Hungarian law allowed judges, prosecutors and notaries to work until 70. At age 70, they would be retired. On 1 January 2012, the retirement age was lowered to 62. Transitional provisions were in place, meaning that those already older than 62 would be retired on 30 June 2012. Those who would reach 62 during 2012 would be retired on 31 December 2012.
The European Commission (“the Commission”) brought action against Hungary in the ECJ. The Commission argued that Hungary state had failed to fulfil its obligations under Directive 2000/78 as the law was age discriminatory. The Commission argued that the law causes less favourable treatment to older workers as it affects the duration of the working relationship between the parties by preventing future participation in working life. The Commission argued that it could not be justified.
The ECJ’s decision
The ECJ held that there was a difference in treatment because of the law. It went on to look at whether the law was justified. The ECJ identified that no specific objective is expressly set out in the law, but held that it did not therefore follow that there was no potential legitimate aim behind it.
Hungary put forward several possible objectives.
Hungary argued that an aim of the law was “standardisation”. By this, they were referring to the fact that there were different retirement ages in use for different professions within the public sector, and that it would be desirable to standardise these. The ECJ held that this could be a legitimate employment policy objective.
Hungary also argued that an aim of the law was to establish a more balanced age structure which would facilitate access for young lawyers to become judges, prosecutors and notaries. The ECJ held that established case law had already recognised that this could be a legitimate social policy objective (see Fuchs, para 50).
The ECJ then went on to determine whether the law was an appropriate and necessary means of achieving these aims (i.e. was the lawproportionate). The ECJ noted that this was an exercise of weighing up the benefits derived for society in general against the hardship that may be caused to the affected judges, prosecutors and notaries.
The ECJ held that the measure would abruptly force the affected people to leave the labour market. The affected people would have had no time to properly plan their lives for such a change.
The ECJ accordingly ruled that the law was not a proportionate means of achieving either of the aims. Whilst it was an appropriate way of achieving the standardisation aim, it was not necessary. The ECJ noted that Hungary had failed to provide any evidence as to why it was necessary to reduce the retirement age by eight years in such an abrupt manner and why it could not have staggered the change. Hungary had also failed to provide any evidence to show that more lenient provisions would have made it impossible to achieve the objectives sought.
The law was neither appropriate nor necessary to achieve the second aim. The large number of vacancies that would be caused by the law would be filled by young lawyers, so failing to achieve a balanced age structure in either the medium or long term.
European commission v. Hungary, case C-286/12, 7 June 2012.