Szpunar AG in Mulhaupt /SCI Senior Home: national law determines what rights in rem are under the Insolvency Regulation. However EU law does constrain national room for manouvre.

In C-195/15 Mulhaupt /SCI Senior Home, the question referred reads 

Does the term ‘right in rem’ in Article 5(1) of (…) Regulation (…) 1346/2000 (…) on insolvency proceedings include a national rule such as that contained in Paragraph 12 of the Grundsteuergesetz (Law on real property tax, ‘GrStG’) in conjunction with the first sentence of Paragraph 77(2) of the Abgabenordnung (Tax Code, ‘AO’), pursuant to which real property tax debts are by operation of law a public charge on real property and the property owner must accept enforcement against the property in that respect?

Applicant is the trustee in bankruptcy of Société civile immobilière Senior Home, a French registered company. Gemeinde Wedemark is forcing the sale of real estate belonging to Senior home, linked to arrays in real estate tax. It is suggested by the referring court that the qualification under German law, of real property tax (also known as ‘stamp duties’ or ‘estate taxes’), owed to public authorities, as rights in rem, mean that the forced sale of the site at issue, as a result of Article 5(1) of Regulation 1346/2000, is covered by German law and is therefore not subject to French law, which in the case at issue is the lex concursus of the insolvency proceedings that have been opened. Regulation 1346/2000 in the meantime has been replaced by Regulation 2015/848 however the provisions at issue have not materially changed.

Szpunar AG Opined end May (other than a Tweet I have kept schtum about the Opinion so far, for exam reasons).The Opinion is as yet not available in English.

In terms of applicable law, Article 4 of the Regulation is the general rule: unless otherwise stated by the Regulation, the law of the State of the opening of proceedings is applicable.

The general rule of Article 4 inevitably had to be softened for quite a number of instances. As noted in the introduction, insolvency proceedings involve a wide array of interests. The expediency, efficiency and effectiveness craved inter alia by recital 2 (old; now 3) of the Regulation, has led in particular to the automatic extension of all the effects of the application of the lex concursus by the courts in the State of opening of the proceedings. That could not be done without there being exceptions to the general rule:

In certain cases, the Regulation excludes some rights over assets located abroad from the effects of the insolvency proceedings (as in Articles 5, 6 and 7). In other cases, it ensures that certain effects of the insolvency proceedings are governed not by the law of the State of the opening, but by the law of another State, defined in the abstract by Articles 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15. In such cases, the effects to be given to the proceedings opened in other States are the same effects attributed to a domestic proceedings of equivalent nature (liquidation, composition, or reorganization proceedings) by the law of the State concerned. Of particular note are precisely Article 5 on third parties’ rights in rem, but also Article 10 on employment contracts, and Article 13 on ‘detrimental acts’.

The precise demarcation of rights in rem hovers between the classic interpretative rule of EU private international law, namely the principle of autonomous interpretation, and the lack of a European Ius Commune on what rights in rem are. The Advocate General completes his already extensive analysis in Lutz, with a combined reference to the recitals of the Regulation, and the Virgós/Schmit Report.

In particular, Article 5(2) does serve as something of a straightjacket, leading to the conclusion that rights in rem require restrictive interpretation: once the first hurdle of qualification using national law (of the rei sitae) is passed, the right also needs to  meet with the fundamentals of what the Virgos-Schmit report defines as rights in rem (at 41-45 of the Opinion): these are (at 103 of the Report): a right in rem basically has two characteristics

(a) its direct and immediate relationship with the asset it covers, which remains linked to its satisfaction, without depending on the asset belonging to a person’s estate or on the relationship between the holder of the right in rem and another person;

(b) the absolute nature of the allocation of the right to the holder. This means that the person who holds a right in rem can enforce it against anyone who breaches or harms his right without his assent (e.g. such rights are typically protected by actions to recover); that the right can resist the alienation of the asset to a third party (it can be claimed erga omnes, with the restrictions characteristic of the protection of the bona fide purchaser); and that the right can thus resist individual enforcement by third parties and in collective insolvency proceedings (by its separation or individual satisfaction).

The Virgos-Schmit report in this respect cross-refers to the 1968 Brussels Convention however it is noteworthy that the CJEU, in defining rights in rem under the now Brussels I recast Regulation, does not in turn refer to the Virgos-Schmit report.

In conclusion therefore the AG suggests that the right at issue is indeed a right in rem under Article 5. Finally, that it benefits a public authority (the inland revenue) rather than a private individual or legal person, does not impact upon that qualification: Szpunar AG correctly highlights that the public character of the creditor is not a determining criteria in either the recitals of the Regulation or the Virgos-Schmit report.

A prima facie straightforward question met by complete analysis of the AG which in passing solves more issues than those raised by the referring court: this Opinion may well become an important part of authoritative sources in applying the Insolvency Regulation..

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.7.1 ).

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