When is a court ‘seized’ under EU civil procedure /private international law? The question is highly relevant in light of the application of the lis alibi pendens principle: the court seized second in principle has to cede to the court seized first. Williams J in  EWHC 2035 (Fam) MB v TB notes the limited attempt at harmonisation under EU law and hence the need for the lex fori to complete the procedural jigsaw.
On 8 July 2016 MB (the wife) issued a divorce petition seeking a divorce from TB (the husband). On 16 August 2016 the husband issued a divorce petition against the wife out of the Munich Family Court. On the 22 August 2016 the husband filed an acknowledgement of service to the wife’s petition asserting that the German court was first seized because it was ‘not accepted England is first seized, owing to failures to comply with art. 16 and 19 of Council Regulation (EC 2201/2003) and relevant articles of the EC Service Regulation (EC 1393/2007).
At issue were two considerations: whether seizure of the English courts had been effected; and whether the wife’s issuing of the petition on 8 July 2016 is an abuse of process on the basis that the wife did not at that time consider the marriage to have irretrievably broken down but was issuing a petition simply to secure the English jurisdiction in the event that a divorce was needed? This latter element amounts to disciplining a form of fraus, on which I have reported before – eg here that there is very little EU law.
In Regulation ‘Brussels IIa’ (2201/2003) – concerning jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in matrimonial matters and the matters of parental responsibility, as in the other Regulations, ‘seising of a Court’ is defined as:
- A court shall be deemed to be seised:
(a) at the time when the document instituting the proceedings or an equivalent document is lodged with the court, provided that the applicant has not subsequently failed to take the steps he was required to take to have service effected on the respondent;
(b) if the document has to be served before being lodged with the court, at the time when it is received by the authority responsible for service, provided that the applicant has not subsequently failed to take the steps he was required to take to have the document lodged with the court.
These ‘steps required’ are not further defined under EU law and hence rest with national law. Under relevant English law, Williams J held that the husband was aware of the wife’s petition before it was validly served on him, and that this was enough for the English courts to have been validly seized.