Tax Rates Reviewable under ECHR (ECtHR)

On 24 July 2018, the European Court of Human Rights found, in the case of ZG v. Hungary (App. No.: 65858/13), that the state’s ‘severance tax’ of 98% violated the applicant’s right to the peaceful enjoyment of property under Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the Convention. This case marks the tenth time this year the Court adjudicated on the same issue with the same effect. The line of cases dates back to the summer of 2013 when, in the cases of  N.K.M. v. Hungary (App. No.: 66529/11) and R.Sz. v. Hungary (App. No.: 41838/11), the Court ruled that the 98% tax on severance payments for public employees did not strike a fair balance “between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights” (para. 49) – a requirement which the Court read into Section 1 of Article 1. This is despite the clear wording of Section 2 of the same Article stipulating that “the preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State … to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.” This line of cases is remarkable as nowhere else has the European Court of Human Rights held a tax incompatible with the Convention solely for the reason of its rate. Although the Court was also concerned with the fact that the tax was levied on the payment which was contractually guaranteed when the employee was undertaking the employment, this could be said about any new tax, as any new tax is necessarily levied, to a certain degree, on a state of affairs which has already been initiated. Furthermore, even though the Court indicated that in different circumstances such a high tax rate might be allowed, nevertheless, it seems that the European Court of Human Rights has, with this line of cases, brought taxation rates within the ambit of the Convention rendering them fully reviewable. This move widens considerably the protection of private property under the Convention, which, as originally enacted in Protocol 1, was rather weak. If a severance tax can be held incompatible with the Convention based on its high rate, there is nothing stopping the Court from holding any other type of taxation, including an income tax, to be equally incompatible. Of course the Court remains cautious in this respect granting Member States the highest level of margin of appreciation, nevertheless, by maintaining its ‘severance tax’ jurisprudence, it sends a strong message that extraordinarily high taxes levied with no apparent justification are not beyond the Court’s jurisdiction.