On 26 March 2020, advocate general Tanchev delivered his Opinion on the JE case (case C-249/19) – the first case to be decided by the CJEU on the Rome III Regulation on the law applicable to divorce and legal separation (Regulation 1259/2010).
At stake is the interpretation of Article 10 of the Regulation, according to which, ‘Where the law applicable pursuant to Article 5 or Article 8 makes no provision for divorce or does not grant one of the spouses equal access to divorce or legal separation on grounds of their sex, the law of the forum shall apply.’
The question for a preliminary ruling, from the Regional Court of Bucharest, revolves around the expression ‘the law applicable pursuant to Article 5 or Article 8 makes no provision for divorce.
The referring court asks whether that should be interpreted
(a) in a strict, literal manner, that it is to say only in respect of a situation where the foreign law applicable makes no provision for any form of divorce, or
(b) more broadly, as also including a situation where the foreign law applicable permits divorce, but does so in extremely limited circumstances, involving an obligatory legal separation procedure prior to divorce, in respect of which the law of the forum contains no equivalent procedural provisions?
THE FACTS OF THE CASE
JE and KF married in Romania, on 2 September 2001. Fifteen years later, JE brought an action for divorce, also in Romania. By civil judgment of 20 February 2018, the national court established the general jurisdiction of the Romanian courts and established that the law applicable to the dispute was Italian law, pursuant to Article 8(a) of Regulation No 1259/2010, since — on the date on which the court was seized of the divorce petition — the parties were habitually resident in Italy (the parties have resided in Italy for a considerable time).
According with Italian law, a divorce petition such as the one brought by JE can be applied for only where there has been a legal separation of the spouses established or ordered by a court and at least three years have passed between the legal separation and the time at which the court was seized of the divorce petition (the statement, in reality, does not accurately describe the Italian legislation on divorce, as reformed: in 2015, a bill was passed which reduced the three-year period to a one-year period, adding that six months suffice in particular circumstances; arguably, however, the change does not affect the substance of the AG’s reasoning).
Since it had not been demonstrated that a court decision had been made to effect a legal separation of the parties and since Romanian law makes no provision for legal separation proceedings, the court ruled that those proceedings had to be conducted before the Italian courts and, accordingly, any application to that effect made before the Romanian courts was inadmissible.
THE PROPOSAL AND ITS REASONING
The Opinion submits that Article 10 of Regulation No 1259/2010 must be interpreted strictly: the expression ‘where the law applicable pursuant to Article 5 or Article 8 makes no provision for divorce’ therein relates only to situations in which the applicable foreign law does not foresee divorce under any form.
AG elaborates his proposal in a classical, orthodox way. First, he examines the wording and the scheme of the provision. The law of the forum only applies ‘where the law applicable pursuant to Article 5 or Article 8 makes no provision for divorce’; the wording ‘makes no provision for divorce’ cannot mean that the applicable law ‘provides for divorce under certain (substantive or procedural) conditions’. AG explains that the provision is a consequence of the universal application of the Union conflict-of-law rules in relation to divorce and legal separation, in accordance with Article 4 of the same regulation. He acknowledges that Article 10 of Regulation No 1259/2010 endorses favor divortii, but with limits. In particular, it does not cover a case where the marriage cannot be ended because certain prerequisites are not met: for instance, where the applicable law sets out restrictive grounds for divorce such as the requirement of a long(er) period of separation.
To back his opinion, AG seeks additional support in systemic arguments, which he derives from Article 13 and Recital 26. Article 13 of Regulation No 1259/2010 provides that nothing in that regulation shall oblige the courts of a participating Member State whose law does not provide for divorce to pronounce a divorce. According to Recital 26, ‘where this Regulation refers to the fact that the law of the participating Member State whose court is seized does not provide for divorce, this should be interpreted to mean that the law of this Member State does not have the institut[ion] of divorce’. AG posits that the Recital gives an explanation beyond the specific context of Article 13 on the interpretation of the expression ‘makes no provision for divorce’- hence, it also applies to Article 10, which employs the same expression.
The historical interpretation supports as well the construction of the provision proposed in the present Opinion. AG recalls that the first alternative contained in Article 10 was introduced above all with a view to Maltese law, which, at the time of drafting of the Regulation, did not provide for the granting of any divorce.
The spirit and purpose of Article 10 speak equally in favor of a strict interpretation. Through the adoption of common rules on conflict-of-laws, the participating Member States accepted the principle that their courts could be obliged to apply foreign law despite differences which this might present vis-à-vis their own national law; they also accepted limited exceptions to that principle. Article 10 is one of them: like all exceptions, it must be interpreted strictly. Moreover, an extensive interpretation would frustrate the spouses’ autonomy in relation to divorce and to legal separation (foreseen under Article 5 of the regulation), and prevent the application (pursuant to Article 8 of the regulation, in the absence of a choice by the parties) of the law which is most closely linked to them.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE ANSWER
In addition to giving advice to the CJEU, AG Tanchev suggests how it could provide guidance on the consequences of the proposed answer to the preliminary question. In this regard, following the Commission, AG proposes that the court seized apply the substantive conditions foreseen by the applicable law and forgo the application of any procedural conditions foreseen by that law, in circumstances –like in the case at hand- where the procedural law of the forum does not allow for those procedural conditions to be met.
No doubt AG’s intention is to be praised. At the same time, and because the problem the Romanian court is facing can be characterized as pertaining to procedure (the Romanian court declared the petition inadmissible, which by the way begs the question, was it applying Romanian law as lex fori , or rather Italian law?), the proposed solution may be seen a little bit in the verge of overstepping the competences of the Court (who could nevertheless include it obiter). In addition, the parallelism AG Tanchev draws with EU regulations where respect for the substance of the applicable law in the State of the forum, when the latter’s law has no equivalent (substantive) concept in law, is reached through adaptation, is questionable.
Finally, still related to this part of the proposal: AG Tanchev indicates that the Romanian court should “confirm in its decision in the divorce proceedings that that condition of legal separation was fulfilled”. Fine, except for the fact that a problem remains regarding divorce: according to Italian law at least three years must have passed between the legal separation and the time at which the court was seized of the divorce petition. How is the Romanian court going to deal with this – for, obviously, no date of separation is available? (Further: it the parties agreed on the three-years period having elapsed, will their assertion be accepted ?)
In spite of the open questions and doubts just described, I believe this is an Opinion that will well received. Indeed, concerning the core subject matter it is not a surprising one; it is at any rate is correct in contents and rationale, and a well articulated piece of work. And – not that common in the writings of the CJEU – one with many references to legal doctrine.