Posts Tagged Aarhus

COMI for groups of companies. The Brussels commercial court in Parfip.

Thank you to both Patrick Wauthelet and Arie van Hoe for forwarding a copy of the judgment of the Brussels commercial court in Parfip. Please pop me an e-mail should you like a copy. The judgment is textbook application of CJEU precedent, including of course Eurofood and Interedil. Fully respecting the presumption of individual COMI in the case of a group of companies, the judgment refers to ia German and French precedent in rebuking the presumption. Not only were the companies effectively run from Brussels, notwithstanding non-Belgian seat for some of them; to third parties it was also clear that this was the case.

The judgment also confirms a narrow interpretation of the exception for ‘credit institutions’.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.6.1.2.Heading 5.6.1.2.4.

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Information law: when something is “on” an environmental measure

Aarhus, Access to Environmental Information Directive. Review of Henney [2017] EWCA Civ 844 .

 

UK Human Rights Blog

Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy v. Information Commissioner and Henney [2017] EWCA Civ 844 , 29 June 2017 – read judgment

As many will know, there are two different systems of freedom of information, the first and better known, the Freedom for Information Act 2000, and the second, the Environmental Information Regulations 2009. From the perspective of the inquirer (Mr Henney, here), the EIRs are the more favourable, and it was the differences between the systems which gave rise to this long-running dispute to do with energy Smart Meters.

The appeal went in favour of Mr Henney, and the Information Commissioner who had ruled in his favour. But the ultimate case is not resolved, as I shall explain.

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Not the Muppet show. FREP, FREP, FREP and Frogmore. Determination of COMI for groups and SPVs. The High Court pushes head office approach.

In [2017] EWHC 25 (Ch) the Frogmore Group,  there are three relevant companies: FREP (Knowle) Limited. FREP (Ellesmere Port) Limited and FREP (Belle Vale) Limited all of which were incorporated in and have their registered office in Jersey. The Companies form part of Frogmore group (of which the ultimate parent is Frogmore Property Company Limited). The Frogmore group specialises in real estate investment and management in the UK and each of the Companies owns a shopping centre located at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, Belle Vale in Liverpool and Knowle in Bristol respectively. Each of these shopping centres is managed by Frogmore Real Estate Investment Managers Limited (“FREPIM”), a company formed in England and Wales with its registered office and base for operations at London.

The Nationwide seeking enforcement of security, the group sought a declaration that COMI was at Jersey.

Marshall DJ held with reference to the familiar precedents of Eurofood and Interedil, both featuring heavily in my earlier postings on COMI, but also to Northsea Base Investments in which Birss J paid particular attention to the largest shareholders. Of note is that this reference to the largest shareholders does not entail (and indeed is not so constructed in either Northsea Base or Frogmore) that these get the pick of what COMI might entail. Rather, that the dealings with and experience of one place as being the place where the company’s interest are being managed from, is of particular interest for the Interedil emphasis on ascertainability by third parties. Marshall DJ also rekindles the discussion on whether Interedil’s emphasis is on identifying the ‘Head office’ of the companies: a conclusion which one needs to treat with caution for even in Interedil’s tacit support for the head office approach, the emphasis continues to lie with the combination of factors, all leading to transparency and publicity.

The High Court in the end held with reference to the following: (at 39; all wording as  the judgment but with one or two words left out)

(1) Day- to-day conduct of the business and activities of the Companies has been in the hands of an agent appointed in England, namely FREPIM. Under the Advisory Agreement (which was itself governed by English law and had an English exclusive jurisdiction clause) FREPIM was to take on full responsibility for providing a very large range of services to the Companies, including day-to-day management of the Shopping Centres and dealing with their financing, accounting, marketing and formulation of their business strategy. FREPIM  itself acknowledged that it worked on investment strategy and business plans for the Companies; instructed lawyers, surveyors and consultants for them; negotiated the purchase and sale of properties on their behalf; dealt with their borrowing requirements; and attended to the provision of accounting systems and the preparation of management and annual accounts. These actions were not just limited commercial activities but included the types of function that one would expect a head office to discharge.

