The Council on the validity of choice of court agreements

The Council in June issued its ‘General Approach‘ on the review of the Brussels I Regulation /the Jurisdiction Regulation . The General Approach is the backbone of what will be the Council Common Position, once the European Parliament has held its ‘first reading’ (which is now scheduled for November 2012, after having been postponed twice: from January 2012 it had already been moved to June). I commented here on the arbitration exception and here on the protected categories.

In its General Approach on the review of the Brussels I Regulation, the Council of the EU proposes the following with respect to choice of court agreements:

If the parties, regardless of domicile, have agreed that a court or the courts of a Member State are to have jurisdiction to settle any disputes which have arisen or which may arise in connection with a particular legal relationship, that court or those courts shall have jurisdiction, unless the agreement is null and void as to its substantive validity under the law of that Member State.

The Commission had proposed ‘substance’ rather than the words ‘substantive validity’. The Council also suggest inserting a recital as follows:

The question as to whether a choice of court agreement in favour of a court or the courts of a Member State is null and void as to its substantive validity should be decided in accordance with the law of that Member State. The reference to the law of the Member State of the chosen court should include the conflict of laws rules of that State.

Finally, the Council prooses to add a fifht para to Article 23 as follows:

5. An agreement conferring jurisdiction which forms part of a contract shall be treated as an agreement independent of the other terms of the contract.

The validity of the agreement conferring jurisdiction cannot be contested solely on the ground that the contract is not valid.’

Both the Council and the Commission proposal address the elephant in the room: Article 23 of the Jurisdiction Regulation lists a number of requirements establishing consent to choice of court agreements, however it does not address any conditions for the validity of the underlying agreement. The majority of ECJ authority would seem to favour having the validity of the forum clause to be exclusively determined by the conditions of Article 23. I would however submit that the material validity of the forum clause under the curent version of the JR ought to be determined by the lex contractus.

The result of the discussion is unsatisfactory, as in practice it leaves it up to the Member States to decide how to address the substantive validity of choice of court agreements. This is now addressed by the Commission in its proposal for review of the JR: the proposal introduces a harmonised conflict of law rule on the substantive validity of choice of court agreements, thus ensuring a similar outcome on this matter whatever the court seized. The Council amendment aims at making the solution clearer still.

Oddly, the Council adds renvoi to the mix (see ‘The reference to the law of the Member State of the chosen court should include the conflict of laws rules of that State.’). EU private international law, for good (mostly practical) reasons typically excludes renvoi. I am not entirely sure that adding it here has any merit.

Note that in line with the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements, it will no longer be necessary for at least one of the parties to be domiciled in the EU, for an agreement giving jurisdiction to a court in the EU to be covered by the JR.

Geert.

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