EU Court Opens Door on Public Access to Legal Filings

(CN) – A man waging a war on EU state websites retaining his personal data won the right to see court documents submitted by Austria, with the European Court of Justice ruling Tuesday that transparency trumps states’ expectations of confidentiality in judicial proceedings.

Patrick Breyer’s appeal stems from a lawsuit filed by the European Commission against Austria over its failure to transpose the EU’s data-retention rules into its national law. After the case against Austria ended in 2010, Breyer asked the commission for documents Austria had filed in the case.

The commission refused Breyer’s request, claiming the documents did not fall within the EU’s rules on public access to documents of its rulemaking bodies since they were court filings. Breyer sued, and in 2015 the European General Court ordered the commission to let Breyer see the documents since they did in fact fall within the public-access rules.

On the commission’s appeal, the Luxembourg-based EU high court on Tuesday agreed the documents Breyer wants fall within the scope of the rules. While court documents fall under a different set of rules generally, the court said those in the commission’s possession are subject to Breyer’s request.

The court added that while member states do have some interest in keeping court documents they file under wraps – and an exception exists to protect the integrity of court proceedings – such an interest usually ends when the case wraps up. At that point, public interest outweighs member states’ need to keep the documents confidential, the court said in its 8-page ruling.

Furthermore, while member states can request their court filings remain confidential their requests are not guaranteed by EU law, the court said.

The high court also noted that while it remains excluded from rules on public access, a recent push for transparency in EU law has also trickled down to the judiciary.

Despite Breyer’s total legal victory, the court ordered him to bear half his costs in the appeal as punishment for publishing the pleadings of his appeal on the internet anonymously – a violation of EU law.

In 2016, the EU high court sided with Germany in Breyer’s case seeking to bar government agencies from registering and storing his IP addresses when he uses their websites. In that case, the court said that while IP addresses are considered personal data under EU law, website operators need the information to protect themselves against cyberattacks – and investigate them when they occur.

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