(2) Day-to-day dealings with third parties are carried out from the offices of FREPIM at London. This is confirmed by the evidence of the activity of FREPIM described above but it is also supported by, for example, the Companies’ VAT returns where their business address is stated to be those offices. In their day-to-day dealings with third parties regarding expenditure these offices are given as the address for invoices.

(3) If one has regard to the point of view of the largest creditor, Nationwide, the Facility Agreement and the Nationwide Debentures are governed by English law and have an English jurisdiction clause. Under the Facility Agreement the Shareholder is the service agent for the Companies. In the case of the Nationwide Debentures, they have express reference to the power to appoint administrators under the 1986 Act. FREPIM took over the day-to-day contact with Nationwide as well as providing Nationwide with various pieces of information (such as quarterly compliance packs and accounts for borrowers) and did so from London. FREPIM also accepted that the management of the relationship between the Companies and Nationwide had been carried out by [the group treasurer] and the Chairman of the Frogmore group, who was also based in London.

(4) I also note that under the terms of the debentures securing the advances made by the Shareholder that the governing law is English, there is an English exclusive jurisdiction clause, that FREPIM is appointed the service agent of the Companies and there is express provision for the appointment of administrators under the 1986 Act.

The case is a good reminder that even intricate SPV structures should not detract from COMI finding on well-established principles. And that COMI determination always depends on a basket of criteria.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.6.1.2., Heading 5.6.1.2.4.

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CJEU finds Aarhus does not add value in Belgian VAT case.

As a practising lawyer registered to the Belgian Bar I had more than a passing interest in C‑543/14 Orde van Vlaamse Balies v Ministerraad. The case was held on 28 July. At issue is the reversal of the Belgian exemption of legal services from value-added tax (VAT). Of interest for this blog was the Bar Council’s argument that making legal services subject to VAT endangers access to court for individuals. Corporations recover said VAT from the tax their own sales incur. For them, making legal services subject to VAT has zero impact on their books.

The Bar Council sought support among others in the Aarhus Convention, particularly Article 9(4) and (5) on access to court:

‘3.       In addition and without prejudice to the review procedures referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2 above, each Party shall ensure that, where they meet the criteria, if any, laid down in its national law, members of the public have access to administrative or judicial procedures to challenge acts and omissions by private persons and public authorities which contravene provisions of its national law relating to the environment.

4.       In addition and without prejudice to paragraph 1 above, the procedures referred to in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 above shall provide adequate and effective remedies, including injunctive relief as appropriate, and be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive. Decisions under this article shall be given or recorded in writing. Decisions of courts, and whenever possible of other bodies, shall be publicly accessible.

5.       In order to further the effectiveness of the provisions of this article, each Party shall ensure that information is provided to the public on access to administrative and judicial review procedures and shall consider the establishment of appropriate assistance mechanisms to remove or reduce financial and other barriers to access to justice.’

Perhaps taking inspiration from the Grand Chamber’s approach in Vereniging Milieudefensie, and consistent with the suggestion of Sharpston AG, the five judges Chamber dismissed direct effect for Articles 9(4) and (5) of Aarhus, mostly because of the Conventions deference in Article 9(3) to ‘national law’.

Given the increasing (but as noted recently qualified; see also here) cloud the CJEU’s Grand Chamber had been given Aarhus, this finding by a five judge chamber that Aarhus Articles 9(4) and (5) do not have direct effect is a little awkward. It also puts the Grand Chamber itself in a challenging position. There are quite a number of Aarhus-related cases pending. Will this chamber’s view on 9(4) and (5) be followed by the assembled top dogs? And if it is not, can the Grand Chamber overrule or distinguish without embarrassment?

Geert.

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On ‘reasonable amounts’, Aarhus, and the price of environmental information. Sharpston AG in East Sussex County Council.

In East Sussex County Council Case C-71/14, the question under consideration is the application of Directive 2003/4 ‘s reasonableness test. Article 5 of the Directive provides that in situ access to information to for example public registers has to be free of charge. Further, that charges for supplying any environmental information must be ‘reasonable’.

