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Shame list of Hungarian tax defaulters violates international law

An entrepreneur from Budapest had his full name and home address listed on Hungary’s tax website after a dispute with his business partners left him in arrears. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Europe’s top rights court took the Hungarian government to task Thursday for its policy of publishing the personal information of people who owed back taxes. 

The ruling against Budapest came after a Hungarian entrepreneur had his name and home address included on a list of major tax debtors.

During a 2021 hearing before the European Court of Human Rights, lawyers for the taxpayer, a 55-year-old entrepreneur from the country’s capital, had argued that the list served only to humiliate, rather than discourage tax fraud — making it a “modern-day scarlet letter." 

Hungary's National Tax and Customs Board publishes a quarterly list of “major tax defaulters,” anyone who owes the government more than 10 million Hungarian forints ($27,000) in back taxes. In 2016, it listed the individual who brought the case after a dispute with his business partners left him in arrears. In these court proceedings, he is identified only by his initials, L.B., for privacy reasons.

L.B.'s home address became public a month later when a Hungarian media outlet published an interactive map of tax debtors using information it obtained from the government’s list. 

Budapest defended the policy, saying that the information offers insight into someone’s financial situation and is needed to protect the country’s economic well-being. 

The 17-judge panel was unconvinced, noting that the Hungarian Legislature never took steps to assess whether or not the policy was working as intended. “Parliament does not appear to have considered to what extent publication of all the data in question, and in particular the tax debtor’s home address, was necessary,” the Grand Chamber wrote. 

Hungary also failed to consider the obligations of European Union data privacy legislation the court found. “Data protection considerations seem to have featured little, if at all,” the court wrote. 

Under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, people must consent before their data is shared, data must be anonymized and any breach of data privacy must be reported. 

The Strasbourg-based court, which was created in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, is not a body of the European Union but it does consider the applicability of EU law on countries that are members, including Hungary. 

The decision overturned an earlier ruling from the court’s lower chamber. In 2021, the court ruled L.B. had not suffered any personal repercussions as a result of the publication of the list and the information was in the general interest of the public.

Categories:Appeals, Civil Rights, Financial, International

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