Guest Editorial: Dickinson on Trust and Confidence in the European Community Supreme Court?

Throughout 2008, CONFLICT OF LAWS .NET will play host to twelve guest editors: distinguished scholars and practitioners in private international law, who have been invited to write a short article on a subject of their choosing. It is hoped that these guest editorials will provide a forum for discussion and debate on some of the key issues currently in the conflicts world, and I would very much encourage everyone to post comments.

The first editorial is on “Trust and Confidence in the European Community Supreme Court?” by Andrew Dickinson.

IMG_0003 Andrew Dickinson is a practising solicitor advocate (England and Wales) and consultant to Clifford Chance LLP. He is also a Visiting Fellow in Private International Law at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. Andrew is the co-author of State Immunity: Selected Materials and Commentary (OUP, 2004) and an editor of the International Commercial Litigation Handbook (LexisNexis, 2006). He has written widely in the areas of private and public international law – recently published papers include “Third-Country Mandatory Rules in the Law Applicable to Contractual Obligations: So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu?” (2007) 3 J Priv Int L 53 and “Legal Certainty and the Brussels Convention – Too Much of a Good Thing?”, ch 6 in P de Vareilles-Sommières (ed), Forum Shopping in the European Judicial Area (Hart Publishing, 2007).

Trust and Confidence in the European Community Supreme Court

Under Article 10 of the EC Treaty, the relations between the Member States and the Community institutions are governed by a principle of loyal co-operation (Case C-275/00 Commission v First NV [2002] ECR I-10943, para 49). In the area of private international law, now within Title IV of the EC Treaty, that principle has manifested itself in the relationship of mutual trust between Member States’ judicial systems in the application of the Brussels I Regulation and its predecessor Convention (Opinion 1/03, Lugano Convention [2006] ECR I-1145, para 163; Case C-159/02 Turner v Grovit [2004] ECR I-3565, para 72). To a certain degree, that relationship is, of course, a fiction. Some Member State courts are unwilling to trust certain of their continental cousins, whose reputation (deserved or undeserved) precedes them. Others are wholly undeserving of the fiduciary responsibility (see Case C-7/98, Krombach v Bamberski [2000] ECR I-1935).

Importantly, however, the principle of loyal co-operation not only requires the Member States to take all measures necessary to ensure the application and effectiveness of Community law, but also imposes on the Community institutions reciprocal duties of sincere co-operation with the Member States (Commission v First NV, above). Accordingly, a relationship of “common trust” supposedly exists between the Member States, on the one hand, and the European Court of Justice, on the other, in the performance of the latter’s primary function in ensuring that in the interpretation and application of the treaty the law is observed (EC Treaty, Art 220). In this connection, the question arises: “Is the Court of Justice really deserving of our trust?”

Three reasons, in particular, justify hesitation before giving an affirmative answer to that question. The first concerns the judicial, administrative, financial and procedural resources available to the Court. The current restriction on the number of judges and Advocates-General under the EC Treaty (Arts 221-222) inevitably restricts the number of cases that can be heard, particularly if (as is currently the case) the procedural rules entitle intervention by other interested parties and require a fixed, multi-layered procedure to be followed (ECJ Statute, Arts 20 and 23). Further, as the President of the Court of Justice has noted “the accelerated procedure laid down under Article 104a of the Rules of Procedure of the Court is not suited for dealing adequately with a high number of references for a preliminary ruling in areas such as visas, asylum and immigration, or judicial co-operation in civil and criminal matters” (see Council document 11759/1/07 REV 1 (en), p 3).

The result, inevitably, is delay in the administration of justice, a delay which is all the more important in situations in which the private rights and obligations of natural and legal persons are directly at stake. By way of example, of the four decisions of the ECJ in 2006 concerning the Brussels Convention, two (Case C-4/03, GAT and Case C-539/03, Roche Nederland) had been referred to the ECJ in 2003. Little wonder, therefore, that a reference to the Court is seen in some quarters as a useful way to gum up proceedings (a “Luxembourg torpedo”, perhaps) and focus the claimant’s mind on settlement.

Happily, the ECJ has itself on more than one occasion taken the initiative in proposing amendments to its statute and rules to create a more streamlined and flexible procedure for certain references for a preliminary ruling in the area of freedom, security and justice (see Council documents 13272/06; 17013/06; 11597/1/07 REV 1 (en); 11824/07). Unfortunately, it appears that the Council and the Member States have yet to act on that initiative.

The second reason concerns the expertise of the Court in matters of private law, and private international law in particular. Thus, the potted biographies of the current members of the Court appearing on the curia website suggest that significantly less than half have any experience of private practice. Unsurprisingly, the background of most lies in the areas of public and European law, and only two CVs (those of the judges from Slovenia and Romania) refer to private international law. This suggests a significant imbalance, particularly given the increasing prominence of “private law” instruments in the Community acquis.

The third reason, arguably the most troubling, concerns the unfavourable impression given by the Court’s reasoning in recent cases in this area, particularly those concerning the European jurisdiction instruments. Thus, the Court has appeared unconcerned by arguments raised concerning encouragement of abusive practices by litigants (Turner, above, para 53) and consequential difficulties in the due administration of justice (Case C-281/02, Owusu v Jackson [2005] ECR I-1383, paras 44-45). Suffice it to observe, to use one of the ECJ’s favoured expressions, it is not so much the fact that these arguments were rejected as the manner in which the Court curtly swept them under the carpet. More recently, in Case C-98/06, Freeport v Arnoldsson (10 November 2007), the ECJ refused to acknowledge the doubts which it had generated through a careless (and unnecessary) comment in its judgment in its earlier decision in the Réunion case ([1998] ECR I-6511, para 50), seeking instead to explain away the comment on an implausible basis (see here for the discussion on this website). Had the Court said “we went further than both the decision and the terms of the 1968 Convention required” or even “we went further than the decision required and we can see why it has caused confusion and dissatisfaction in some quarters”, its decision in Freeport would not have raised doubts. By deploying a judicial sleight of hand, however, the Court calls into question, once again, whether it is deserving of our common trust as the arbiter of an increasingly broad civil justice regime under EC law.