In particular, how ‘objective’ must a reasonable cost be, seen against the light of English statutory law which allows local authorities to specify access (and other) fees providing that the amount ‘shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount’. Application in that case is made by a property search group with a view to commercial conveyancing. Sharpston AG on 16 April 2015 opined that even for commercial applicants, authorities’ hands are quite tied. In particular,

  • that Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 does not authorise a public authority to recover, through a charge for supplying information, all or part of the costs of establishing and maintaining a database in which it has organised the environmental information it holds and which it uses to answer requests for information of the type listed in a questionnaire such as that at issue in the main proceedings.
  • that a charge which does not exceed a reasonable amount within the meaning of Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is a charge which: (i) is set on the basis of objective factors that are known and capable of review by a third party; (ii) is calculated regardless of who is asking for the information and for what purpose; (iii) is set at a level that guarantees the objectives of the right of access to environmental information upon request and thus does not dissuade people from seeking access or restrict their right of access; and (iv) is no greater than an amount that is appropriate to the reason why Member States are allowed to make this charge (that is, that a member of the public has made a request for the supply of environmental information) and directly correlated to the act of supplying that information; that
  • In particular, a charge of a ‘reasonable amount’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is to be based on the costs actually incurred in connection with the act of supplying environmental information in response to a specific request. That will include the costs of staff time spent on searching for and producing the information requested and the cost of producing it in the form requested (which may vary). However, it is not permissible for such a charge also to seek to recover overheads such as heating, lighting or internal services. And that
  • Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 requires public authorities to ensure that their charges do not exceed a reasonable amount, judged by the yardstick of what a ‘reasonable amount’ means objectively under EU law. That does not, as such, preclude a rule of national law according to which a public authority must satisfy itself that a charge levied meets that standard, however, Member State to ensure that there is (first) administrative and (then) judicial review of whether a public authority’s decision on what constitutes a reasonable charge is in conformity with the autonomous EU law meaning of what is ‘reasonable’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4.

In other words: the current wording in the relevant English statute, in the view of the AG, does not infringe the Directive. (It does in my view at least however add a layer of complication: for the authority’s subjective finding of reasonableness subsequently has to be checked, in two tiers of appeal (administrative cq judicial), against the Directive’s objective standard).

Aarhus is considered throughout the appeal and hence Charles Banner’s book on the Aarhus Convention, just out with Hart, a timely publication I would think.

Geert.

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Northsea Base Investment: A COMIng and going of SPVs, the High Court settles on familiar criteria

(Readers may want to search my earlier postings tagged ‘COMI’ for general context to the Insolvency Regulation and Centre of Main Interests).

Northsea Base Investment was first flagged to me early March by Bob Wessels, who expertly summarises facts and finding. Insolvency administrators were appointed out of court, however sought a High Court declaration finding COMI for the eight insolvent companies in England. Such finding assists with the ease of international travel of the administrators’ decisions. With ships sailing all over Europe and further afield, any decisions by the administrators are likely to have to be enforced outside of England. The sole shareholder of the holding company is incorporated in Nevis (the Saint Kitts and Nevis Federation) and in turn is held by three family trusts also based in Nevis. Marine Cross is a shipping agent incorporated in the UK with its registered offices in London. The companies are the only client of Marine Cross. All eight of the applicant companies are incorporated in Cyprus, share the same company registered office in Cyprus and have essentially the same form of Cypriot corporate documents.

Birss J held using the well established criteria in particular of Eurofood (in a group of companies, COMI has to be decided for each of them with individual legal personality) and Interedil (emphasis on third party ascertainability in the case of attempts to rebuke Article 3(1)’s presumption in favour of registered office being COMI) and settled on Marine Cross being the most relevant factor in determining COMI vis-a-vis the shipping companies: COMI being England. For the relevant holding companies (their Nevis-based shareholders were out of the equation), the High Court observed that these do not have operational functions. It held that their relations with London-based banks under financial agreements, all subject to English law and English jurisdiction, determined COMI as being in England, too.

The case is a good reminder that even intricate SPV structures should not detract from COMI finding on well-established principles.

Geert.

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Court of Justice dismisses Vereniging Milieudefensie in air quality appeal. Aarhus not always the jawbreaker in judicial review.

