Posts Tagged Civil and commercial

Ships classification and certification agencies: The immunity ship ain’t sailing according to Szpunar AG in Rina.

In C‑641/18 Szpunar AG opined on Tuesday and notes that the request of the referring court brings to mind the current debate about the influence of human rights on private international law. It seeks to ascertain whether and, if so, to what extent the scope of ‘civil and commercial’ in the Brussels Ia Regulation may be influenced by the interest in ensuring access to the courts, a right guaranteed by Article 47 Charter.

(The case itself is subject to Brussels I which did not yet include ‘acta iure imperii’. As the AG notes at 56, this is merely a clarification following CJEU interpretation of the previous concept.

Relatives of the victims, along with survivors of the sinking of the Al Salam Boccaccio ’98, a ship sailing under the flag of the Republic of Panama, which happened in 2006 on the Red Sea and caused the loss of more than a thousand lives, have brought an action before the District Court, Genoa against the companies Rina SpA et Ente Registro Italiano Navale. Claimants argue that the defendant’s certification and classification activities, the decisions they took and the instructions they gave, are to blame for the ship’s lack of stability and its lack of safety at sea, which are the causes of its sinking.

Defendants plead immunity from jurisdiction. They state that they are being sued in respect of certification and classification activities which they carried out as delegates of a foreign sovereign State, namely the Republic of Panama. They argue activities in question were a manifestation of the sovereign power of the foreign State and the defendants carried them out on behalf of and in the interests of that State.

The AG first of all reviews how the principle of customary international law concerning the jurisdictional immunity of States relates to the scope ratione materiae of Brussels Ia. He starts his analysis noting that in the absence of codification at international level (international conventions on the issue not having met with great success), the principle concerning the jurisdictional immunity of States remains to a large extent governed by customary international law.

There is little use in quoting large sections of the Opinion verbatim so please do refer to the actual text: the AG opines (referring ia to C-154/11 Mahamdia) that it is unnecessary to refer to the principle of customary international law concerning State immunity from jurisdiction when considering the scope ratione materiae of Brussels Ia. Those principles he suggests do play a role when it comes to enforcing any exercise of such jurisdiction against the will of the party concerned.

At 46: ‘the distinction between disputes which are civil or commercial matters and those which are not must be drawn by reference to the independent criteria of EU law identified by the Court in its case-law. Consequently, an act performed in the exercise of State authority (acta iure imperii) from the perspective of the law relating to immunity, is not necessarily the same as an act performed in the exercise of State authority according to the independent criteria of EU law.’ (The latter as readers of the blog will know, are not always clearly expressed; see ia my review of Buak).

In the second place, the AG then considers whether an action for damages brought against private-law entities concerning their classification and/or certification activities falls within the scope of BIa. At 83, following extensive review of the case-law (almost all of which I also reviewed on the blog and for earlier cases, in Chapter 2 of the Handbook), the AG opines that neither the fact that the acts in question were performed on behalf of and in the interests of the delegating State nor the possibility of the State’s incurring liability for harm caused by those acts, in itself conclusively characterises those acts as ones performed in the exercise of powers falling outside the scope of the ordinary legal rules applicable to relationships between private individuals. 814/79 Rüffer also makes a non-conclusive appearance.

At 95 then follows the core of the factual assessment: defendants’ role is limited to carrying out checks in accordance with a pre-defined regulatory framework. If, following the revocation of a certificate, a ship is no longer able to sail, that is because of the sanction which, as the defendants admitted at the hearing, is imposed by Panama law. Not acta iure imperii – the issue falls under Brussels Ia.

Finally, must as a result of a plea of immunity from jurisdiction a national court decline to exercise the jurisdiction which it ordinarily derives from the Regulation? In a section which will be interesting to public international lawyers, the AG reviews international and EU law (particularly Directive 2009/15) and concludes that there is no principle in international law which grants immunity to certification agencies in cases such as the one at hand.

To complete the analysis, the AG opines that should the Court disagree with his views on immunity, the national court’s views on jurisdiction would not be impacted by the right to court guarantees of the Charter, for there is no suggestion at all that the victims would not have proper access to Panamian courts for their action.

Note of course that the Opinion does not address lex causae.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.16.1.1.

