it is applied by the Hungarian courts is consistent with Hungary’ obligations to ensure that no law has the purpose or effect of impairing the enjoyment of the equal rights of persons with disabilities.

All of us who had been involved in the domestic and international process had a wonderful day. We felt  was not only a victory for the NGOs who dedicated countless hours to fighting the case, but a resounding triumph for people living with disabilities. Soon Hungary would be a place where the human dignity of people living with disabilities must be respected by all, where not even the courts could declare that “having to depend on the help of others does not violate human dignity”.

The cold shower came slowly. We approached the Ministry responsible for enforcing the judgment, re-iterating the recommendations made by the Committee and requesting that Hungary follow through on the recommendations and its legal obligations accordingly. We also offered our expertise to ensure that the legislative environment was in compliance with the Convention.  It took more than a month, but we received an answer. Two short paragraphs - first that the Deputy State Secretary received our letter, but was not in the position to deliver a decision alone, therefore further deliberation within the government would be  necessary;  second, that in order for the ministry to provide any remedy, invoices must be attached. The letter did not refer to any other points, neither of the recommendation nor our letter. We replied to the letter, but haven’t yet to receive a response. We now find ourselves again in a horrible situation: after 8 years of proceedings, after a UN organization declared that their rights were violated, our plaintiffs must again enter the fray in order to prevail on the enforcement of their rights. We will not give up; however we are slowly losing our belief in justice and law.

As we fight to enforce the Committee's judgment on banking accessibility in Hungary, another decision contrary to the Convention was delivered by the Supreme Court (renamed recently with the historical appellation “Curia”); it accepted claims of major investment in time and money as a reasonable justification for not ensuring accessibility of one of the largest bus station in Budapest. The Supreme Court noted, no law exists in Hungary which would make it legally impossible to justify the failure to make these facilities accessible to all.

Zsófia Moldova