On 14 August 2020, the Department of European and Comparative Procedural Law of the MPI Luxembourg met online with a special invitee, Steven Gee QC, joining actually from Hong Kong, where he was staying at the time.
Mr. Gee is the author of a treatise on, and entitled, Commercial Injunctions (Sweet & Maxwell, last edition 2016, a new updated one in the making). The book is mainly about UK law but at the end it addresses as well other jurisdictions. This is why Mr. Gee got in touch with the MPI (Prof. Burkhard Hess and Dr. Vincent Richard will contribute to the European part of the next edition of Commercial Injunctions), and how he ended up sharing with the researchers and MPI guests a two-hours talk on injunctions.
I thought his presentation and the following debate had been recorded but, unfortunately, it had not. Therefore, I cannot accurately report on the contents. What I can do, though, is to explain here an idea I had already in mind and was, to some extent, confirmed by Mr. Gee during the discussion.
It has to do with antisuit injunctions and the preliminary reference sent to the Court of Justice last December by the Court of Appeal (England & Wales), on the interpretation of Article 4(1) of the Brussels I bis Regulation (C-946/19). At the time I am writing these lines a settlement has been reached between the litigants in the main proceedings, and the request consequently withdrawn. A fact which strengthens my dismayed suspicion that the whole thing was a practical joke on the Court of Justice (but not only). Of course, I know I am exaggerating and, regarding the intentions of the referring court, wrong. This notwithstanding: a request relating to antisuit injunctions, i.e., to one of the most distinctive institutions of the common law tradition, already firmly rejected by the Court of Justice in ad intra situations; asking whether the injunction could (rather: had to) be mandatorily (no discretion!) granted on the basis of a crucial provision of a pivotal EU instrument [article 4(1) of the Brussels I bis Regulation], in ad extra situations (an invitation to indulge in “eurocentrism”?); sent to the Court of Justice barely one month before Brexit (and twelve months away from the end of the transitional period)? Some eyebrows have surely gone up.
The doubts of the national court regarding Article 4(1) of the Regulation read as follow:
whether the true effect of the Article is to give a right to every defendant who is domiciled in a Member State to be sued exclusively in the State of their domicile in all but the slender circumstances where that outcome is specifically excluded or some other outcome is permitted by the Judgments Regulation itself.
As a matter of fact, the Court of Appeal looked rather keen on answering in the affirmative [at 50]: ‘we acknowledge that [the antisuit injunction applicant’s] interpretation of the meaning and effect of Article 4(1) is a possible interpretation’.
The actual ground for referring the question to the Court of Justice had rather to do with the consequences of spousing such view [id. loc.]: ‘[…] but it is not one [interpretation] that we would wish to adopt in the present case unless required to do so’. Should Article 4(1) create a directly enforceable right, the Court of Appeal feared its breach would automatically lead to an antisuit injunction [id. loc.]: ‘[an] extreme result[s] that would not be contemplated by an application of domestic law’.
In the case at hand, the Court of Appeal had already confirmed the first instance determinations in the sense that previous national case law on employment contracts, according to which Article 20(1) of the Brussels I Regulation and Article 22(1) of the Brussel I bis Regulation create a right protecting the employee against being sued in a third State by his employer, was not binding on it.
My experience with English practitioners and academics is that they do have a good knowledge and understanding of EU law. That Article 4(1) of the Brussels I bis Regulation is not meant to confer an individual right is something the referring court could have easily concluded itself, without asking Luxembourg.
We – scholars- tend to be thorough and go to the bottom of the arguments: legislative intention based on history (not just the very illustrative Jenard and Schlosser Reports, but, here, also the rich publication of GAL Droz on the Brussels Convention, and all those he quotes); text; system; object and purpose of the provision; legal comparison. But for the sitting judges to decide on the dispute at stake, a look at Article 4(1) in a language other than English, coupled with a comparison between the rationale of the provisions on employment contracts and of Article 4(1), should have been enough if they wanted to move forward keeping the reasoning sober.
On the occasion of the MPI’s meeting mentioned above, Mr. Gee’s stressed a factor of the proceedings before the Court of Appeal that may help understanding the situation; he highlighted the asymmetry between the parties to the dispute. Throughout the proceedings before the Judge, both parties had been represented by solicitors and by leading and junior counsel. Before the Court of Appeal it remained so regarding the antisuit injunction’s applicant, but not the defendant, who did neither attend nor was represented, due to, allegedly, financial inability. The Court had only the written submissions previously made by his legal team to resist the antisuit injunction. They may have been enough to convince the first instance Judge not to grant the injunction; but before the Court of Appeal, and against the (slightly) more sophisticated (and, by all means, radical) submissions of Mr Cohen QC on behalf of the applicant at the hearing, he probably needed to do better.
As indicated, the case will no longer keep the Court of Justice busy. My (strictly) personal view remains that the preliminary reference was a practical joke: on the Court of Justice, and on second thought also on the Court of Appeal. Both seem to have been strategically used by one of the litigants.
In any event, I expect academics to study further the questions referred in C-946/19. For sure, I do not see any individual right “hidden” in Article 4(1) of the Brussels I bis Regulation. But, contrary to some scholars’ views (A. Dickinson, C.M. Clarkson and J. Hill, following A. Briggs) I believe other provisions in the Regulation may be interpreted in that way: not because they were conceived with the purpose of conferring directly enforceable rights upon persons domiciled in a Member State, but because such understanding of the jurisdictional grounds would help ensuring that specific substantive EU law is effective also extraterritorially, where needed.
(NoA: MPI Department I “Referentenrunde” have been resumed on the usual weekly basis every Wednesday via Zoom. A series of lectures is foreseen for the fall; specific dates will be announced in due time through the MPI website. Events are open to all having an interest. Contact person: firstname.lastname@example.org)