Kokott AG on the notion of ‘judgment’ and the compatibility of Mareva orders with EU law (ordre public).

In Kokott AG’s words, ‘following the West Tankers case…in the present case the Court is once again confronted with a specific procedural feature of the Anglo-American legal system.’

Article 34 of the Brussels I Regulation (Article 35 in the recast) enables a court, by way of derogation from the principles and objectives of the Regulation, to refuse to recognize a judgment given by a court of another Member State. The whole starting point of the Regulation and its antecedents was to avoid much recourse to refusal of recognition. Free movement of judgments lies at the very core of the foundations of European private international law.

Little wonder then that the Regulation leaves limited freedom for Member States authorities (including courts) who are asked to recognise and enforce another State’s judgment. As I noted at the time, in Trade Agency the CJEU insisted that refusal of recognition on the basis of ordre public is only possible after review of the individual merits of the case. Courts in other EU Member States may not decide that the English system as such as contrary to public policy in the state of enforcement. Relevant case-law was most recently summarised by (the same) Kokott AG in fly LAL and also in Diageo.

The exequatur procedure of the Brussels I Regulation has been amended in the Brussels I Recast. However it is exactly on issues of the rights of the defence that exequatur can never be entirely automatic, even among EU Member States.

In Case C-559/14 Meroni, at issue are Mareva injunctions: (sometimes) worldwide freezing orders issued by English courts (among others), designed to prevent a creditor being deprived of access to the debtor’s assets as a result of a prior disposal of those assets. However, as is often the case, the reputation of Mareva injunctions far exceeds their actual bite. There is no one size fits all such injunction and a number of tools are at the disposal of both the debtor affected, and third parties, to have the order varied or indeed lifted. The rights of third parties in particular are quite relevant in the current review with the CJEU. Part of the injunction are often the debtor’s participations in companies: for the recalcitrant debtor may find all sorts of useful ways to spirit value away from his companies and into vaults safe from prying English or European eyes – especially if the debtor is sole or majority shareholder.

In the case at issue, Mr A.L. is prohibited, inter alia, from disposing of assets which can be attributed directly or indirectly to his property. The injunction extends to  interests in the Latvian company VB. Mr A.L. has a direct interest in that company with only one share. According to the referring court, however, he is also the ‘beneficial owner’ of shares in at least one other company (‘Y’), which itself has substantial interests in VB. Mr Meroni is part of the management of Y. Following a seizure ordered by the relevant Latvian office, he also acts as the bailee for the interests in Y. for which Mr A.L. is the beneficial owner. Mr Meroni claims that the freezing injunction prevents the shareholder Y. from exercising its voting rights in respect of VB. This affects constitutionally protected property rights, especially since the company was not heard in the English proceedings. This, it is argued, is contrary to the principle of the right to a fair trial.

The AG Opined differently. At 44, she argues that it is not clear to what extent that injunction might be contrary to basic principles of Latvian substantive law or procedural law, especially since, as the referring court acknowledges, the Latvian legal order does permit judgments as provisional measures without a prior hearing of the party against whom enforcement is sought. Consequently measures such as Mareva orders cannot be said to be fundamentally against the Latvian ordre public. At 45: ‘ Aside from this, the English freezing injunction at issue does not provide for any irreversibly drastic measures for its enforcement overseas, in particular in so far as third persons who were not parties to the proceedings in England are concerned. Rather, the freezing injunction claims legal effects on third persons resident in other countries — and thus the companies controlled by Mr A.L. — only subject to strict requirements: first, it is to have legal effects on a without notice basis only where this is permitted by the foreign law; second, anyone served with the freezing injunction may apply to the court to vary or discharge it; and, third, compliance with contractual obligations in other countries is still to be possible notwithstanding the freezing injunction.‘ (footnotes omitted)

There is no evident breach of basic principles of the legal order of the State in which enforcement is sought – breach of ordre public must therefore be rejected.

Now, earlier in the judgment, the AG also considers albeit more or less obiter (the CJEU is certain not to entertain it) what may in fact be the more important (for it tends to be less sub judice at the CJEU) part of her Opinion: whether the Mareva orders actually constitute a ‘judgment’ for the purposes of the Regulation. Ms Kokott suggests that the Denilauler criteria (easily fulfilled in the case at issue: see para 31) ought to be relaxed under the Regulation, as opposed to the stricter approach under the 1968 Convention. That is because following judgment in ASML, notwithstanding defects in service, if the person concerned fails to commence proceedings in the State of origin of the judgment to challenge the judgment issued upon default, when it was possible for him to do so, recognition may not be refused. The AG suggests to extend the ASML rule to provisional measures.

Geert.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 2, 2.2.16.1.1, 2.2.16.1.4

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