In Joined Cases C‑401/12 P to C‑403/12 P, the issues at stake are the scope of judicial review (in the specific context of information requests), the EU’s long and difficult relationship with locus standi in environmental matters (again though within the perhaps more narrow context of access to information), the correct implementation of the Aarhus Convention, and the direct effect of said Convention. The judgment which the ECJ issued yesterday, underlines the need to review the direct effect of international law on a case-by-case and indeed article-by-article basis. While it is clear that the European Court of Justice overall has great sympathy for the binding impact of the Aarhus Convention (see i.a. my postings on the ECJ’s judgments in cases related to the cost of environmental litigation), in this case the relevant environmental organisations failed to convince the ECJ that Article 9 of the Convention has direct effect.

Article 9 Aarhus provides a review procedure in the event requests for information have been refused. (Readers may wish to consult Article 9 themselves to judge direct effect or lack of it themselves).

Regulation 1367/2006 implements the Aarhus Convention is-a-vis the EU Institutions. The case concerns Article 10 of that regulation, entitled ‘Request for internal review of administrative acts’, which provides in paragraph 1 thereof: ‘Any non-governmental organisation which meets the criteria set out in Article 11 is entitled to make a request for internal review to the Community institution or body that has adopted an administrative act under environmental law or, in case of an alleged administrative omission, should have adopted such an act.

Article 2(1)(g) of that Regulation defines ‘administrative act’ as meaning: ‘any measure of individual scope under environmental law, taken by a Community institution or body, and having legally binding and external effects’.

The Netherlands, in accordance with Article 22 of the ambient air quality Directive, Directive 2008/50, had notified the Commission that it had postponed the deadline for attaining the annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide in nine zones and that it was availing itself of a specific exemption from the obligation to apply the daily and annual limit values for particulate matter. The Commission accepted that postponement. Vereniging Milieudefensie and Stichting Stop Luchtverontreiniging Utrecht submitted a request to the Commission for internal review of that decision pursuant to aforementioned Article 10(1). The EC refused internal review.  The Commission considered the request inadmissible as the concerned acts in their view were not “administrative acts” as defined in Article 2(1)(g), not being, the EC argued , of ‘individual scope’ but rather of general application.

The General Court sided with applicants: because Article 10(1) of Regulation 1367/2006 limits the concept of “acts” that can be challenged by NGOs to “administrative acts” defined in Article 2(1)(g) of the Regulation as “measures of individual scope”, it argued that the Regulation is not compatible with Article 9(3) Aarhus. That judgment was appealed by many. The AG in current case also sided with the applicants. (Albeit following a different reasoning than the General court).

The ECJ itself disagreed. The provisions of an international agreement to which the European Union is a party can be relied on in support of an action for annulment of an act of secondary EU legislation or an exception based on the illegality of such an act only where, first, the nature and the broad logic of that agreement do not preclude it and, secondly, those provisions appear, as regards their content, to be unconditional and sufficiently precise. (Ex multi, the ECJ quoted its judgment in the Emissions Trading Scheme case, C-366/10).

Article 9(3) Aarhus, the Court held, does not contain any unconditional and sufficiently precise obligation capable of directly regulating the legal position of individuals and therefore does not meet those conditions: since only members of the public who ‘meet the criteria, if any, laid down in … national law’ are entitled to exercise the rights provided for in Article 9(3), that provision is subject, in its implementation or effects, to the adoption of a subsequent measure at the national level. The Aarhus Contracting Parties enjoy have a broad margin of discretion when defining the rules for the implementation of the ‘administrative or judicial procedures’ (at 59 in fine).

We were quite getting used to Aarhus being employed as a jawbreaker by the ECJ and national courts alike. I am not saying those days are over. However Vereniging Milieudefensie does show both that we cannot assume the Convention’s empowering effect for all of its provisions, and secondly, that at the level of the Convention itself, beefing up one or two articles would certainly assist its implementation. (That in itself, of course, may become more difficult the more frequent the ECJ and national courts both in the EU and elsewhere, employ Aarhus against unwilling State authorities).

Geert.

PS note that in Joined Cases C‑404/12 P and C‑405/12 P, Stichting Natuur en Milieu, the ECJ mirrors this judgment with respect to an internal review of a Regulation setting maximum residue levels for pesticides.

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