 

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Supreme v Shape: Dutch Appellate Court rules on the merits of immunity and A6 ECHR, takes Luxembourg by surprise.

Update 14 January 2020 see also review by Rishi Gulati here, with cross-references to the postings on gavclaw.com.

With the festive season approaching, I am happy to give the floor to María Barral Martínez, currently trainee at the chambers of Advocate General Mr Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona for her update on Supreme et al v Shape.

On 10 December, the Den Bosch Court of Appeal delivered its judgment on the main proceedings of the Supreme et al. v SHAPE case. The case concerns a contractual dispute between Supreme (a supplier of fuels) and SHAPE (the military headquarters of NATO). Supreme signed several agreements (so-called “BOA agreements”) to supply fuels to SHAPE in the context of a military operation in Afghanistan-ISAF-, mandated by the UNSC. Supreme also signed an escrow agreement with JFCB (Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, a military headquarters subject to SHAPE´s authority) to cover mutual potential payments after the mission/contract termination. In December 2015, Supreme instituted proceedings in the Netherlands against Shape/JFCB requesting the payment of certain costs. Moreover, Supreme sought, in the context of a second procedure, to levy an interim garnishee order targeting the escrow account in Belgium. The latter proceedings -currently before the Dutch Supreme Court- triggered a reference for a preliminary ruling (case C-186/19 « Supreme Site Services»)  as already commented in an earlier post, related to the Brussels I bis Regulation.

In the judgment on the merits, the Appellate Court addressed the Brussels I bis Regulation as well, albeit briefly. The Appellate Court asked parties whether the reference to the CJEU impacts the proceedings on the merits. Both parties were of the opinion that it was not the case. Moreover, the Court itself considered that since Shape and JFCB only invoked in their defence immunity of jurisdiction the parties had tacitly accepted the Dutch court’s jurisdiction.

In regards to the question of immunity of jurisdiction, the Dutch Appellate Court granted immunity of jurisdiction to Shape and JFCB on the basis of customary international law. It found it was inconclusive that immunity of jurisdiction in respect of Shape and JFCB flows from the provisions of the Protocol on the Status of International Military Headquarters Set up Pursuant to the North Atlantic Treaty (Paris Protocol 1952), or the Agreement on the Status of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Ottawa’s Agreement).

On the role of article 6 ECHR, contrary to what the District Court ruled on the judgment under appeal, the Court of Appeal held that Supreme had a reasonable dispute settlement mechanism available to it to submit its claims. Article 6.1 ECHR therefore would not be breached.  It argued that the judge must perform a case by case analysis in order to determine whether the international organisation offers reasonable alternative means to protect the rights enshrined under article 6.1 ECHR, and if needed set aside the immunity of jurisdiction of the international organisation. The Court concluded that the Release of Funds Working Group, which was agreed by the parties to settle any possible contractual differences, can be considered, under Dutch law, as a reasonable dispute settlement mechanism and therefore, the Court has no jurisdiction.

At the public hearing in C-186/19 held in Luxembourg on 12 December, the CJEU could not hide its surprise when told by the parties that the Dutch Appellate Court had granted immunity of jurisdiction to Shape and JCFB. The judges and AG wondered whether a reply to the preliminary reference would still be of any use. One should take into account that the main point at the hearing was whether the “civil or commercial” nature of the proceedings for interim measures should be assessed in the light of the proceedings on the merits (to which interim measures are ancillary, or whether the analysis should solely address the interim relief measures themselves.

Maria.

 

 

 

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Dinant Bar v maître JN. CJEU confirms Bar membership fees are in principle neither civil and commercial nor contractual.

The CJEU on Thursday last week largely confirmed Saugmansdgaard ØE’s Opinion which I reviewed here, in C-421/18 Dinant Bar v maître JN, however with different emphasis than the AG. The Court insists that in accordance with Belgian law, registration with the bar association constitutes a legal obligation to which practising as a professional lawyer is subject, and that individuals wishing to practise that profession must be a member of a bar association and must comply with decisions taken by that association, notably as regards the payment of fees.

