My colleague Hélène Peroz has reported on this interesting judgment delivered on 4 March 4 2020 by the French Supreme Court for private and criminal matters (Cour de cassation).
The Court applied an old principle of the French law of international jurisdiction. Unfortunately, it does not seem that the applicability of EU Regulations of private international law was raised.
A German company sought to enforce an arbitral award against a man domiciled in Algeria. The man jointly owned an immoveable property near Paris, France. The co-owner was his wife, who was also domiciled in Algeria. The German creditor initiated proceedings before the family division of the high court of Paris and applied for a judicial order to divide the property. The goal was to ultimately receive half of the proceeds.
Jurisdiction of French Courts in Family Matters
The Algerian spouses challenged the jurisdiction of the Paris court. They argued that, outside of the scope of international conventions and EU instruments, jurisdiction in family matters lied with the court of the residence of the family pursuant to Article 1070 of the French code of civil procedure.
In a judgment of 18 December 2018, the Paris Court of Appeal accepted the argument and declined jurisdiction on the ground that the family resided in Algeria.
Extending the Application of Domestic Rules of Jurisdiction to International Cases
The French lawmaker has adopted very few rules of international jurisdiction. French courts have thus long held that, in principle, rules of domestic jurisdiction may also be used to define the international jurisdiction of French courts. Article 1070 of the Code of Civil Procedure defines the domestic jurisdiction of French courts in family matters. So the Paris Court of Appeal had simply applied Article 1070 to assess its international jurisdiction.
The French Supreme Court has long identified two exceptions to the principle of extension of domestic rules of jurisdiction: enforcement and actions related to real property. In both cases, the rule of international jurisdiction has typically been straightforward: French courts have jurisdiction over actions related to enforcement carried out in France and actions related to immovables situated in France. In this judgment, the Court ruled more widely that, while the principle was to extend the application of domestic rules of jurisdiction, it might be necessary to “adapt them to the particular needs of international relations”.
The Court then ruled that it would not be appropriate to apply Article 1070 (and thus grant jurisdiction to the court of the residence of the family) to define the jurisdiction of French court in this case, “both for practical reasons of proximity and pursuant to the effectivity principle”.
The reference to effectivity seems to mean that the court cared about the future enforcement of the decision which, quite clearly, was meant to take place in France, where the apartment is located. Indeed, and although the action was based on a rule of property law, the chances that the property would be attached and sold judicially for the purpose of actually implementing the rule was high.
What about EU Regulations?
It is clear that the French Supreme Court ruled on the understanding that no EU Regulation applied. Was that really the case?
Regulation 2016/1103 on Property Regimes does not apply to proceedings initiated before 29 January 2019. It is unclear, however, whether it would apply should the same case arise today.
The territorial scope of the jurisdictional rules of the Property Regimes Regulation is not limited to actions initiated against defendants domiciled within participating Member States, so the issue would not be so much that the defendants were domiciled in a third state.
Rather, the issue is whether the action was one related to matrimonial property regimes. The property was co-owned by two spouses, but their matrimonial property regime was separation of property. This means that their marriage was not relevant to the action (which was based on a general provision of property law). In fact, Regulation 2016/1103 defines ‘matrimonial property regimes’ as sets of rules ‘concerning the property relationships between the spouses and in their relations with third parties, as a result of marriage or its dissolution’ (Article 3(1)(a), emphasis added).
So one wonders whether the action would not rather have fallen within the material scope of the Brussels I bis Regulation. Indeed, the CJEU once defined the exception to the scope of the Brussels Convention as covering “any proprietary relationships resulting directly from the matrimonial relationship or the dissolution thereof” (De Cavel, 1979). In the present case, the proprietary relationship between the spouses did not result from their marriage.
And if the case fell within the material scope of the Brussels I bis Regulation, then Article 24 of that Regulation (which applies irrespective of the domicile of the parties) would apply. It is not absolutly clear whether the relevant provision would be Article 24(1) (in rem rights over immoveables) or Article 24(5) (enforcement), but in both cases, it would have granted exclusive jurisdiction to French courts.