The São Paulo Panels. Szpunar AG on declaratory actions and the jurisdictional impact of their contractual roots.

First Advocate-General Szpunar opined in C-265/21 AB, AB-CD v Z EF a few weeks back. The case-name is a victim of the anonymisation rules and I propose we name it ‘the São Paulo Panels’, this being its ultimate subject: 20 panels exhibited at the 1977 São Paulo Art Biennial (this much information one can read in the publicly available referral decision and the AG Opinion). Tobias Lutzi has summary of the most relevant sections in the Opinion here and in the interest of disclosure I should add I am instructed for Belgium in the case.

Early in the 1980s the original German artists handed over the panels to an art gallery in Belgium. The nature of the deposit (sale or deposit) is contested. The owner of the art gallery later sold the panels to her daughter and son-in-law, who requested Christie’s of London to sell the panels. That sale has been suspended since 2013 (hence the case is subject to Brussels I, not Brussels Ia however there is no material difference) in light of one of the original artists, the wife (her husband had passed away) claiming ownership; the wife in the meantime has passed away, too, and the proceedings are continued by their son. (The CJEU may find this of note, seeing as the original proceedings at the outset involved at least one of the original contracting parties).

Current proceedings result from the Belgian-domiciled claimants having requested the Belgian courts to confirm their ownership of the objects. The Belgian courts are asking the CJEU whether the case involves A7(1) special jurisdiction for contract and if so, where the forum contractus lies. Claimants argue the claim engages A7(1) on the basis of the original contract which they argue is one in sale, with performance in Belgium. The defendant argues the original contract was one of deposit, and that a declaratory claim such as the one at issue, with the parties to the proceedings not being parties to the original contract, does not engage A7(1) at all, instead only being subject to Article 4, domicile of the defendant.

Clearly the questions will enable the Court to clarify whether its Feniks, Flight Right etc case-law, with their extended notion of ‘contract’, applies across the board, without much need to take the specific context of those cases into account; or whether there ought to be some restraint on the reach of the forum contractus. One assumes it may seek some inspiration in its approach to distinguishing contracts and torts, eg in Wikingerhof (or Sharpston AG’s earlier ‘ancestry’ test for the Rome I and II distinction in Ergo). Without restraint, CJEU De Bloos’ great window of opportunity for claim formulation hence forum shopping is likely to be reinvigorated.

The AG (44) ff explains the initial restrictive approach to forum contractus per CJEU Handte, and (53) confesses not to be a fan of a restrictive interpretation of A7, arguing such interpretation would undermine the Regulation’s intention, in formulating the special jurisdictional rules, of ensuring that courts with a particular suitability to hear the case will have jurisdiction to do so. The alternative view is that too wide an interpretation undermines the Regulation’s DNA of predictability and the statutorily expressed view that A4 forum rei is the core principle of the Regulation, and the established case-law in support of this principle that exceptions to it need to be restrictively interpreted. The AG refers more than once in his Opinion to scholarship of one of my Doktorkinder, Dr Michiel Poesen, to substantiate the scholarly debate.

He subsequently discusses the later wider CJEU wider approach, starting with Engler and culminating in flight right, concludes that the current claim falls within that wider framework but does emphasise that the contract must lie at the foundation of the claim: ‘et sur laquelle se fonde l’action du demandeur’ (75).

(76) ff discusses the important question how far the judge, faced with opposition to her /his jurisdiction, must go in the consultation or interpretation of the contract, to establish whether or not the claim finds its foundation in contract. Per Kolassa and Universal Music, both the claimant’s and the defendant’s arguments to that effect are said by the AG to be of relevance. (83) Seeing as both parties argue their position with reference to a contract, the AG advises that on the facts of the case, the contractual foundation is clear; (84) that the contract which is the initial source of the rights and obligations (“la source originale des droits et obligations litigieux”) is the anchor point for the forum contractus, i.e. the disputed 1980s contract and not the later contract of sale; and (86) ff, that the judge will have to apply the classic A7(1) cascade: if the initial contract cannot be qualified as one for the sale of movable goods or a service, the CJEU Tessili Dunlop method of looking over the fence will have to be applied. (The referral decision is short on factual elements to help the AG opine on this point).

Fun with contracts…..

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, 2.419 ff.

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