Posts Tagged Court of Justice
E-date Advertising for companies. Libel, internet and centre of interests. Bobek AG in Bolagsupplysningen OÜ.
Bobek AG opined mid July in C-194/16 Bolagsupplysningen OÜ on the application of the Shevill rule, as supplemented by e-Date advertising, to infringements of a company’s personality rights over the internet. This is one of those Opinions where summaries fall much, much short of the contents of the original document and I should urge readers to consult the Opinion in full.
An Estonian company operating in Sweden was blacklisted for its allegedly questionable business practices on the website of a Swedish employers’ federation. The Advocate General dryly notes ‘(a)s inevitably happens in the era of anonymous internet bravery, universally known for its genteel style, subtle understanding, and moderation, the website attracted a number of hostile comments from its readers. The Estonian company brought an action before the Estonian courts against the Swedish federation. It complained that the published information has negatively affected its honour, reputation and good name. It asked the Estonian courts to order that the Swedish federation rectify the information and remove the comments from its website. It also requested damages for harm allegedly suffered as a result of the information and comments having been published online.
Can the Estonian courts assert jurisdiction to hear this action on the basis of the claimant’s ‘centre of interests’, a special ground of jurisdiction that the Court previously applied to natural persons, but so far not legal persons? If they can, then second, how should the centre of interests of a legal person be determined? Third, if the jurisdiction of the Estonian courts were to be limited to situations in which the damage occurred in Estonia, the referring court wonders whether it can order the Swedish federation to rectify and remove the information at issue.
The Advocate General suggests there are two novelties in the questions referred: a legal person (not a natural one) is primarily asking for rectification and removal of information made accessible on the internet (and only secondarily for damages for the alleged harm to its reputation). This factual setting, the AG suggests, leads to the question of how far the seemingly quite generous rules on international jurisdiction previously established in Shevill with regard to libel by printed media, and then further extended in eDate to the harm caused to the reputation of a natural person by information published on the internet, may be in need of an update. At the real root of course of the generous rules on jurisdiction for tort, lies the Court’s judgment in Bier. Bobek AG joins Szpunar AG in severely questioning the wisdom of the Bier rule in the age of internet publications.
Now, human rights scholars will enjoy the Advocate General’s tour d’horizon on whether and to what extend companies may enjoy human rights. On the whole I believe he is absolutely right in suggesting that there ought to be no difference between legal persons and natural persons when it comes to the very possession of personality rights (such as the right not to be libelled) and that neither is there any ground to distinguish between natural persons and legal persons when it comes to the jurisdictional consequences of upholding these rights.
Then, to the jurisdictional consequences (para 73 onwards): the AG suggests that ‘putting Shevill online’ (the AGs words) essentially means granting the forum to a large number of jurisdictions simultaneously, 28 within the European Union. That is because allegedly false or libelous information on the internet is instantly accessible in all Member States. Bobek AG suggests such multiplicity of fora stemming from the distribution criterion is very difficult to reconcile with the objective of predictability of jurisdictional rules and sound administration of justice enshrined in recital 15 of the Brussels I Recast Regulation, and does not serve the interests of claimant (although the AG concedes that in litigation practice, sending the defendant on a goose chase throughout the EU may be an attractive proposition). Now, in Bier the CJEU upheld jurisdiction for both locus damni and for locus delicti commissi on the grounds that this was attractive from the point of view of evidence and conduct of proceedings: this gives both the ‘special link’ which the special jurisdictional rules require. Whether the Court will be swayed by the argument that in the internet context, neither is of relevance, remains to be seen. It is true that number of clicks, which presumably is the relevant criteria to establish ‘damage’ in the context of Article 7(2), can be established just as well outside the jurisdiction as inside it (Google Analytics being used in a variety of national proceedings). It is also true however that Bier and Shevill are dogma for the Court and it is unlikely that it will simply abandon or even vary them.
Variation is all the more unlikely in the direction of the alternative suggested by the AG: locus delicti commissi relates to whoever is in charge of publishing and altering the content of the online information. So far so good: this is a useful clarification of Shevill in the internet age and one that has as such been so applied by national courts. Harm then would in the AG’s view have to be defined as where the reputation of the claimant was most strongly affected. That is the place of his centre of interests. The AG further suggests (at 104 ff) that in the case of a profit-making legal person, that is, a company, the jurisdiction is likely to correspond to the Member State where it attains the highest turnover. In the case of non-profit organisations, it is likely to be the place where most of its ‘clients’ (in the broadest sense of the word) are located. In both cases, such a Member State is likely to be the one where the damage to reputation and therefore to its professional existence is going to be felt the most. However in all cases, assessments needs to be fact-specific, and moreover, more than one centre of interests could potentially be established (at 116); that latter concession of course is not likely to endear the AG to the Court, given the requirement of predictability.
Answering then the query re injunctions (under the assumption that is an injunction sought by way of final remedy, not an interim measure), the AG employs the possibility of conflicting directions issued by courts with jurisdiction as to the merits of the case, as further argument to support his view on locus damni. This issue could raise interesting discussions on the usefulness of directions to remove internet content from particular websites only.
All in all, there is an awful lot of to the point analysis by the AG in this opinion. However the Court’s repeated reluctance to vary Bier and Shevill, a formidable obstacle.
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 188.8.131.52.
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?
Status updated: can a ‘relationship’ be a ‘contract’? CJEU says it’s complicated in Granarolo, and complements the Handte formula.
In C-196/15 Granarolo, extensive reference is made to Brogsitter, in which the CJEU held that the fact that one contracting party brings a civil liability claim against the other is not sufficient to consider that the claim concerns ‘matters relating to a contract’ within the meaning of Article 7(1) Brussels I Recast. That is the case only where the conduct complained of may be considered a breach of contract, which may be established by taking into account the purpose of the contract, which will in principle be the case only where the interpretation of the contract which links the defendant to the applicant is indispensable to establish the lawful or, on the contrary, unlawful nature of the conduct complained of against the former by the latter.
