Sovereign debt litigation in Kuhn: ‘Civil and commercial’ viz bearers of Greek bonds. CJEU holds litigation falls outside of Brussels I Recast. Pays lip-service only to Fahnenbrock.

Update 22 November 2018 see yesterday’s comments by prof Mankowski here. He is right to point out the reduction in practice of defence mechanisms to Greece, to sovereign immunity. However that defence is of course a strong one, as I pointed out here, given that even the German courts have acepted it.

I had earlier reviewed Bot AG’s Opinion in C-308/17 Leo Kuhn, in which the Court held on Thursday. The case concerns the retrofit introduction of CACs – Collective Action Clauses, in Greek bonds, allowing the amendment to the initial borrowing terms by decisions adopted by a qualified majority, of the remaining capital owed and applying also to the minority.

Along the lines suggested by the AG, the Court finds the litigation not to relate to civil and commercial matters (likely also leading to a finding on the basis of national law, of sovereign immunity).

Extensive reference is made of course to Fahnenbrock , among others. Yet the Court pays lip service only to Fahnenbrock: in that judgment, it launched the ‘direct and immediate’ formula: in that case it found it was the bondholders’ vote, which led directly and immediately to changes to the financial conditions of the securities in question, not the public authorities’ actions essentially dictating it: therefore that litigation was held not to be actum iure imperii, and it was found to be subject to the service of documents Regulation.

In Kuhn, Brussels I Recast is engaged and here the Court would seem to be inclined to follow (also) Bot AG’s Opinion in Fahenbrock (where he was not so followed): there, Bot AG had opined that the Greek State’s intervention in the contracts was direct and not at a distance from the contract. His focus was more on the circumstances of the case than on the legal nitty-gritty. There are certainly many similarities between Fahnenbrock and Kuhn: in the latter, the crammed-down haircut was formally the result of a majority decision of bondholders to accept the restructuring offer made by the Greek State. Not unlike Fahnenbrock were as noted it was also a bondholders’ vote which was the formal trigger.

In Kuhn, the Court emphasises the context, like Bot to no avail had done in Fahnenbrock: after a succinct tour d’horizon of the debt crisis leading to the CACs, the Court concludes ‘It follows that, having regard to the exceptional character of the conditions and the circumstances surrounding the adoption of Law 4050/2012, according to which the initial borrowing terms of the sovereign bonds at issue in the main proceedings were unilaterally and retroactively amended by the introduction of a CAC, and to the public interest objective that it pursues, the origin of the dispute in the main proceeding stems from the manifestation of public authority and results from the acts of the Greek State in the exercise of that public authority, in such a way that that dispute does not fall within ‘civil and commercial matters’ within the meaning of Article 1(1) of Regulation No 1215/2012.’

I suggested at the time that ‘direct and immediate effect’ is not a criterion which is easy to handle. Yet in solely emphasising context, the Court now casts the net too wide in my view, and at the very least leads to more speculation (pun intended) in the litigation context of sovereign debt.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Heading 2, Heading 2.2, Heading 2.2.9.

 

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