I/A Court H.R., Case of Maldonado Ordóñez v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objection, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of May 3, 2016. Series C No. 311.

Non official brief

 [This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.] 

 

Facts – The applicant, Ms Olga Yolanda Maldonado Ordoñez, had worked at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Guatemala since 1992.  On 21 February 2000 her brothers filed a complaint against her with the Head of the Ombudsman’s Office, in which they alleged the falsification of a public document related to inheritance matters and requested that a “moral sanction” be imposed on her. The applicant was notified of the complaint, instructed that there were grounds for dismissal under the Staff Rules of Procedure and informed that she was entitled to submit documents or exculpatory evidence within two days. The applicant presented evidence and argued that the allegations were false. On 16 May 2000 the Human Rights Ombudsman issued Order No. 81-2000 dismissing Ms Maldonado from her posts of interim assistant and educator.

 

The applicant applied for review with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, requesting that the Order be revoked and that she be immediately reinstated in her job. She argued that she had been dismissed due to family issues, unrelated to any professional misconduct in the course of her employment. This application was rejected on the grounds that the matter was family-related and, consequently, fell within ordinary jurisdiction. The decision stated that the mere fact that complaints had been filed against the applicant was, in itself, indicative of “unwanted conduct for human-rights defenders”.

 

Subsequently, the applicant appealed to the Labour Court of Appeals, which in turn declined to hear the case on the grounds that it had no competence to rule over it. She subsequently lodged a constitutional challenge with the Court of Appeals, sitting as the Constitutional Court. It was rejected on the grounds that there was no violation of a constitutional provision. The applicant then filed an appeal that was referred to the Constitutional Court, which on 9 October 2001 rejected the appeal.

Law

(a)     Articles 8 (right to a fair trial) and 9 (freedom from ex post facto laws) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), in relation to Article 1(1) (obligation to respect and ensure rights) thereof –  By recognising the punitive nature of the  dis-  missal proceedings and the outcome thereof, the Inter-American Court considered that the procedural guarantees enshrined in Article 8(2) of the ACHR were part of the minimum guarantees that should have been respected in order for the decisions in question to satisfy the requirements of a  fair trial and not to be arbitrary.

 

The Court determined that the right of the accused to a prior detailed notification of the criminal charges against him or her was also applicable to those matters of other nature stated in Article 8(1) of the ACHR, though such a requirement could be of different intensity or scope. In disciplinary procedures, the Court found that the scope of that guarantee involved the respondent being made aware of the conduct that was alleged to have breached disciplinary rules. In particular, it considered that the applicant should have at least been informed of the grounds of her dismissal and a reference should have been made to the connection between the facts of her case and the rule allegedly infringed. Likewise, it was considered that the applicant had not been notified in clear terms of the reason for which disciplinary proceedings had been instituted and of the specific grounds for her ultimate dismissal. This omission constituted a violation of the applicant’s guarantee to a prior notification and of her right to defence.

 

The Court reiterated that the duty to state the grounds of all decisions is one of the necessary guarantees to safeguard the right to a fair trial. It    is linked to the proper administration of justice, which protects the right of citizens to be tried for the reasons provided by law, and gives credibility to the decisions in the context of a democratic society. Therefore, the Court had affirmed that decisions adopted by domestic bodies must be properly substantiated; otherwise they will be considered arbitrary. In this regard, the Court specified that the arguments underlying judicial decision-making and certain administrative acts should clearly state the facts, reasons, and rules on which the authorities relied. In the present case, the Court found that the grounds for the applicant’s dismissal were not properly reasoned and justified under the applicable provisions. This constituted a violation of the duty to state the reasons that underlie decision-making.

 

The Court has also considered that the principle of legality is applicable to disciplinary proceedings, despite the fact that the scope of the latter depends heavily on the matter. The required accuracy of a punitive rule of a disciplinary nature may be different from that which is necessary under the principle of legality in criminal matters, because of the nature of the conflicts that each of them is intended to resolve. The Court concluded that the applicant had been dismissed for conduct that was not set out in the Staff Rules of Procedure as a disciplinary offence and that it did not fall under the provisions that had been invoked to justify the sanction imposed. It therefore found a violation of the principle of legality.

Conclusions: violation of Article 8(2) (b) and (c) in relation to Article 1(1) (unanimously); violation of Articles 8(1) and 9 in relation to Article 1(1) (unanimously).

 

(b)     Articles 25 (right to judicial protection) and 2 (domestic legal effects) of the ACHR, in conjunction with Article 1(1) thereof – The Inter-American Court has noted that the remedies must be adequate in order to redress a given violation and must be effective in practice. The latter implies that the analysis by a competent authority of a judicial remedy cannot be reduced to a mere formality. Such authority must examine the parties’ arguments and expressly address them. The Court held that the proceedings should lead to the effective protection of the right recognised in the judicial ruling, through the proper application of said ruling.

 

The Court found that the Guatemalan law was contradictory as to which remedy the applicant should have used to challenge her dismissal. The Court therefore considered that, since the applicant could not count on a simple and effective remedy and in view of the lack of certainty and clarity of   the remedies available, she had been deprived of legal protection. This was a violation of the right to judicial protection and of the obligation to adopt legislative or other measures in its domestic law.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(c)   Reparations – The Inter-American Court established that the judgment constituted per se a form of reparation and ordered that the State: (i) publish the judgment and its official summary; (ii) remove Ms Maldonado’s dismissal from her “work record” or from any other background record; (iii) clearly specify or regulate, through legislative or other measures, the judicial procedure and competence for the judicial review of any sanction or measure of administrative-disciplinary nature of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, and (iv) pay compensation in respect of pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage, as well as costs and expenses.