The author of this post is Carlos Santaló Goris, research fellow at the MPI Luxembourg and PhD candidate at the University of Luxembourg.
On 3 August 2020, a Polish notary referred a request for a preliminary ruling to the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”).
The facts are simple: a Ukrainian citizen living in Poland asked a Polish notary to draft her will. She wanted Ukrainian law to apply to the succession. The notary refused, arguing that the law applicable to the succession cannot be chosen under the 1992 Ukrainian-Polish bilateral treaty on civil and criminal matters.
The applicant complained against the refusal; she claimed that the Succession Regulation, which allows the de cujus to choose the law of her nationality to rule the succession (Article 22), should apply instead. According to Polish law, the complaint procedure is to be brought before a notary.
The CJEU is asked to interpret the Succession Regulation, as follows:
- Must Article 22 of [the Succession Regulation] also be interpreted as meaning that a person who is not a citizen of the Union is also entitled to choose his maternal law as the law applicable to the succession as a whole?
- Is Article 75 in conjunction with Article 22 of [the Succession Regulation] to be interpreted as meaning that, where a bilateral convention binding a Member State to a non-member country does not govern the choice of law on succession but designates the law applicable in matters of succession, a national of that non-member country who resides in a Member State bound by that bilateral agreement may choose the law?
- In particular: must a bilateral agreement with a non-member State expressly preclude the choice of a particular law, and not only the status of succession by means of objective criteria, in order for its provisions to prevail over Article 22 of [the Succession Regulation]? does the freedom to choose the succession law and to standardize the applicable law by choosing the law — at least to the extent defined by the EU legislature in Article 22 of [the Succession Regulation] — fall within the principles underlying judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters within the European Union and cannot be affected even in the event of the application of bilateral conventions with third countries which prevail over Regulation No 650/2012?
In my view, the CJEU will not struggle to provide an answer to the first question of the request. The Succession Regulation applies to the wills drafted by authorities of the Member States; Article 20 declares its “universal application”; Article 22 does not make any difference between “States” and “Member State”; like EU nationals, third-State citizens can choose their national law.
The second question is trickier. It starts with the interpretation of the last sentence of Article 75(1) of the Regulation (“this Regulation shall not affect the application of international conventions to which one or more Member States are party at the time of adoption of this Regulation and which concern matters covered by this Regulation”). Since the bilateral convention has no provision on the choice of law in relation to successions, it could be argued that this particular aspect is not foreseen, hence the Succession Regulation applies.
However, the convention does rule on the law applicable to movable and immovable estate, just like the Regulation, and therefore it should prevail. Should this be the case, the second part of the question would come into play. The CJEU is asked here to produce a declaration on values, likely to end up with the need to strike a balance – or not, for there is no doubt the negotiators knew about the contents of the conventions Article 75 intends to preserve, and about the fact that choice of law is not a widely accepted rule in succession matters. Should the principle of choice of law always prevail, Article 75 would be deprived of much of its sense.
Are Notaries Courts (in the Sense of Article 267 TFEU)?
Rather than the actual questions of the preliminary reference, what is more intriguing is whether Polish notaries deciding on complaints against the refusal to carry out a notarial act can address themselves directly to the CJEU via the preliminary reference. According to Article 267 of the TFEU, only courts can make preliminary references. In C-658/17, W.B., the CJEU determined that Polish notaries issuing a certificate of succession are not “courts” for the purpose of the Succession Regulation. Nonetheless, whether a notary reviewing a decision taken by a (actually, the same) notary fits with the Article 267 of the TFEU is something different.
With a view to provide an autonomous notion, the CJEU has elaborated a list of prerequisites a domestic authority needs to comply with to be considered a court under Article 267: the body under examination must have been established by law, be permanent, have compulsory jurisdiction, adjudicate in an inter partes procedure, apply the rules of law, and be independent (C-54/96, Dorsch Consult, para. 23).
The analysis of the admissibility of the preliminary reference, focused on whether a notary fulfils the conditions just mentioned, will surely be the first step of the CJEU in the case at hand. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the Polish Supreme Court and the Polish Constitutional Court have already explored whether, under Polish law, notaries acting in complaint procedures like the one at stake have the status of courts, and concluded that they may be considered first instance courts, performing ancillary functions of the administration of justice.
At any rate, the CJEU is not bound by the determinations of the national courts. It will decide on the basis of its own findings. And it will do so at a moment when the whole Polish judicial system is under suspicion (see C 354/20 PPU, and soon, C-412/20 PPU, both widely reported in the press), and the future of judicial cooperation, also in civil matters, is an issue of legitimate concern.