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.