This is a guest post by Katažyna Bogdzevič (Mikša), an associate professor of the Institute of International and European Union Law at the Law School of Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, Lithuania and an advisor to the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice.
The CJEU’s judgement in the case of E.E. case (C-80/19) has already attracted scholars’ attention and it is not surprising (for posts on this blog see: here and here). For the first time, the CJEU had an opportunity to elaborate on the Succession Regulation with respect to so many important matters: the cross-border nature of the succession case, the notion of court, the scope of jurisdictional rules and authentic instruments and, finally, the choice of applicable law. The outcome of the case at the Supreme Court of Lithuania, after CJEU judgement, is presented below.
Background of the Case
A deceased person was a Lithuanian national who married a German national and moved to Germany in 2013. The same year she made a will before a notary in Kaunas (Lithuania) and designated her son E.E. as the only heir. She passed away in 2017, and her son approached the notary in Kaunas to open the succession and issue a national succession certificate. However, his request was rejected, as the notary had no jurisdiction in accordance with the Succession Regulation. E.E. have appealed this decision to the court.
Lithuania did not notify the Commission pursuant to Article 79 of the Succession Regulation of the other authorities and other legal professionals (except for the courts), which exercise judicial functions or act pursuant to a delegation of power by a judicial authority or act under the control of a judicial authority. However, the CJEU ruled already in the WB case (C-658/17) that failure by a Member State to notify the Commission of the exercise of judicial functions by notaries, as required under that provision, is not decisive for their classification as a court. As a result, in the absence of a clear answer whether Lithuanian notaries are courts, they applied jurisdiction rules provided by the Succession Regulation for the purpose of issuing national succession certificates.
The Supreme Court of Lithuania, while dealing with cassation appeal, referred a preliminary questions to the CJEU regarding the cross-border nature of the case, the notion of the court and the legal nature of the national succession certificate issued by the Lithuanian notaries, both in case they can be considered courts and in case they cannot.
After the CJEU ruling, there are no doubts that the case at stake is of a cross-border character. Hence, this issue is left outside of this comment. The most interesting part is regarding the functions of the notaries and assessment of whether they exercise judicial powers or act pursuant to delegation of power by a judicial authority or act under the control of a judicial authority. The CJEU reminded that Lithuanian notaries are not courts, unless they act pursuant to a delegation of power by a judicial authority or act under the control of a judicial authority. The CJEU did not use this opportunity to elaborate on these premises but left it for the national court to decide.
The Outcome of the EE Case Back in Lithuania
On 4 November 2020, the Supreme Court of Lithuania ruled in the resolution (No e3K-3-422-378/2020) that Lithuanian notaries are not courts within the meaning of the Succession Regulation.
The Supreme Court started its analysis by recalling Article 3(2) Succession Regulation. The further considerations were based mainly on the Law on Notaries. Article 1 of this law grants notaries with rights to legally establish uncontested rights and legal facts of natural and legal persons to ensure the protection of these persons and the state’s legitimate interests. A notary is required to act with greater diligence and caution and is obliged to comply with the law strictly and to refuse to perform notarial acts if they infringe the law or do not comply with it. Such an understanding of a notary’s functions presupposes that the notary does not solve disputes between the parties, does not establish disputable circumstances, and, in case of doubts or disagreements about the rights or legal facts of persons, shall refuse to certify such rights or facts. A notary may certify certain rights or facts only if there are no doubts about their content and legality.
Pursuant to Article 26(1)(2) Law on Notaries, which defines notarial acts performed by notaries, notaries shall issue (national) succession certificates. The Supreme Court, in its previous case-law, provided that the facts contained in notarized documents are established and cannot be proved otherwise until these documents (or parts thereof) are declared invalid following the procedure established by law (Article 26(2) Law on Notaries).
In case of a dispute between the heirs in a succession case, such dispute shall be settled in a court in accordance with the rules established in Article 12 of the Law on Courts, which stipulate that the Supreme Court of Lithuania, regional and district courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Since Lithuanian notaries are not granted the right to rule on the issues which gave rise to the dispute between the parties and the right to establish facts which are not clear and obvious or to decide on the disputed facts, the Supreme Court concluded that the issuance of a national succession certificate does not imply the performance of judicial functions. Therefore, if the notaries are not considered courts within the meaning of the Succession Regulation, they are not bound by its jurisdictional rules. The Supreme Court pointed out that in order to establish a uniform solution in cross-border inheritance cases, the legislator could enact a provision obliging Lithuanian notaries to follow the rules of jurisdiction established in the Succession Regulation. However, in their absence, notaries in Lithuania must follow national law rules in cross-border succession cases.
The Supreme Court concluded that in the present case, having established that the succession was of a cross-border nature, a notary in Lithuania is competent to issue a national succession certificate without the need of analyzing jurisdictional rules of the Succession Regulation. To the contrary, in the event of a dispute, the court’s jurisdiction shall be determined based on the provisions of the Succession Regulation.