Disputes concerning those fees then are not civil and commercial and therefore not covered by Brussels I a, unless,

‘in so far as those fees constitute consideration for services freely consented to, including insurance services, which that bar association may have negotiated with a third party with a view to obtaining more advantageous terms for its lawyer members, the obligation to pay those fees would be of a contractual nature and, therefore, an action initiated with a view to ensuring that that obligation is performed would come within the scope of Article 7(1)(a) of Regulation No 1215/2012. It is for the referring court to ascertain whether that is the case in the dispute in the main proceedings’.

The AG had emphasised the factual circumstances of the case, in which the Bar had lowered the fees for maître JN to the very insurance premium only. In most cases of course Bar fees disputes probably will be about more than that and the Court’s approach may lead to split (non)applicability of Brussels Ia, in which payments for services freely consented to will have to be distinguished from those due in return for public service obligations. (Bar councils may wish to split these sums in their yearly invoice).

Geert.

Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.2.2

 

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Supreme v Shape: Lifting attachments (‘garnishments’) on assets of international organisations in another state. Dutch Supreme Court refers to CJEU re exclusive jurisdiction, and the impact of claimed immunity.

Many thanks Sofja Goldstein for alerting me a while back to the Hoge Raad’s decision to refer to the CJEU and what is now known to be Case C-186/19. The case concerns SHAPE’s appeal to a Dutch Court to lift the attachment aka ‘garnishment’ of a Belgian NATO /SHAPE escrow account by Supreme Services GmbH, a supplier of fuel to NATO troops in Afghanistan. As Sofja reports, in 2013, Supreme and Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFCB), the Netherlands-based regional headquarters of NATO, set up an escrow bank account in Belgium with the goal of offsetting any contingent liabilities on both sides at the end of Basic Ordering Agreements (BOAs). Supreme Services in 2015 initiated proceedings against SHAPE and JFCB in the Netherlands arguing that the latter parties had not fulfilled their payment obligations towards Supreme. It also attached the account in Belgium.

SHAPE and JFCB from their side seized the Dutch courts for interim relief, seeking (i) to lift the attachment, and (ii) to prohibit Supreme from attaching the escrow account in the future.

The Supreme Court acknowledges the Dutch Courts’ principle jurisdiction at the early stages of the procedure on the basis of Article 35’s rule concerning provisional measures, yet at this further stage of the proceedings now feels duty-bound firstly under Article 27 of Brussels Ia to consider whether Article 24 paragraph 5 applies (Belgium being the place of enforcement of any attachment should it be upheld); further and principally, whether the Brussels I a Regulation applies at all given that SHAPE and NATO invoke their immunity (it is in my view unlikely that the invocation or not of an immunity defence may determine the triggering or not of Brussels Ia), this immunity interestingly being the result of a Treaty not between The Netherlands and NATO but rather resulting from the headquarter agreement between NATO and Belgium.

An interesting example of public /private international law overlap.

Geert.

 

 

 

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Dinant Bar v maître JN. Bar membership fees. Saugmansdgaard ØE on whether they are at all ‘civil and commercial’ and if so, whether they are ‘contractual’.

In C-421/18 Saugmansdgaard ØE opined (Opinion a yet available in a handful of languages only, not including English) on the issue of ‘civil and commercial’ (last reviewed by the Court in Buak) and ‘contract’ (within Article 7(1) Brussels Ia.

At issue was the relationship between a France-domiciled practising lawyer, registered with the Dinant (Belgium) Bar, and that Bar. Maître JN, now a very occasional practitioner it seems, had been refusing to pay his Bar Membership fees even after the Bar council had reduced them to the level of insurance premiums paid by it to the insurance company running the collective professional insurance scheme.

The referring court at Namur had not in fact asked the CJEU about the interpretation of ‘civil and commercial’. It was the EC’s comments which triggered Saugmansdgaard ØE’s review of that issue (albeit he insists the final call is up to the referring court). He refers to the public interest duties carried out by the Bar Council (in particular, ensuring the public’s trust in the proper representation before the judicial authorities), and the authority entrusted to the Council by Belgian’s code of civil procedure (particularly at 34). At 35 ff he then considers whether in its collection of the Bar fees set by and due to it by the registered lawyers, the Council acts in the exercise of that authority, and decides it does not: the fees are determined by the general council of the Bar and in the main represent the professional insurance fees.  That is all the more made clear by the fact that in the case of maître JN the Bar had reduced the fees to the exact amount paid to the insurance company.

