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Content updated: 19-08-2019 14:34

The provision of the Law on Hunting obliging a hunting group to grant membership to an owner of a private land plot of a certain size if it is located in the hunting grounds of the hunting group is in conflict with the Constitution

11-07-2019

By its ruling adopted today, the Constitutional Court has recognised that Paragraph 1 of Article 13 (wording of 18 June 2013) of the Law on Hunting was in conflict with Paragraph 1 of Article 35 of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, insofar as it laid down the legal regulation under which, operating in accordance with the procedure prescribed by the Law on Associations, a hunting group of a user of hunting grounds was obliged to grant membership to an owner of a private land plot who owned not less than 100 ha of forest or agricultural land in the particular unit of hunting grounds used by the hunting group.

In its petition filed with the Constitutional Court, the District Court of Vilnius City maintained that the provision of Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting, to the extent that it established the obligation to grant membership of a hunting group, limited the constitutional freedom of members of the association to decide, according to the procedure laid down in the statutes, to whom they wish to grant or deny membership in the association, as members of a hunting club had no possibility of voting and expressing their will freely regarding membership of a person in the hunting club (association). The petitioner was considering the civil case instituted by an action brought by a natural person, the applicant, against a hunting club, the defendant; the court was requested, among other things, to annul part of the minutes of a general meeting of members of the hunting club, specifically the part whereby the general meeting of members of the hunting club refused to grant membership of the hunting club to the applicant; the court was also requested to oblige the defendant to ensure the right, granted to the applicant under Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting, to become a member of the hunting group. In this civil case considered by the petitioner, the applicant was a hunter and owned land plots covering more than 100 ha of forest and agricultural land in a particular unit of hunting grounds used by the hunting club, the defendant. Therefore, pursuant to Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting, the applicant in the said civil case applied to the defendant with the request to grant him membership of the hunting group. The hunting club, the defendant, indicated that the general meeting of its members refused membership to the applicant by a majority of votes of the members participating in the general meeting due to the fact that the defendant had previously been punished for violations of hunting rules.

Considering the petition, the Constitutional Court held in the ruling that, under the Constitution, among others, Article 54 thereof, seeking to ensure the public interest of the protection and rational use of wildlife resources, as well as their restoration and increase, the legislature may exercise its broad discretion to regulate hunting and related relationships by establishing also such a legal regulation under which hunting in specific hunting grounds would be permitted exclusively upon obtaining, under the procedure and conditions provided for in the law, a permit to use wildlife resources in these hunting grounds. In order to ensure the said public interest, the legislature may establish, by means of a law, such a legal regulation according to which users of hunting grounds may also include associations uniting persons who meet the requirements laid down in legal acts and have acquired the right to hunt.

The Constitutional Court also held that, under the Constitution, among others, Articles 23 and 54 thereof, having chosen to regulate hunting and related relationships in such a way that allows hunting in specific hunting grounds exclusively upon obtaining a respective permit under the procedure and conditions provided for in the law, the legislature must, by means of a legal regulation, create the preconditions for reconciling, on the one hand, the interests of an owner of a private land plot of a certain size if it is located in particular hunting grounds and the owner is not a user of these hunting grounds but wishes to exercise the acquired right to hunt in the land plot owned by him and, on the other hand, the interests of a particular user of hunting grounds, among others, an association (hunting association) uniting persons who meet the requirements laid down in legal acts and have acquired the right to hunt. The Constitutional Court emphasised that such a legal regulation must respect the Constitution, among others, freedom of association, consolidated in Article 35 thereof.

Revealing the constitutional content of freedom of association, the Constitutional Court held that the elements of its content – the rights to set up associations and participate in their activities are to be interpreted as embracing, among others, the right of persons united under an association to define and carry out the activity of the association in such a way that fulfils their interests, among other things, without interference from state authorities and other state and municipal institutions, provided that the aims and activity of the association are not contrary to the Constitution and laws. This, among other things, means that, under the Constitution, specifically Paragraph 1 of Article 35 thereof, the founders of associations, while setting up an association that will be operating in their interests, as well as members of already established associations, while regulating and carrying out the activity of the association operating in their interests, may independently decide on granting membership to new members and establish the procedure for granting membership of the association. On the other hand, this right of members of an association is not absolute under the Constitution, i.e. it can be limited by means of a law insofar as the conditions stemming from the Constitution in relation to limiting the exercise of rights and freedoms of persons are observed. Freedom of association, as consolidated in Paragraph 1 of Article 35 of the Constitution, would be violated if the right of members of an association to decide on granting membership of the association were limited, among other things, in the absence of a legitimate and universally significant constitutionally grounded objective, or if this right were limited more than necessary in order to achieve such an objective.

Summarising the impugned legal regulation laid down in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 (wording of 18 June 2013) of the Law on Hunting, the Constitutional Court pointed out that this legal regulation consolidated the right of an owner of a private land plot to become a member of a hunting group that was the user of the particular unit of hunting grounds, as well as provided for the conditions for acquiring this right (this right was acquired only if the said owner held a hunting licence and owned not less than 100 ha of forest or agricultural land in that particular unit of hunting grounds; the said owner was also obliged to assume all duties and rights prescribed in the statutes of the hunting group). In addition, the impugned legal regulation provided that, if the owner mentioned above owned forest or agricultural land of a size established by the law in a particular unit of hunting grounds, a hunting group that was the user of that particular unit of hunting grounds had the respective duty to grant the said owner membership of the hunting group; this duty had to be fulfilled within 30 days from the day of the submission of the request by the owner of the private land plot. Taking this into account, the Constitutional Court emphasised that, although, under the legal regulation laid down in the Law on Associations, a hunting group, which is understood as a certain hunting association, has the right to provide, in its statutes, for the aims of its activity, as well as for the procedure and conditions for granting membership to new members, such a hunting group must, under Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting, grant membership to the above-mentioned owner of private land who held a hunting licence and owned not less than 100 ha of forest or agricultural land in a hunting ground used by the hunting group.

