The Court held in its judgment of June 11th 2009 in Dubus S.A. v. France (available in French only) that France breached Article 6 § 1 on account of the lack of independence and impartiality of the disciplinary proceedings brought by the French Banking Commission against the applicant, Dubus S.A., a French investment corporation.
A press release in English is available here.
The Court of Human Rights found that there was no clear distinction between the functions of prosecution, investigation and adjudication in the exercise of the judicial power vested in the French Banking Commission. While the combination of investigative and judicial functions was not, in itself, incompatible with the need for impartiality, this was subject to their being no "prejudgment” on the part of the Banking Commission. The Court stated that there was a need for strict controls, to avoid giving the impression that guilt had been established from the very start of the disciplinary proceedings.
The Court of Human Rights also found that Dubus could reasonably believe that it was prosecuted and tried by the same people, and consequently could entertain doubts about the impartiality of the decision of the Banking Commission, which, in its various capacities, had brought disciplinary proceedings against it, notified it of the offences and imposed the penalty.
Interestingly, the Court of Human Rights also held, en passant, that the penalties in the form of fines were penal in character given the high amounts that could, potentially, be imposed.
Why is this significant ?
Because the procedure used by the European Commission in antitrust cases is rather similar (but not identical) to the one applied by the French Banking Commission.
Also, similar arguments are pending before the Court of First Instance in Case T-56/09 Saint Gobain Glass France and Others v. Commission.