In a decision on October 3, 2017 (file no. 20 Cdo 4038/2017), the Czech Supreme Court considered whether a court’s departure from its earlier decisions when presented with almost the same facts in a case between the same parties was compatible with the principle of legitimate expectation. This also raised the question of compliance with the right to a fair trial under Article 36 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court was particularly concerned with cases where one party had explicitly referred to incompatible earlier court decisions.

In the case at hand, a party had submitted a petition to a court to stay enforcement proceedings. The petition was similar to one it had filed with the court previously. The fact scenarios were the same. In the earlier case, the court had stayed enforcement but in the later one, it dismissed the petition and ignored the party’s objections, including its reference to the incompatible earlier decision. Both these decisions were later upheld by an appellate court.

Following an extraordinary appeal, the Supreme Court found that the lower court had been correct to dismiss the second petition. The Supreme Court argued that parties were generally entitled to expect a court would decide identical or similar cases in the same or a similar way. Courts that failed to do this would need to explain their incompatible courses of action. (In support of this point, the Supreme Court cited two Constitutional Court decisions, i.e. file no. II. ÚS 566/05 dated September 20, 2006 and file no. III. ÚS 252/04 dated January 25, 2005). A court decision that lacked sufficient justification would violate a party’s right to fair trial.

The Supreme Court emphasised that – in general – it is undesirable for courts to reach incompatible decisions in response to identical facts. This does not, however, mean that courts are prohibited from deciding identical or same-type cases differently. What is crucial is that a court arriving at a contradictory conclusion sufficiently explains its new opinion. In these situations, the court must never ignore the earlier decisions. To the contrary, the court must explain its departure from the opinion stated in older decisions.

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