Like the principle of mutual trust in other Member State courts which the ECJ has emphasised, it is a fiduciary relationship from which the “beneficiaries” are not free to withdraw. But the importance of the Court’s role in our personal and professional lives is too important to allow the re-writing of history to pass without remark, particularly at a time when the ECJ is likely to exercise an increasingly significant role in the area of private law, as a result both of the recent tide of legislation under Title IV (the legacy of the rush to exercise competences created by the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Commission’s scoreboard turning activity in the early years of this century) and the intended removal by the Reform Treaty of the restrictions (currently, EC Treaty, Art 68) on the right of lower Member State courts to refer cases for preliminary ruling on a question of EC law. Improvements in the Court’s procedural rules (see above) may address some of the problems, but it is submitted that a more fundamental institutional reform is required. One option, which may merit further thought (and on which comments would be welcomed) would be to create a specialist “civil and commercial court” using the power conferred by Art 225a [256, post-Reform Treaty], with specifically tailored procedures and judges chosen for their expertise in, and sensitivity to, private law issues and the resolution of disputes between private parties. Absent reform of this kind, Europe’s supreme court may acquire a reputation as a court of injustice, not of Justice.

(The February Guest Editorial will be by Professor Jonathan Harris; details to follow.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Oliver L. Knoefel January 10, 2008, 7:01 pm

    I doubt that there is any point in searching ECJ judges’ curricula vitae for hints of thorough PIL practice. Is there any Member State whose regular judges are likely to do much better? As far as Freeport v. Arnoldsson and its relationship to Réunion européenne is concerned, the editor’s criticism seems to boil down to promoting stare decisis. For many reasons, mainly to maintain the flexibility of interpretation, there is no jurisprudence constante with the ECJ (see in great detail Klöckner, Grenzüberschreitende Bindung an Präjudizien, Tübingen 2006, p. 30 et sequ.). Dicta may be followed if sufficiently persuasive but are not binding.

  • Andrew Dickinson January 10, 2008, 8:17 pm

    On the contrary, the point made here is that the ECJ in Freeport should have been more open in rejecting, or at the very least acknowledging the ambiguity of, its earlier statement in Reunion (see my comment on the earlier post by Jacco Bomhoff).

    As to the question in the second sentence, this also seems to me to be wide of the mark. For better or worse, the European Community and its Court of Justice are now irrefutable facts of life. The question put in the editorial is whether changes are needed to its structure, constitution and procedures in order to ensure that it maintains the confidence of the Member States and those who live and work in them. We are unlikely to agree that a single national model is appropriate (English Commercial Court anyone?), but it does not of course follow that the ECJ cannot be changed for the better. Indeed, the ECJ itself seems to recognise that improvements are needed at the very least to its procedures.

  • Gilles Cuniberti January 12, 2008, 5:51 am

    Very interesting post.
    Jugdes on the court do not have practical experience, but judges in the civil law tradition do not have any either, as they join the bench straight after university. The court is slow, but so are most civil law courts on the continent, some more notoriously than others. Finally, the worst judgements of the court (Owusu, Turner) dealt with common law institutions and their compatibility with European law.
    Thus, I am wondering whether the issue is really whether the court ought to be trusted, or rather whether it ought to be trusted by common lawyers. The court acts as a civil law court, which might be disappointing, but is hardly suprising in the European context. One would welcome more openness to the common law approach to conflict issues, but for the time being, there is little reason to be confident that it will happen in the near future.
    The next question is, of course, which conclusion should be drawn from this in the European common law world…

  • Michelle Smith de Br January 14, 2008, 10:24 am

    Quite apart from any comments on the workings and/or efficiency or otherwise of the ECJ, readers might be interested in the following:
    Irish Judges (unlike some other EU Member States where one can be streamlined immediately for the bench) must have a minimum of 12 years experience as a practising solicitor or barrister before being eligible to apply for a position as a Judge. Most are practitioners for in or around twenty years before taking the bench.
    Our current Judge in the ECJ is Aindrias Ó Caoimh. Judge Ó Caoimh’s father was Attorney General of Ireland from January 30, 1954 to June 2, 1954, and again from March 20, 1957 to March 15, 1965. He was also a judge of the ECJ Between 1975–1985. Quite unusual to have both father and son becoming Judges of the ECJ.
    Before Judge Ó Caoimh (Junior) became a judge of the ECJ, he practised as a Junior Counsel in Ireland and then a Senior Counsel before becoming a High COurt Judge. He also had experience in arguing cases before the ECJ as a Barrister, before taking the bench. See, for example the controversial case of SPUC v Grogan Case C-159/90). So, at least one Judge has practical experience!
    Michelle Smith de Bruin, Barrister-at-Law, Ireland.

  • Andrew Dickinson January 31, 2008, 10:24 am

    It seems that the Council has not, after all, failed to heed the Court’s urgings to adopt more efficient procedures for cases in the area of freedom, security and justice. Amendments to the Rules of Procedure for the Court of Justice, introducing an urgent procedure for preliminary rulings in the areas covered by TEU, Title VI and EC, Part 3, Title IV which may be requested by the referring court were published in the Official Journal on 29 January 2008 and will enter into force on 1 March 2008 [see OJ L24/39]. See http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2008:024:0039:0041:EN:PDF