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Jehovah’s Witnesses Litigation between the CJEU and the ECtHR

On May 9, 2023, the Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a decision in Case No. 31172/19 that could put an end to a more than decade-long litigation involving, on the one hand, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community and, on the other hand, Finland but also involving the CJEU, which was called upon to render a preliminary ruling (C-25/17), the Finnish supervisory authority and the country’s administrative courts at different levels of judgment. 

The Chamber’s decision, however, can be appealed within 3 months of issuance, before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR.  

The entire course of the litigation contains interpretations on important provisions of the data protection framework (referring to Directive 95/46/EC, but taken up later in the GDPR), as well as evidence of the relationship between the ECtHR and the CJEU.


The following emerges from the separate decisions throughout the litigation process:

  • The activity carried out by the preachers was found to be a processing of personal data that also involved the Religious Community. Both were joint controllers, although with different levels of responsibility 
  • Public domain information is still personal data as long as it has the identifying requirements of an individual 
  • If the collection is not automated, the structured archive condition is met if the data are managed with selective criteria suitable for easy search and use   
  • The collection of personal data of individuals visited by preachers presupposes their prior consent
  • Privacy consent, although it represents an interference with religious freedom, is legitimate because it is provided for by law, pursues a legitimate purpose and is a necessary condition in a democratic society.