Assessing the compliance of the impugned legal regulation with the Constitution, the Constitutional Court noted that, by means of the legal regulation laid down in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting, having consolidated the duty of a hunting group that was the user of a particular unit of hunting grounds to grant membership to the above-mentioned owner of a private land plot, the legislature undertook to regulate the procedure for granting membership of a hunting group to new members and thereby limited, among others, freedom of association, consolidated in Paragraph 1 of Article 35 of the Constitution, i.e. the right of members of an association to independently decide on granting membership to new members and establish the procedure for granting membership of the association.

Furthermore, the Constitutional Court assessed whether the impugned legal regulation limited freedom of association according to the conditions stemming from the Constitution in relation to limiting the exercise of rights and freedoms of persons. Under the legal regulation laid down in the Law on Hunting, an owner, as indicated in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of this law, who owns a private land plot located in hunting grounds used by a hunting group that is a user of hunting grounds is granted the possibility to become a member of the hunting group that is the user of the particular unit of hunting grounds, as well as the right to determine additional hunting conditions in the land plot owned by him; meanwhile, the said hunting group has the respective duty to grant membership to the indicated owner of the private land plot, as well as the duty to take steps to conclude a written agreement regarding the hunting conditions in the particular land plot. The legal regulation laid down in the Law on Hunting also creates the possibility for an owner of a private land plot who is a hunter to himself obtain a permit to use game resources in the particular unit of hunting grounds or, upon permission or invitation from the user of the hunting grounds, to hunt in the particular hunting grounds used by the user of these hunting grounds.

The Constitutional Court emphasised that this overall legal regulation was aimed at achieving the constitutionally significant objective of reconciling interrelated constitutional values: on the one hand, the constitutionally protected (under Article 23 of the Constitution) interests of an owner of a land plot who is not a user of particular hunting grounds but wishes to exercise the acquired right to hunt in the land plot owned by him and, on the other hand, the constitutionally protected (under Paragraph 1 of Article 35 of the Constitution) interests of a hunting group (hunting association) that is the user of the given hunting grounds. At the same time, this legal regulation created the preconditions for ensuring the public interest, stemming from Article 54 of the Constitution, to ensure the protection and rational use of wildlife resources, as well as their restoration and increase.

However, according to the Constitutional Court, sufficient measures to ensure the constitutionally protected (under Article 23 of the Constitution) interests of an owner of a private land plot include the rights consolidated in the Law on Hunting for an owner of a private land plot to become a member of a hunting group that is the user of the particular unit of hunting grounds, to determine additional hunting conditions in the land plot owned by him, as well as the possibility for an owner of a private land plot who is a hunter to himself obtain a permit to use game resources in the particular unit of hunting grounds or, upon permission or invitation from the user of the hunting grounds, to hunt in the particular hunting grounds used by the user of these hunting grounds. This legal regulation creates the preconditions for an owner of a private land plot to exercise the acquired right to hunt in the land plot owned by him.

Therefore, in order to ensure the constitutionally protected (under Article 23 of the Constitution) interests of an owner of a private land plot, it was not necessary to additionally provide in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting for the duty of a hunting group that is a user of hunting grounds to grant membership to an owner of a private land plot who meets the established requirements. The Constitutional Court stressed that such a legal regulation laid down in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting denied the right of a hunting group to decide on granting membership to the above-mentioned new member – an owner of a private land plot as indicated in Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting; thus, in this respect, the right of a hunting group to grant membership to new members was transformed into the corresponding duty.

In view of this, the Constitutional Court held that, in this respect, Paragraph 1 of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting limited the constitutionally protected (under Paragraph 1 of Article 35 of the Constitution) freedom of a hunting group that is a user of hunting grounds to an extent greater than necessary for achieving the constitutionally significant objectives, i.e. in derogation from the conditions stemming from the Constitution in relation to limiting the exercise of rights and freedoms of persons.

The Constitutional Court pointed out that, on 11 September 2018, the Seimas adopted the Law Amending the Law on Hunting; thereby, among other things, Paragraph 1 of Article 13 (wording of 18 June 2013) of the Law on Hunting was amended and set out in its new wording. The comparison of the provisions of both wordings of the Law on Hunting made it clear that, from the aspect impugned in this constitutional justice case, the legal regulation in question had changed in substance. Paragraph 1 (wording of 11 September 2018) of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting not only consolidated the right of an owner of a private land plot, if this owner meets the conditions established in the law, to become a member of the association that is the user of the unit of hunting grounds covering the land plot owned by the said owner provided that this land plot fulfils the criteria established in the law; but the paragraph in question also laid down the right of the said association to refuse to grant membership to an owner of a land plot located in the particular unit of hunting grounds used by this association; in addition, Paragraph 1 (wording of 11 September 2018) of Article 13 of the Law on Hunting set out the conditions under which, in the event of refusal by the hunting association to grant membership to the above-mentioned owner of a land plot, such an owner may use (hunt) game resources in the particular unit of hunting grounds after he concludes a relevant agreement with the association that is the user of the given hunting grounds.

The full text of the ruling can be accessed on the website of the Constitutional Court at https://www.lrkt.lt/lt/teismo-aktai/paieska/135/ta1954/content.