Posts Tagged Civil and commercial
Ships classification and certification agencies. The CJEU (again) on ‘civil and commercial’, and immunity.
I earlier reviewed Szpunar AG’s Opinion in C‑641/18 Rina, on which the Court held on 7 May, confirming the AG’s view. Yannick Morath has extensive analysis here and I am happy to refer. Yannick expresses concern about the extent of legal discretion which agencies in various instances might possess and the impact this would have on the issue being civil and commercial or not. This is an issue of general interest to privatisation and I suspect the CJEU might have to leave it to national courts to ascertain when the room for manoeuvre for such agencies becomes soo wide, that one has to argue that the binding impact of their decisions emanates from the agencies’ decisions, rather than the foundation of the binding effect of their decisions in public law.
I was struck by the reference the CJEU made at 50 ff to the exception for the exercise of official authority, within the meaning of Article 51 TFEU.
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 18.104.22.168.1.
Enforcement of unfair trading practices and ‘civil and commercial’. Szpunar AG extensively in Movic (re ticket touts).
Advocate-General Szpunar in his Opinion in C-73/19 Belgische Staat v Movic BV et al refers in footnote to the comment made by Yours Truly (much humbled) on p.38 of the Handbook, that the seminal Eurocontrol and Steenbergen judgments on the concept of ‘civil and commercial’ in the Brussels regime, each posit dual criteria for the concept but only ever have one of their two legs applied. The Opinion in general testifies to the complex picture that emerges in case-law on the issue.
The issue is a knock-out point under Brussels Ia and the majority of EU private international law instruments. If the case is not civil and commercial, European PIL does not apply and residual national law takes over. Despite or perhaps because of this core relevance, the debate on the concept is far from settled. I reported on it as recently as a few weeks back (Øe AG in C-189/19 Supreme Site; and a little before that C-421/18 Dinant Bar v maître JN,) and I expressed a need for serious chewing over following different strands of focus among the CJEU’s chambers (my post on C-579/17 Buak).
The case at issue concerns enforcement of Belgium’s unfair trading act, not as in C‑167/00 Henkel by a consumer group but rather by the public authorities of the Member State.
Movic BV of The Netherlands and the others defendants practices ticket touting: resale of tickets for leisure events. Belgium in recent years has been cracking down on the phenomenon and in conflict terms, has expressed an eagerness to qualify big chunks of e-commerce laws as lois de police. One assumes this explains the reluctance of the defendants to be hauled in front of a Belgian judge.
At 12: what the Belgian authorities are seeking, is
first, findings of infringement in respect of conduct constituting, inter alia, unfair commercial practices, secondly, an order for the cessation of such infringement, thirdly, an order for publicity measures to be taken at the expense of the defendants; fourthly, the imposition of a penalty payment in a fixed sum, due in respect of each and every infringement which may be found to have taken place after service of the judgment, and fifthly, permission for the fact of such infringement to be certified simply by means of a report drawn up by a sworn official of one of the authorities in question.
At 16: arguments against the issue being of a civil and commercial nature, are
first, unlike any other person, the Belgian authorities are not required to demonstrate that they have an interest of their own in bringing proceedings of the kind illustrated by the main proceedings, secondly, their powers of investigation are not available to legal persons governed by private law, and thirdly, they also have enforcement powers which are not available to such persons.
As for the issue of lack of requirement of showing interest:
The first authority signalled is C‑551/15 Pula Parking: acting in the public interest does not equate acting in the exercise of State authority. Per the same case and per Fahnenbrock, and Kuhn, neither, the AG points out, does origin of authority in Statute, equate acta iure imperii. The fact that a power was introduced by a law is not, in itself, decisive in order to conclude that the State acted in the exercise of State authority (at 32). Neither does it follow from C-271/00 Baten that that the mere fact of exercising a power which the legislature has specifically conferred on a public authority automatically involves the exercise of public powers (at 34).
The AG then more specifically discusses the issue of lack of requirement to show interest to establish standing. Here there are plenty of similarities with the consumer organisations at issue in Henkel (37 ff). The exemption does not mean that the entity enjoys a prerogative under which it has powers altering the civil or commercial nature of its legal relationship with the private law entities, or the subject matter of the proceedings in which a cessation action is brought. Similarly, it has no such powers as regards the procedural framework within which the proceedings arising out of those relationships are heard, which is identical whatever the status of the parties to the proceedings may be.
Further, with respect to the powers of investigation: here the AG reads C‑49/12 Sunico as meaning that to exclude proceedings from the scope of ‘civil and commercial matters’, (at 53)
it is not sufficient to identify national provisions which, in abstracto, authorise a public authority to gather evidence through the use of its public powers and to use such evidence in legal proceedings. Equally, it is not sufficient to find that that evidence has in fact been used in the proceedings. In order to exclude the proceedings from the scope of that expression, it must also be determined, in concreto, whether, by virtue of having used that evidence, the public authority is not in the same position as a person governed by private law in analogous proceedings.
(In the case at issue there are no such indications). This reading of Sunico makes the exemption exercise very much a factual one – which is not in itself unusual in the context of the case-law on ‘civil and commercial’. One hopes the Court itself will give clear guidance on how Sunico must be read.
The AG also zooms in on the request for penalty payments. Here, the core reference is C‑406/09 Realchemie. At 72 (after having analysed the issue): a procedure in which such payment is sought, falls within the scope of ‘civil and commercial matters’ where,
‘first, the purpose of the penalty payment is to ensure the effectiveness of the judicial decision given in the proceedings, which fall within the scope of that expression, and secondly, the penalty payment is a normal measure of civil procedure which is also available to private individuals, or which is imposed without exercising special powers that go beyond those arising from the rules of general law applicable to relationships between private individuals.’
(With both these boxes ticked in casu). This I believe is most sound.
Within the same context, the last argument refers to the need or not to instruct a bailiff to certify the existence (and frequency) of continued infringement: the relevant Belgian authorities can suffice with an oath by a civil servant. This is in fact not a point signalled by the referring court however the Belgian Government at hearing seemingly sought insurance cover as it were, effectively seeking sanction of its use of a civil servant statement in lieu of what ordinary parties would have to do, which is to instruct a bailiff. This, the AG suggest (at 75), does amount to exercise of public authority, but only then for that part of the claim (the penalty payment( against the Dutch defendants): weapons which an ordinary person could not avail themselves of (I would refer to C-271/00 Steenbergen here).
All in all the case illustrates the relatively narrow room for abstract pondering of the issue of ‘civil and commercial’. The Opinion is highly factual, and admirably on point viz the extensive CJEU authority. The need for highly factual considerations sits uneasily with the Regulation’s expressed DNA of predictability. However this squares with the CJEU case-law on same. And it bodes interestingly when we will start applying the corresponding Hague Judgments Convention provisions…
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Heading 2, Heading 2.2.
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.
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 22.214.171.124.1.
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).
Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 126.96.36.199
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.
French Supreme Court on cover by Lugano of legal fees in criminal proceedings – and the proper limits of the ordre public test.
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.
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2n ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 188.8.131.52.
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.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Heading 2, Heading 2.2, Heading 2.2.9.