NEW YORK—Roma communities won an important legal case in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) today, with a Grand Chamber ruling against a Bulgarian electricity company for “offensive and stigmatizing” practices that violate European antidiscrimination laws.
In the first case on anti-Roma discrimination to come before the Luxembourg-based CJEU, which rules on questions of EU law, its judges condemned CHEZ Razpredelenie Bulgaria AD (a subsidiary of the Czech Government-owned CEZ) for putting electricity meters as high as 7 meters (more than 22 feet) above the ground, out of reach of consumers, but only in districts where most customers are Roma.
Supposedly for reasons of safety and to prevent interference with the meters, documents before the Court pointed to deliberate targeting of Roma communities. The European court ruled that this evidence allowed the national court to find CHEZ guilty of racial discrimination. Even if CHEZ proved its decision had nothing to do with the ethnic makeup of the communities, the European court ruled that the measure likely amounted to unlawful indirect discrimination, because the practice was offensive and stigmatizing.
In the 15 years since CHEZ put their meters out of reach, Roma people and other residents of the affected districts have challenged the practice as illegal. Refusing to move the meters down regardless of payment history of the user, the practice is a public statement that all the residents are untrustworthy.
The ruling came in a legal case brought by Ms. Nikolova, a shopkeeper from the district of Gizdova, in the Bulgarian town of Dupnitsa. Like all the other electricity users of Gizdova—a mostly Roma district—Ms. Nikolova was unable to read her meter. After receiving a large bill, she protested to the Bulgarian Anti-Discrimination Commission that the practice discriminated against customers in Gizdova because of its largely Roma population, though she herself is not Roma. The Commission upheld her complaint, but the Bulgarian Supreme Court overturned their decision. When CHEZ appealed the second Commission decision in her favor, the Sofia Administrative Court sent 10 questions to the Court of Justice under the EU Race Discrimination Directive. Today’s judgment answers those questions, returning the case to the Sofia Administrative Court for it to resolve the case.
The CJEU’s ruling is the most important judgment on racial discrimination the court has given.
CHEZ is the monopoly provider of electricity to Dupnitsa and the only Bulgarian company to use this practice. The other two providers include AVN which abandoned this practice some years ago after consultations with local Roma communities, introducing smart meters accessible at ground floor level.
The Open Society Justice Initiative represented Ms. Nikolova before the CJEU. “We welcome this historic decision of the Court of Justice exposing and condemning discrimination against Roma communities,” commented James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “The court’s careful reasoning provides crucial tools for courts and lawyers to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in Europe.”
Ms. Nikolova welcomed the judgment: “I am very pleased with the Court’s ruling. CHEZ should accept they are wrong. They should take down the meters and compensate the people for what was done to them. If they refuse, I want the Bulgarian court to order them to do this.”
“The judgment is an important step in the fight of Roma people for fair and equal treatment,” says Ms. Nikolova’s lawyer, Daniela Michailova. “Roma in Bulgaria face organized discrimination by companies and officials. This ruling sends a clear message to the Bulgarian courts and Government. They law is a strong tool to end discrimination against Roma people and we will use it.” Ms Michailova, who works at Bulgaria’s Equal Opportunities Initiative, will represent Ms Nikolova before the Sofia Administrative Court.
The Open Society Justice Initiative works to make law a more effective tool against racial discrimination. Working with other parts of the Open Society Foundations, we fight for an end to discrimination against Roma communities and press for effective implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in D.H. v. Czech Republic condemning segregation of Roma school children.