On 6 April 2020, the High Court of England and Wales handed down its judgment in the VW NOx Emissions Group Litigation. Besides many points of interest for owners of VW cars, it contains a new and rather unexpected development of EU private international law. In effect, the judgment significantly increases the role of administrative rulings in civil cross-border cases.
The German Federal Motor Vehicle Authority (Kraftfahrzeugbundesamt) had written letters in 2015 regarding “defeat software”, by which VW vehicles recognised when they were being tested for compliance with emissions standards and consequently lowered performance. The letters were addressed to VW and demanded the removal of the software.
Although these administrative measures have prima facie no connection to the private law dispute pending before the High Court, Waksman J considered that he was bound by them (margin Nos 303-418). His main argument was by reference to the Framework Directive, which harmonises car type-approval in the EU (margin No 379). The German Federal Motor Vehicle Authority is the competent authority under the Directive for VW.
Binding Nature of Administrative Fact-Findings in Civil Proceedings
A critical point is that the letters did not contain any approval, but merely demanded the removal of certain software. Moreover, any determination that the software was illegal would be a matter of fact, and would not affect any order itself. It remains therefore questionable whether a court would be bound by this statement. Indeed, even German courts continue to disagree as to the statements’ effect in civil litigation.
Waksman J nevertheless thought to be bound by the letters for the following reasons (margin No 377):
No other approval authority [than the German authority] could make such an order [to remove the defeat software]. It would be very odd if Member States other than that in which the measures were ordered were not bound, so that authorities in those other Member States were left to decide what to do about it. This negates the objective of total harmonisation set out in Article 1 of the Framework Directive. It would enable a manufacturer in private proceedings in another Member State to argue that it was not in fact bound to take the measures ordered by the relevant approval authority because that authority got it wrong. But the manufacturer could only be prevented from making that argument if the order of the relevant approval authority was in fact binding throughout the EU.
Applicable Law to Binding Nature
In Waksman J’s view, the question regarding which orders are binding fell to be determined under local law which, in the case before him, was German law (margin No 380). As such, the orders were to be final and subject to appeal (id.). Their challenge would also be governed by German law according to the “local remedies rule” (margin No 383).
Duty of Sincere Cooperation
To buttress his position, Waksman J pointed to the duty of sincere cooperation under Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union (margin no 384). This would oblige the UK to follow this principle and grant mutual recognition to decisions under the harmonised approval regime until the end of the transition period, which is set to expire on 31 December 2020 (margin no 386). In his view, the duty of sincere cooperation implies a “principle of deference”, which would inhibit courts from second-guess the findings of another Member State’s authorities (margin nos 387-388). If it were open to courts to challenge the statements of the competent authority, this would run contrary the principle of full effectiveness (effet utile) of EU law (margin No 389).
Competition Law Analogy
Waksman J further drew an analogy with EU competition law (margin Nos 397-409), under which regulatory decisions by the Commission are binding on courts in civil proceedings (see Art 16(1) Regulation 1/2003). The fact that the letters in question were issued by a national authority and not by the Commission did not matter, because the German authority would have exclusive jurisdiction under the harmonised Framework (margin No 397).
Finally, Waksman J pointed out that, even if his analysis of EU law were incorrect, he would still be bound by the German authority’s findings under conflict-of-laws principles. The reason he gave for this view is extremely terse (margin No 419):
… even if the KBA decision did not bind directly as a matter of EU law, then, either as a matter of EU conflicts principles, or as a matter of English law, the question of its binding effect here must be decided by reference to German law being the local law of the KBA.
The judgment is a bold and audacious leap forward. The CJEU has so far ruled that courts must take administrative decisions from other Member States into account (see CJEU, Land Oberösterreich v Čez). Furthermore, the Court has decided that courts cannot ignore legal situations created in other Member States (see CJEU, Garcia Avello). But it has not considered fact-findings in administrative decisions to be binding in cross-border civil litigation. The position under competition law is different, as there is no provision comparable to Article 16(1) of Regulation 1/2003 in the Framework Directive for car type approvals.
There are strong reasons to give administrative rulings a more prominent role in civil law proceedings (see Lehmann, Regulation, Global Governance and Private International Law: Squaring the Triangle). The judgment goes very far in recognising administrative fact-findings as conclusive for private disputes. This raises a number of questions, Which findings are binding – only those that are relevant for the order, or also others? What if the authority had found that VW had not installed “defeat” software; would that also be binding on a foreign court? What happens if the administrative decision is withdrawn or annulled in court?
Irrespective of these doubts, one must welcome the High Court’s decision. If it were followed across the EU, contradictory rulings on civil liability for the violation of regulatory law could largely be avoided. In this sense, the judgment could help deeper harmonisation in the Single Market. It forcefully demonstrates that British courts still can make a signification contribution to European law despite Brexit.
— Many thanks to Marion Ho-Dac and Amy Held for their contributions to this post.