In February 2020, the Spanish Constitutional Court ordered the review of a judgment requiring the actor Christopher Lee to pay 710.000 Euros to the author of a painting that was used to promote a film without the latter’s permission.
The Court considered that the Commercial Court of Burgos (Spain) had violated Lee’s fundamental right to an effective judicial protection, in that it had not heard him nor proceeded to personal service of the judgement at any time prior to issuing an enforcement order against the actor in October 2009.
The controversy relates to the movie Jinnah and, specifically, to one of the posters by which it was promoted. The Commercial Court of Burgos considered that the use of the work “constituted an infringement of exclusive rights” and awarded a compensation to the author of the work.
The lawsuit had been filed by the painter against a business corporation (The Quaid Project Limited), Mr. Christopher Frank Carandini Lee and Mr. Juan Francisco Aneiros Rodríguez, as representative of the official website of Christopher Lee. The three co-defendants were domiciled in London; neither The Quaid Project Limited nor Mr. Carandini Lee appeared. At the time, only Mr. Aneiros could be personally served at the address established in a contract previously signed with the plaintiff.
The decision against Lee was therefore taken in absentia. It has turned out that the Burgos Court’s attempts to have the claim and the judgment served to the defendant at the addresses provided by the claimant were unsuccessful, and that the Court contented itself with service by publication. After the judgment was delivered, a writ of execution (auto de despacho de ejecución) was granted and certified as a European enforcement order, thus allowing for enforcement to be tried in the United Kingdom (Lee’s place of residence).
According to the Constitutional Court, the absence of personal service led to a violation of Lee’s right of access to justice, for it prevented him from participating in proceedings where his financial obligations were at issue. The Court also expressed doubts regarding the assessment of the damages, which had been made without calling for any expertise. Despite this, the Court in Burgos had considered the figure to be appropriate and in September 2010 had ordered that the defendants’ bank accounts be seized, requesting information for this purpose from different banking entities.
After learning about the proceeding “through a letter” written by the claimant’s lawyers, that reached him “through a London-based office,” in February 2014 Lee asked unsuccessfully for the proceedings to be declared void. The actor passed away in June 2015; an application was filed with the Constitutional Court by his heirs, which in a judgment dated February 24 has ruled in favor of C. Lee.
On the Legal Standing of the Heirs
Before the Constitutional Court, the claimant in the ordinary proceedings contested the legal standing of Lee’s heirs in light of UK succession law, relying in particular on the condition of testamentary executor and manager of the estate of Birgit Lee.
The Constitutional Court dismissed this part of the defense recalling its previous case law based on Article 162.1 b) of the Spanish Constitution and Article 46.1 b) of the Constitutional Court Act, whereby legal standing derives from having “a legitimate interest”. The category is interpreted broadly and granted to any person whose legal stance (“círculo legal”) may be harmed by the violation of a fundamental right, even if the violation does not occur directly against him or her.
The Court went on to add that, in the past, the heirs of a deceased plaintiff had been admitted to take over in an “amparo” appeal for the defense of personality rights. When (like in the case under examination) the ruling on “amparo” entails economic consequences for the estate, the recognition of legal standing to the heirs is even more reasonable.
On the Violation of the Right to a Due Process
The main issue raised by the appellants before the Constitutional Court focused on the violation of the late Lee’s right to a due process, caused by the wrongful application by the Spanish commercial court of Regulation (EC) No 805/2004 creating a European Enforcement Order (EEO) for uncontested claims. In this context, the appellants argued first that only a judicial decision ending the ordinary proceedings, and not the writ of execution can be certified as an EEO. Secondly, in a nutshell, they contested the enforceability of the resolution adopted in absentia, with service having been made by edicts by a court which relied on the informations given by the claimant without further ado.
The Constitutional Court was silent as to the first prong of the complaint. In my view, the appellant was wrong: whereas according to Article 517 Spanish Code of Civil Procedure (Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil) the enforcement title is indeed the decision on the merits, the definition of “resolution” comprises as well the writ of execution which in Spanish procedural law follows and opens up the enforcement procedure itself.
As to the second prong, the Court was requested to examine whether the application made by the Spanish commercial court of the EEO Regulation, granting the EEO based on service by publication, violated the right to effective judicial protection of the defendant. For this purposes, the Constitutional Court started by asserting that the Burgos Court, to the extent it applied rules of European Union law, must have been aware that it was not only bound by Article 24.1 of the Spanish Constitution, but also by Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFREU).
The Constitutional Court focused then on how service had been made, in order to assess whether in the procedure prior to the adoption of the judgement the certification of which is at stake , the rights to a hearing and to self-defense of the debtor had been respected. This examination is reserved for cases in which the non-appearance of the defendant amounts to a tacit admission of the claim or of the facts alleged by the creditor under the law of the Member State of origin, and, as a consequence, the claim may be deemed “uncontested” for the purposes of Regulation No 805/2004. Regarding service without proof of receipt by the debtor (Article 14 of the Regulation), the Regulation describes various admissible modalities, all of which require that the debtor’s domicile is known with certainty. In this way, the Regulation establishes a minimum standard of the right of defense so as to ensure that the non-appearance of the debtor was conscious and voluntary, thus an absence of the intention to challenge the credit can be inferred therefrom.
At this point, the Constitutional Court makes the most important assertion of its judgment, acknowledging the need to assess “whether a notification by edicts made totally ignoring the debtor’s address, which may eventually be valid in our system from the point of view of Article 24.1 [Spanish Constitution], is also valid from the perspective of Article 47 CFREU for the purposes of granting a European Enforcement Order”. It goes on saying that “the answer to this question, taking into account Recital 13 of Regulation 805/2004 and the decision of the Court of Justice (First Chamber) in Case C-292/10, Cornelius de Visser, of 15 March 2012, must be negative. The Court of Justice of the European Union affirms that although a default judgment is among the titles that can be certified as European enforcement orders (Article 3 of the Regulation), this is not the case when it has been issued without determining the domicile of the respondent” (the translation is mine).
In my view, this is not a bad judgment. However, one cannot avoid feeling a little bit dismayed when learning that one of the defendants, Mr. Juan Aneiros, who could be served at his domicile, was the son-in-law of C. Lee and, as said, the manager of his official website. Difficult to believe that C. Lee could only learn about the process after he had been sentenced to pay, but not before. However, this was for the Constitutional Court to decide; it has spoken and – not unimportat in this tough times for the EU – followed the case law of the CJEU.