On ‘civil and commercial’, lis alibi pendens and torpedoing one’s own action: the CJEU in Aertssen.

C-523/14 Aertssen is not a corner piece of the Brussels I jigsaw. Rather, a necessary if unexciting piece of the puzzle’s main body. Aertssen NV, of Belgium, had a gripe with VSB Machineverhuur BV and others, of the Netherlands. Aertssen alleged fraud in VSB’s dealings with the company. It employed a well-known feature of Belgian (and French, among others) civil procedure, which is to file complaint with the investigating magistrate. This launches a criminal investigation, to which civil proceedings are attached.

Aertssen’s subsequent action of attachment of VSB’s accounts in The Netherlands, risked being stalled by the Dutch courts’ insistence that the group launch new legal action in The Netherlands. Aertssen obliged pro forma with this initiation of new proceedings, subsequently to aim to torpedo them. Aertssen would rather the Belgian courts continue with their own, criminal investigation and that action in The Netherlands, other than action in attachment, be put on hold, at least until the Belgian proceedings be finalised.

In essence therefore, the case before the CJEU needs to determine whether the Aertssen action in Belgium is of a ‘civil and commercial’ nature, and if it is, whether the actions in Belgium and The Netherlands meet the requirements of the lis alibi pendens rule of Article 27 (old) of the Brussels I-Regulation. The CJEU replied in the affirmative to both.

Precedent for the ‘civil and commercial’ issue, other than the usual suspects, was available per Sonntag, Case C-172/91, where the Court held that civil matters within the meaning of the first sentence of the first paragraph of Article 1 of the Brussels Convention, cover an action for compensation for damage brought before a criminal court. In Aertssen, The CJEU used the term ‘private law relationship’ to describe the legal relationship between the parties concerned. Even though, other than in Sonntag where the criminal proceedings were launched by the State prosecutor, Aertssen itself had triggered the criminal investigation, its ultimate aim is to obtain monetary compensation.

The subsequent question was whether per Article 27, lis pendens exists. Reference is best made to the judgment itself for the application of the The Tatry criteria (Case C-406/92): the two cases pending need to involve the same parties, pursuing the same cause of action (the facts and the rule of law relied on) and with the same object (meaning the end the action has in view). The CJEU held among others that the question whether the parties are the same cannot depend on the position of one or other of the parties in the two proceedings.

The remainder of the judgment deals with the meaning of the term ‘court first seized’ in Article 30 of the Regulation, and the relevance of national rules of civil procedure in same.

It is not often that a party aims to torpedo its own proceedings and the procedural intricacies of the case are rather complex. However the CJEU keeps a level head, with in the end transparent results.

Geert.

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