Kokott AG Opined that there was no such contractual relationship in the case at hand: see my review of the Opinion. The Court held last week and was less categorical. It suggests a contractual relationship between the parties (which did not have a framework agreement in place: rather a long series of one-off contracts) should not be excluded: the long-standing business relationship which existed between the parties is characterised by the existence of obligations tacitly agreed between them, so that a relationship existed between them that can be classified as contractual (at 25).
What follows can be considered a CJEU addition to the rather byzantine double negative C-26/91 Handte formula: ‘matters relating to a contract is not to be understood as covering a situation in which there is no obligation freely assumed by one party towards another’. In Granarolo at 26 the Court notes
The existence of a tacit relationship of that kind cannot, however, be presumed and must, therefore, be demonstrated. Furthermore, that demonstration must be based on a body of consistent evidence, which may include in particular the existence of a long-standing business relationship, the good faith between the parties, the regularity of the transactions and their development over time expressed in terms of quantity and value, any agreements as to prices charged and/or discounts granted, and the correspondence exchanged.
These criteria obviously are quite specific to the question at hand yet it is the first time the Court, carefully, ventures to give indications of some kind of a European ius commune on the existence of ‘a contract’.
Whether any such contract then is a contract for the sale of goods or one for services, is not a call the Court wishes to make. It lists the various criteria it has hitherto deployed, with extensive reference in particular to C-9/12 Corman-Collins, and leaves the decision up to the national court.
Make a mental note of Granarolo. It may turn out to have been quite pivotal. Geert.
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 184.108.40.206, Heading 220.127.116.11.9
For the facts of the case, and the reasoning of the AG in C-559/14 Meroni, I refer to my earlier posting. At the end of May (I am indeed still hoovering up the queue) the Court held very much alongside Kokott AG’s Opinion, I shall therefore not repeat its reasoning here. The CJEU does insist that if third parties rights are directly affected with the intensity as in the case at issue, that third person must be entitled to assert his rights before the court of origin (which English courts provide for), lest one runs the risk of the injunction being refused recognition under ordre public. As I had feared, the Court does not address the AG’s concern whether Mareva orders actually constitute a ‘judgment’ for the purposes of the Regulation.
Post Brexit, this considerable attraction of English courts in interlocutory proceedings might become a lot less real. (Like many of us, I am working on a short review of Brexit consequences for European private international law).
(Handbook of) European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 2, 18.104.22.168.1, 22.214.171.124.4
As I had feared /as was to be expected, the CJEU did not follow Szpunar AG’s lead in formally letting go of Case 21/76 Bier‘s Erfolgort /Handlungsort distinction, even if it did accept the AG’s rejection in the case at issue, of the mere presence of a bank account triggering jurisdiction for tort under (now) Article 7(2) Brussels I Recast.
Kolassa upheld jurisdiction in favour of the courts for the place of domicile of the applicant by virtue of where the damage occurred, if that damage materialises directly in the applicant’s bank account held with a bank established within the area of jurisdiction of those courts. In Universal Music the CJEU distinguished Kolassa: for in the latter case there where ‘circumstances contributing to attributing jurisdiction to those courts.’ In general, the Court held in Universal Music, ‘purely financial damage which occurs directly in the applicant’s bank account cannot, in itself, be qualified as a ‘relevant connecting factor’‘ (at 38) . ‘ It is only where the other circumstances specific to the case also contribute to attributing jurisdiction to the courts for the place where a purely financial damage occurred, that such damage could, justifiably, entitle the applicant to bring the proceedings before the courts for that place.‘ (at 39).
The Court at 38 flags a rather interesting and relevant argument for dismissing pure presence of a bank account as a determining connecting factor (a student of mine, Tony Claes, had made the same argument earlier this ac. year): a company such as Universal Music may have had the choice of several bank accounts from which to pay the settlement amount, so that the place where that account is situated does not necessarily constitute a reliable connecting factor. What the Court is essentially saying is that in such circumstance the applicant can manipulate jurisdiction and hence shop for a forum: which is not part of the jurisdictional rule for tort.
Crucially of course we are left having to ponder what exactly ‘other circumstances’ than location of bank account may imply.
(Handbook of) European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Headings 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52.7
In Brogsitter, the CJEU held that the fact that one contracting party brings a civil liability claim against the other is not sufficient to consider that the claim concerns ‘matters relating to a contract’ within the meaning of Article 7(1) Brussels I Recast. That is the case only where the conduct complained of may be considered a breach of contract, which may be established by taking into account the purpose of the contract, which will in principle be the case only where the interpretation of the contract which links the defendant to the applicant is indispensable to establish the lawful or, on the contrary, unlawful nature of the conduct complained of against the former by the latter.
At the end of December, Kokott AG Opined in C-196/15 Granarolo (even now, early April, the English version was not yet available) effectively applying Brogsitter to the case at hand: an action for damages for the abrupt termination of an established business relationship for the supply of goods over several years to a retailer without a framework contract, nor an exclusivity agreement. Ms Kokott (at 17) points out that unlike Brogsitter, there is no forceful link with the contractual arrangements between parties which would be the foundation for jurisdiction on the basis of contractual (non) performance (which there would have been had there been a framework relation between the parties). Rather, the source for a claim between the parties is a statutory provision (it is not specifically identified: however presumable it relates to unfair commercial practices) that existing business relations cannot be abruptly halted without due cause.
Article 7(2) therefore should determine jurisdiction (and Article 4 of course: domicile of the defendant), not Article 7(1).
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 184.108.40.206, Heading 220.127.116.11.9