The judgment in Case C-28/05 G.J. Dokter, Maatschap Van den Top, W. Boekhout v. Minister van Landbouw, Natuur en Voedselkwaliteit concerned the detection of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle in the Netherlands and the measures taken to prevent its spread as a consequence. The plaintiffs in the main proceedings objected to the vaccination and slaughter program put into effect by the authorities after foot-and-mouth disease had been detected nearby.
One of the issues that arose was whether the measures taken by the authorities had breached the fundamental right to be heard.
The Court held that it was settled case-law that respect for the rights of the defence is, in all proceedings initiated against a person which are liable to culminate in a measure adversely affecting that person, a fundamental principle of Community law which must be guaranteed even in the absence of any rules governing the proceedings in question. That principle requires that the addressees of decisions which significantly affect their interests should be placed in a position in which they may effectively make known their views on the evidence on which the contested decision is based (see, inter alia, Case C-32/95 P Commission v. Lisrestal and Others, paragraph 21; Case C‑462/98 P Mediocurso v. Commission, paragraph 36; and Case C‑287/02 Spain v. Commission, paragraph 37). Given the important consequences for cattle breeders that principle requires, in connection with the control of foot-and-mouth disease, that the addressees of such decisions be, in principle, placed in a position in which they may effectively make known their views on the evidence on which the contested measure is based.
The Court continued however that fundamental rights, such as respect for the rights of the defence, do not constitute unfettered prerogatives and may be restricted provided that the restrictions in fact correspond to objectives of general interest pursued by the measure in question and that they do not constitute, with regard to the objectives pursued, a disproportionate and intolerable interference which infringes upon the very substance of the rights guaranteed. Objectives which may justify such restrictions include the protection of public health (see, to that effect, Case C-62/90 Commission v Germany, paragraph 23, and Case C‑44/94 Fishermen’s Organisations and Others, paragraph 55).
The Court reached the conclusion in this case that if the competent authority were not able to take measures against foot-and-mouth disease unless all potentially concerned parties had previously been given the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the facts and documents on which those measures are based and had expressed a view on those facts and documents, that authority could be prevented from acting promptly and effectively. Accordingly, the protection of public health justifies, in principle, that that authority adopts those measures, even without first obtaining the views of interested parties on the facts on which the measures are based. But the interested parties must be given the opportunity to otherwise the restriction of the fundamental right would be disproportionate and intolerable. Given the imperative need to act promptly against foot-and-mouth disease, the principle of respect for the rights of the defence does not necessarily require that the implementation of those measures be postponed until those proceedings have come to an end.
See this previous post on an interesting and related topic.