The dispute therefore he advices is about pennies, not power.

Turning to the issue of ‘contract’ reference is made ia to the recent CJEU decision in Kerr. Particularly at 81 ff the Advocate General emphasises the specificities of the case: the solicitor in question had effectively retired yet chose to continue to pay Bar membership fees. In contrast to for instance Austro-Mecana and more in line with Kerr (and in contrast also one could argue with fully practising lawyers) the voluntary character of the relationship is core.

Geert.

 

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French Supreme Court on cover by Lugano of legal fees in criminal proceedings – and the proper limits of the ordre public test.

Thank you Hélène Péroz (by now a firmly established reliable source for French PIL case-law) for alerting me to French Supreme Court Case no. 17-28.555, judgment issued late January.

The criminal courts at Geneva have condemned claimant, domiciled at France, to pay a criminal fine of 3,600.00 Swiss Francs, a well as 36,000.00 Swiss Francs towards defendant’s legal fees. The latter were incurred given that defendant in current legal proceedings had entered a civil claim in the Swiss criminal proceedings: a claim which the Geneva judge ordered to be settled through the Swiss courts in civil cases.

Upon fighting the request for exequatur, claimant first of all argues that the French courts’ acceptance of exequatur via the Lugano Convention is outside the scope of that Convention. The matter, he argues, is not civil or commercial seeing as the civil claim was not even entertained.

This of course brings one to the discussion on the scope of application of Lugano (and Brussels Ia) and the perennial difficulty of focusing on nature of the claim v nature of the underlying facts and exercised powers. Now, for civil claims brought before criminal courts there is not so much doubt per se, seeing inter alia that Article 7(3) Brussels Ia (Article 5(4) Lugano 2007) has a specific head of jurisdiction for such civil claims. Claimant’s point of argument here evidently is that this should not cover this particular claim seeing as the legal representation at issue turned out to be without purpose. Not being privy to the discussions that took place at the Geneva court, I evidently do not know the extent of discussion having taken place there (there is no trace of it in the Supreme Court judgment) however one assumes that the Geneva proceedings in theory could have dealt with the civil side of the litigation yet for a factual or legal reason eventually did not. Over and above the intensity of discussions being difficult to employ as a decisive criterion, one can also appreciate the difficulty in separating the civil from the criminal side of the argument made by defendant’s lawyers.

Of perhaps more general interest is the Supreme Court’s rebuke of the lower courts’ treatment of ordre public. Exequatur was granted because, the lower courts had held, the judge in the substantial proceedings has the sovereign right to establish costs under the relevant national procedure. This, it was suggested by these lower courts, shields it from ordre public scrutiny – a clear misunderstanding of the ordre public test. Part of the ordre public considerations had also been that the relative slide in the strength of the Swiss Franc v the Euro, and the generally higher costs of living in Switzerland, put the cost award in perspective. Moreover the judges found that there was insufficient information on the length of the proceedings in Switserland, and the complexity of the arguments. That, however, is exactly the kind of data which the judge in an exequatur assessment ough to gauge.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2n ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.2.2.

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Non multa, sed multum. Sovereign debt litigation in Kuhn leads to surprising final (?) curtain in Vienna.

In C-308/17 Leo Kuhn the CJEU held that Brussels Ia was not engaged for the matter is acta iure imperii. I suggested in my review of the judgment that in solely emphasising context, the Court casts the net too wide. I also emphasised that Greece’s sovereign immunity defense, lonely an argument as it may be, is a strong argument (I referred to the German approach to same): non multa sed multum.

Thank you Stephan Walter for alerting us to, and analysing the final judgment in Vienna: Greece enjoys immunity; and even if it had not (this is how I understand Stephan’s analysis – I trust he will correct me should I be wrong), the court would have declined jurisdiction given that the ‘assets held in Austria’ head of jurisdiction, was not mentioned in the particulars of claim.

Stephan clearly is not happy with the judgment: the Supreme Court not only reverses its earlier stance on immunity; it also could be argued it should be estopped as it were (my words, not Stephan’s) from disciplining a claimant’s absence of reference to residual private international law rules, given that hitherto the Supreme Court had never strayed from steering the course of Brussels Ia applying.

Geert.

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

 

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