Brussels I Review – Online Focus Group
Many will, by now, have had the opportunity to consider the Commission’s Report and Green Paper on the review of the Brussels I Regulation, if not also the detailed Studies by Professors Hess, Pfeiffer and Schlosser and Nuyts, on which they were based. As the Commission’s initial deadline for consultation concludes at the end of this month, this seems an appropriate time at which to invite conflictoflaws.net users to participate in an online discussion on the Report and Green Paper, with a view to debating some or all of the Commission’s proposals.
Over the next few days, therefore, a series of posts will invite comments (see the Post a Comment box below) on particular aspects of the proposed reform of the Brussels I Regulation. These will follow the order of topics in the Green Paper, that is to say (links will be added to each topic as the relevant post is published):
- the abolition of intermediate measures to recognise and enforce foreign judgments (exequatur) (Question 1);
- the operation of the Regulation in the international legal order (Question 2);
- choice of court agreements (Question 3);
- industrial property (Question 4);
- lis pendens and related actions (Question 5);
- provisional measures (Question 6);
- the interface between the Regulation and arbitration (Question 7); and
- other issues (Question 8).
Responses (that are published as posts, rather than comments) to any or all of the initial posts:
Each post will contain relevant extracts from the text of the Green Paper, together with a preliminary reaction and suggestions as to the way forward. This commentary (based on the author’s personal views) is intended as a spur for debate of the Green Paper, rather than to define the areas for discussion or criticism of its proposals (or any counter-proposals). It is hoped that the debate will be as wide-ranging, in terms of subject matter and contributors, as possible. Comments from all site users, whether general or limited to a single point, are actively encouraged.
Before opening the discussion with the first of these posts, it seems appropriate to make a few introductory comments on the Green Paper and Report.
First, the response to the Green Paper and the Report should be only the start, and not the end, of consultation with stakeholders of these important matters. The Commission has had 18 months to consider the Studies referred to above, and to develop its own analysis and proposals. It is disappointing, therefore, that a period of only 2 months (up to 30 June 2009) has been allowed for responses to the Green Paper, especially as an extended period over the summer vacation could not conceivably have materially delayed progress in formulating a draft updating Regulation. Mechanisms must be found, whether directly or through the Member States, to ensure that the views of individuals, interest groups and academic and practising lawyers are fully taken into account at all stages of the legislative process.
Secondly, it is vital that consideration should also be given as a matter of priority to structural changes within the European Court of Justice, so far as compatible with the EC Treaty, that will enable the Court to deal with preliminary references concerning the Regulation and other EC private international law instruments in a manner befitting their significance for the parties and the Member States’ systems for dispensing civil justice. As the content of the Commission’s Report demonstrates, the ECJ has regularly provided answers to questions put by Member State courts that are unsatisfactory in their reasoning or practical application, or both. In particular, the Court, particularly in its recent case law, has shown a worrying disregard of arguments founded on the commercial consequences or justice of a particular interpretation in favour of an approach driven, apparently, solely by considerations of legal certainty and the exclusion of other considerations by the text of the Regulation.
As a result, there is (whether justified or not) a perception among legal practitioners that the ECJ in its current constitution lacks the all-round expertise to deal with references in the area of civil justice and, at least in England and Wales, that it is insensitive to the traditions and methods of the common law. It is, of course, a matter of fundamental importance that the citizens and courts of the Member States should have trust and confidence in the ECJ to exercise its overriding interpretive power responsibly. Against this background, and mindful of the possible expansion of the ECJ’s caseload if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the creation of a specialist chamber (with its own Judges and Advocates-General) to deal with references relating to the several instruments adopted under Title IV of the EC Treaty would be a significant advance, and would appear to be within the powers conferred on the Community legislature by Art 225a of the Treaty. If this, or equivalent steps, are not taken at this stage, reform of the Brussels I Regulation in isolation is likely to be a case of “swallowing a spider to catch a fly” and to lead to further complications (and the need for further reform) as a result of the ECJ’s future jurisprudence interpreting any new rules.
Thirdly, to increase the accessibility of the Regulation to non-experts, deregulation (i.e. reduction in the complexity or number of jurisdictional rules) should be preferred to increased regulation in the Brussels I reform process. Any modification of an existing instrument carries with it an inherent degree of legal uncertainty, by requiring existing case law and commentary to be re-appraised in light of the change. That effect must be taken into account in deciding which issues to tackle, and how, in the review process.
Finally, as to the Commission’s comments in its Report on the functioning of the Brussels I Regulation, it seems fair to conclude that the Regulation, and its predecessor convention, have offered significant advantages for business, by promoting the free circulation of judgments in the EC and (in many situations) increasing predictability and consistency as to the criteria to be applied by Member State courts in accepting jurisdiction. There is, however, no doubt that the Commission is also correct to conclude that functioning of the Regulation is open to improvement. It would be surprising if that were not the case. Further, it may be doubted whether (as the Commission suggests) the Regulation is “highly appreciated among practitioners”. Many legal practitioners, whose practices concern only domestic matters, are untroubled by the Regulation. For others, the overall impression of the Regulation is, frequently, coloured by situations in which its operation is perceived as giving rise to inconvenient or uncommercial results. For example, in the United Kingdom, widespread (adverse) publicity in the legal profession followed the English High Court’s decision in J P Morgan v. Primacom (following the earlier ECJ decision in Gasser v. MISAT Srl), that proceedings brought by a borrower in Mainz, Germany with the evident intention of frustrating proceedings to enforce a loan agreement in England (the jurisdiction chosen by the parties) must take priority under Art. 27 of the Regulation. One UK legal newspaper described the Primacom case “an intercreditor nightmare” that was “playing havoc with exclusive jurisdiction clauses and is threatening to derail cross-border restructurings in Europe”. Criticism in UK legal circles has also followed the recent ECJ decision in Allianz v. West Tankers. Commenting on that decision, the Chief Executive of the Law Society, the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales, argued that the ruling “does Europe no favours as a place to do business” (see here).
Against this background, it is vital that any reform of the Brussels I Regulation should address, and be seen to address, the problems that EC litigants and their legal advisers actually face in practice, rather than pursuing the holy grails of “mutual recognition” and “legal certainty”. Whether pragmatism will prevail over ideology remains, however, to be seen.
To conclude on a personal note, I should add that I was delighted to receive and accept an invitation to join conflictoflaws.net as a Consultant Editor. Through the breadth and quality of submissions by its editorial team and other contributors, the site has established itself as an essential point of reference for all practising and academic lawyers with an interest in private international law. I look forward to reading the reaction to this, and future posts on the site, concerning the European private international instruments and related matters.