The Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, has upheld a second level Budapest court decision ordering the Hungarian government to make public all studies it has ordered from the Fidesz-linked think-tank Századvég, reports Hungarian news site Index.hu.
The court’s decision comes after three separate lawsuits brought by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) and other NGOs over a span of three years.
The Kúria announced on Wednesday that it would uphold the Budapest court’s decision ordering the government to release the Századvég studies.
Initially, Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár said the government would comply with the court’s decision. He later changed his mind, citing the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) legal counsel, and decided to appeal the decision to the Kúria, the Hungarian equivalent of a Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the government changed the law on accessing public information so that it could support its own position, apparently in the hope that Hungary’s highest court would be willing to apply the new law with retroactive effect.
The Kúria found the PMO’s request for a reassessment of the Budapest court’s decision to be baseless.
Századvég’s close relationship with the Fidesz government has been criticized as uncomfortable by many civil activists, opposition politicians and government watchdogs. Since returning to power in 2010 the Fidesz-KDNP government has paid the think-tank billions of forints for advisory services, studies and policy recommendations.
In one case, HCLU lawyer Máté Szabó (who then worked at the Eötvös Károly Institute) sued the Ministry of National Development in an effort to determine how much money had been paid to Századvég. The lawsuit was only partially successful. The ministry provided the list but argued that it could not turn over the documents because it was not the custodian of the studies, but rather the Office of the Prime Minister was. The court accepted the ministry’s argument.
Acting on behalf of a journalist, HCLU filed a similar lawsuit against the Office of the Prime Minister. In this case, the latter argued that it could not release the studies because it must protect the copyright of its authors (Századvég) and because the documents are crucial to current policy-making. The court found for the plaintiff in November 2014 and again in June 2015 on appeal, ruling that everyone has the right to know what kind of work Századvég performs for the government in exchange for public funds. This is the decision that was upheld yesterday by the Kúria.
HCLU claims the recent modification to Hungary’s freedom of information law was an attempt by the government to restrict access to the documents in question. The civil rights organization says the government (which modified the law after the June 2015 court ruling) tried to use the now modified law as a basis for its arguments in front of the Kúria. The Kúria rejected the government’s position. Having exhausted every legal trick in the book, the government must now make the studies available to the public.