Von Hein on Rome II and Defamation


Jan von Hein is professor of civil law, private international law and comparative law at the University of Trier, Germany.

Diana Wallis deserves praise for her lucid and insightful working document on a possible amendment of the Rome II Regulation with regard to violations of rights relating to the personality. In devising a conflicts rule for this special type of tort, one has to take into account that, although the Rome II Regulation is at present not applicable to this group of cases, the European legislators are no longer operating on a clean slate, because any new conflicts rule will have to fit into the basic doctrinal structure of the Regulation. Moreover, Recital No. 7, which mandates a consistent interpretation of Rome II and Brussels I is of particular importance here because of the ECJ’s Shevill judgment (C-68/93), which established the so-called mosaic principle.

There are mainly two possible approaches: The first one would be to provide that the law applicable to a non-contractual obligation arising out of violations of privacy and rights relating to personality shall be the law of the country where the victim is habitually resident at the time of tort. This solution is popular in academia (for those who read German, I recommend the excellent contribution by my good friend Michael von Hinden to the Festschrift for Jan Kropholler [2008], p. 575), and a corresponding amendment of the Rome II Regulation has been recommended on February 19, 2010 by the German Council for Private International Law, a group of German P.I.L. professors advising the Federal Ministry of Justice (full disclosure: I am a member of this group, but did not participate in the vote on this issue). This proposal certainly has the virtues of simplicity and guaranteeing a protection of the victim in accordance with the social standards that he or she is accustomed to. With due respect, it has some drawbacks as well. From a political point of view, one must not forget that this approach has been on the table before, in the Commission’s preliminary proposal for a Rome II Regulation of May 2002. It failed then, after protests from the media lobby, and I really doubt whether it would survive this time. From a doctrinal point of view, its main disadvantage is that V.I.P’s – who are the main targets of the “yellow press” – frequently reside in tax havens. It would be a dubious irony of European conflicts legislation if the laws of third states such as Switzerland or tiny Monaco were to govern the freedom of the E.U. press more often than the laws of the Member States. Such an approach would be insensitive to the legitimate interests of E.U. newspaper readers, TV viewers and other media consumers in accessing legal content. Finally, the habitual residence of the victim is out of tune with the jurisdictional principles of the ECJ’s Shevill judgment.

A different solution would result from closely tracing the existing framework of Rome II. First of all, in line with Article 4(1), the place of injury (i.e. here: the distribution of the media content) should be paramount, unless there are good reasons to deviate from this rule. Following the example set by Article 5(1) on product liability, however, one should restrain this connection by way of a foreseeability defense, in order to take the legitimate interests of publishers into account. Moreover, party autonomy (Article 14), the common residence rule (Article 4(2)) and the closest connection exception (Article 4(3)) should be respected. A good reason to deviate from the place of injury exists with regard to the right of reply, because such relief should be granted swiftly and is interim in nature. This was already recognized both by the Commission and the Parliament in their earlier proposals of 2003 and 2005. A specific clause on public policy appears unnecessary, because Article 26 is fully sufficient to deal with any problems in this regard. A special clause safeguarding only the freedom of the press would be hard to legitimize in light of the fact that a lack of protection against violations of privacy may contravene human rights of the victim as well. It should be remembered that in the famous case of Princess Caroline of Hanover v. Germany, the Federal Republic was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (judgment of June 24, 2004, application no. 59320/00) not because the Federal Constitutional Court had not respected the freedom of the press, but, on the contrary, because it had failed to protect the princess against intolerable intrusions of paparazzi into her private life. Apart from that, there should be a sufficiently flexible, general rule on violations of personality rights and no special rule concerning cyberspace torts. Frequently, potentially defamatory statements are often circulated via multiple channels (print and internet), so that differing outcomes are hard to justify. Any new rule should rather be slim and adaptable to technological developments rather than fraught with ponderous casuistics As far as the E-Commerce Directive is concerned, the precise demarcation between the Directive and Rome II should be left to Article 27 and the ECJ, where a pertinent case is currently pending (case C-509/09).

Specific problems arise in cases involving multi-state violations. Here, both the Shevill judgment and the model developed for multi-state restrictions of competition (Article 6(3)(b)) argue for a modified codification of the so-called mosaic principle. By adopting this approach, jurisdiction and the applicable law will regularly coincide, which saves time and costs for all the parties involved. For persons enjoying world-wide fame, it creates a welcome incentive to concentrate litigation in the defendant’s forum. For rather unknown persons, it does not introduce any additional burden, because their reputation will usually only be affected in their home country anyway.

Taking the above considerations into account, I would like to propose the following rule, which builds upon earlier proposals and the existing regulation. Details concerning the interpretation of notions such as “reasonably foreseeable” or “direct and substantial” could be fleshed out in the recitals, where further guidance on public policy may be given, too.

Article 5a Rome II – Privacy and rights relating to personality

 (1) Without prejudice to Article 4(2) and (3), the law applicable to a non-contractual obligation arising out of violations of privacy and rights relating to personality, including defamation, shall be the law of the country where the rights of the person seeking compensation for damage are, or are likely to be, directly and substantially affected. However, the law applicable shall be the law of the country in which the person claimed to be liable is habitually resident if he or she could not reasonably foresee substantial consequences of his or her act occurring in the country designated by the first sentence.

(2) When the rights of the person seeking compensation for damage are, or are likely to be, affected in more than one country, and this person sues in the court of the domicile of the defendant, the claimant may instead choose to base his or her claim on the law of the court seised.

(3) The law applicable to the right of reply or equivalent measures shall be the law of the country in which the broadcaster or publisher has its habitual residence.

(4) The law applicable under this Article may be derogated from by an agreement pursuant to Article 14.