In May 2018, the European Commission published a proposal for a Regulation amending the 2001 Evidence Regulation. The name of the proposal immediately clarifies the lack of ambition of the project: the intention is to amend the existing text, not to recast it.
The Commission Proposal
The Proposal aims at improving the 2001 Regulation by: using electronic transmission as the default channel for electronic communication and document exchanges; promoting modern means of taking evidence such as videoconferencing and incentives (via the financing of national projects) for Member States to equip courts with videoconferencing facilities; removing legal barriers to the acceptance of electronic (digital) evidence; tackling divergent interpretations of the term ‘court’; communicating the importance of the uniform standards provided by the Regulation (streamlined procedures, equal standard of protection of the right of the parties involved); best practices for competent courts, to help them apply the procedures properly and without delay; and raising courts’ and legal professionals’ awareness of the availability of the direct channel of taking evidence under the Regulation.
On 13 February 2019, the European Parliament adopted its first-reading position on the proposal, with 37 amendments to the text of the Commission.
On 29 November 2019, the Council of the European Union adopted a general approach of the text.
The main purpose of the proposal is to improve transmission of requests and communication by using modern communication technology. There is no doubt that this is an important concern. Yet, the operation of the Evidence Regulation arguably raises much more important issues.
The Optional Regulation
The Evidence Regulation should further European integration by facilitating and expediting the taking of evidence in other Member States.
Instead, it is the experience of many European practitioners that the Regulation does just the opposite. It creates obstacles, and slows down the taking of evidence abroad. The reason is simple: the Regulation requires the intervention of authorities in the requested state as a preliminary step to the taking of evidence abroad. The most liberal provision in this respect is Article 17, which introduced “Direct taking of evidence by the requesting court” in other Member States. But even under Article 17, it is necessary to “submit a request to the central body or the competent authority” of the requested state.
The European Union has abolished the exequatur procedure for judgments rendered in civil and commercial matters. Under the Brussels II bis Regulation, decisions on the return of a child are immediately enforceable and may not be challenged in the requested state, even for alleged violations of human rights. But the taking of evidence abroad is still subject to a preliminary procedure. The system completely lags behind.
In Lippens and ProRail, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) addressed the issue by ruling that the application of the Evidence Regulation was not mandatory, and that Member States could simply ignore it and take evidence abroad under their own procedures, without seeking any kind of approval from the requested state. In particular, the CJEU ruled in ProRail:
43. (…) it must be recalled that, according to recitals 2, 7, 8, 10 and 11 in the preamble to Regulation No 1206/2001, the aim of the regulation is to make the taking of evidence in a cross-border context simple, effective and rapid. The taking of evidence, by a court of one Member State in another Member State must not lead to the lengthening of national proceedings. (…)
45. An interpretation of Articles 1(1)(b) and 17 of Regulation No 1206/2001 according to which the court of a Member State is obliged, for any expert investigation which must be carried out directly in another Member State, to take evidence according to the method laid down by those articles would not be consistent with those objectives. In certain circumstances, it may be simpler, more effective and quicker for the court ordering such an investigation, to take such evidence without having recourse to the regulation.
The CJEU however reserved cases where the taking of evidence would affect the powers of the requested Member State.
The Proposal of the Commission does not address the optional character of the Regulation. This means that the future amended Regulation will remain an optional instrument that the courts of the Member States are free to (continue to) ignore.
Liberalizing the Taking of Evidence in Other Member States
The most important issue that the Proposal does not tackle, however, is that of the obstacles that the Regulation creates in the taking of evidence abroad, and that litigants avoid by resorting to national law.
During the legislative process which lead to the adoption of the initial Evidence Regulation, Germany had proposed to fully liberalize the operation of judicial experts in other Members States. Under this exception, courts could appoint a judicial expert to carry out his mission in other Member States without any need for a preliminary procedure in the requested state. The exception was eventually not adopted. However, this is exactly what the CJEU has allowed in ProRail, which was concerned with the operation of a judicial expert in another Member State.
The reform of the Evidence Regulation was thus the perfect opportunity to reconsider the issue. A much more ambitious reform would have attempted to identify cases where the taking of evidence abroad could be liberalized by abolishing any preliminary procedure, and cases where some kind of involvement of the requested state would still appear to be justified.
Instead, the European lawmaker is about to ignore the problem and, by doing so, to generate considerable uncertainty.
Disclosure: the author was a member of the expert group established by the European Commission for the purpose of drafting the Proposal of the Commission.