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European rules forcing the publication of details of the people who received farming subsidies and how much they received breached those people's rights to privacy, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.

The Court found that when it came to 'natural persons', meaning named individuals, the publication of all of those details breached those people's rights under the Data Protection Directive and the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention).

The dispute arose in Germany when two recipients of money from the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) objected to the publication of their details, though the application forms in each case had said that the information would be published.

The Court said that when passing the rules forcing the disclosure the EU's governing bodies should have more carefully balanced the rights of the named people to privacy in relation to their earnings with the rights of EU citizens to know how their taxes were being spent.

"The amounts which the beneficiaries concerned receive from the EAGF and the EAFRD represent part of their income, often a considerable part," said the ruling. "Because the information becomes available to third parties, publication on a website of data naming those beneficiaries and indicating the precise amounts received by them thus constitutes an interference with their private life within the meaning of [the Convention]."

"It is of no relevance in this respect that the data published concerns activities of a professional nature," it said. "The European Court of Human Rights has held on this point ... that the term 'private life' must not be interpreted restrictively and that 'there is no reason of principle to justify excluding activities of a professional … nature from the notion of private life'."

The Court said that the rights to data protection and to privacy are not absolute, and that authorities can justify behaviour if it meets an "objective of general interest recognised by the European Union".

While the Court said that the aim of transparency was a reasonable objective, it said that the authorities had not adequately balanced the aim of transparency with the right of subsidy recipients to their privacy.

"It does not appear that the Council and the Commission sought to strike such a balance between the European Union’s interest in guaranteeing the transparency of its acts and ensuring the best use of public funds, on the one hand, and the fundamental rights enshrined in [the Convention], on the other," it said.

"There is nothing to show that, when adopting [the rules on publication], the Council and the Commission took into consideration methods of publishing information on the beneficiaries concerned which would be consistent with the objective of such publication while at the same time causing less interference with those beneficiaries’ right to respect for their private life in general and to protection of their personal data in particular, such as limiting the publication of data by name relating to those beneficiaries according to the periods for which they received aid, or the frequency or nature and amount of aid received," said the ECJ ruling.

"By requiring the publication of the names of all natural persons who were beneficiaries of EAGF and EAFRD aid and of the exact amounts received by those persons, the Council and the Commission exceeded the limits which compliance with the principle of proportionality imposes," it said.

The ruling applied to natural persons, which means individuals, rather than legal persons, which can include companies. To order the authorities to find out if the naming of legal persons would identify natural persons would impose on them "an unreasonable administrative burden", the ruling said.

See: The ruling

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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