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 22.214.171.124
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.