Case law Developments in PIL Views and comments

Greek Supreme Court Rules on Enforcement of UK Divorce Financial Payment

For the first time since the entry into force of the 1968 Brussels Convention and the EU Regulations in the field of judicial cooperation in civil matters, the Greek Supreme Court was called recently to examine an application for recognition and enforcement of an English order awarding alimony to a wife, while at the same time regulating property issues between the spouses.

On 12 June 2020, the Supreme Court [Nr. 662/2020] ordered the reversal of the appellate judgment [Athens Court of Appeal 4789/2018, unreported], which in turn had rejected the husband’s appeal against the first instance decision granting the recognition and declaration of enforceability of the English order [Athens court of 1st Instance 420/2015, unreported].

The Ruling of the Supreme Court

The case at hand concerned an order of the Family Division of the High Court, which was issued upon the request of the wife in the course of divorce proceedings. In particular, the wife requested that she retain the ownership of the family house in London, and that she be granted the amount of ₤ 600.000 as a capitalised maintenance payment, plus 100% of the interests from a Merchant Investors assurance program, whereas the husband would retain the ownership of eight parcels of land in Greece.

The English court granted the request. The judge ruled as follows:

I consider that the wife’s need could be met by an even distribution of the assets listed in the KT list [i.e. the list prepared by the wife’s lawyer] and I therefore intend to issue a financial provision order in the form of a lump sum of 600,000 ₤ payable to the wife…  I am satisfied that the order I issue achieves the purpose of a fair distribution of assets between the parties.

The order to pay the lump sum raised an interesting issue of characterisation with far reaching consequences. It could either be regarded as a maintenance payment, or as distribution of the assets of the spouses, and thus related to their matrimonial property regime.

One of the consequences of the distinction is that separate legal regimes govern the enforcement of maintenance and matrimonial property judgments. Two different regulations apply: either the Maintenance Regulation, which provides for immediate enforcement (abolition of exequatur: Articles 17 et seq.), or the Matrimonial Property Regulation which has retained the ‘traditional’ requirement of a declaration of enforceability (Articles 36 et seq.). In this case, the application was filed prior to the entry into force of both regulations, but separate regimes already applied to each category. The Brussels I Regulation applied to maintenance, resulting in the simplified procedure of articles 38 et seq. Matrimonial property fell outside of the EU framework, and was thus governed by the common law of foreign judgments of the Member States (in Greece, Articles 323 & 905 of the Code of Civil Procedure), i.e. a more conservative regime, which, in addition to the international jurisdiction barrier (Article 323 No. 2), has a different starting point, as it is not bound by the famous principle of mutual trust and free movement of judicial decisions between EU Member States.

The Greek Supreme Court made the following characterisation:

The award of this lump sum does not have a supportive purpose; it does not seek to meet the basic needs of the applicant, so as to be considered a maintenance claim, but has a rather redistributive-compensatory purpose, leading to the distribution of assets between the spouses, as expressly stated in the reasoning of the foreign order.

In view of the above, the Supreme Court ruled that the dispute fell outside the scope of the Brussels I Regulation, pursuant to the exception under article 1 (2) (a) [rights in property arising out of a matrimonial relationship]. It allowed the appeal, and referred the case for retrial to the appellate court.

The Supreme court cited in support of its decision three judgments of the European Court of Justice, C-143/78, De Cavel, C-25/81, C.H.W. and C- 220/95, van den Boogaard. In van den Boogaard, the ECJ ruled:

a decision rendered in divorce proceedings ordering payment of a lump sum and transfer of ownership in certain property by one party to his or her former spouse must be regarded as relating to maintenance and therefore as falling within the scope of the Brussels Convention if its purpose is to ensure the former spouse’s maintenance.

Courts and scholars in other Member States have already  pointed out that the van den Boogaard ruling did not resolve the issue entirely, granting a margin of discretion to national judges.

Comparative Overview

A search of similar situations and their treatment by national courts of other Member States leads us to a ruling of the German Supreme Court from 2009 [BGH 12.08.2009, NJW-RR 2010, pp. 1 f = IPRax 2011, pp. 187 f]. Confronted with similar facts, the Bundesgerichtshof opted for a solution akin to the Judgment of Solomon: departing from the characterization of the case, it accentuated the dual function of the provision [Doppelfunktionalität der Vorschrift], and granted the request for recognition and declaration of enforceability of the part demonstrating qualitative features of a maintenance claim. Respectively, for the remaining part of the order, it proceeded in the fashion chosen by the Greek Supreme Court.

On the other hand, English scholarship tends to include similar cases under the category of maintenance claims, drawing an additional argument from Annexes I-IV of Reg. 4/2009, while at the same time taking into account the case law of the CJEU, and the possibility of separation, as opted by the German Supreme Court.

In a recent decision, the Swiss Court of Cassation overturned a decision which ruled that the Lugano Convention did not apply to an English Financial Remedy Order, and referred the case to the Zurich Supreme Court for resolving the crucial issue of distinction between maintenance and matrimonial property disputes. A comment on the ruling is available here

The Impact of the Ruling

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU does not undermine the importance of the Greek Supreme Court ruling for the future. The intentions of the English legislator are not yet revealed. As  is already widely known, a primary indication does not exist, given that the field of judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters has been left outside the Agreement. The expected accession of the UK to the Lugano Convention has been recorded ad calendas Graecas. However, a specific instrument will continue to govern the enforcement of maintenance judgments. The Convention of 23 November 2007 on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance will substitute EU law in the relations between the UK and Greece. A change of course by the Greek Supreme Court is highly unlikely, however, and financial provision orders will be subject to domestic rules of recognition and enforcement.

It should also be underscored that the issue is not unique to the United Kingdom. Similar systems are to be found in the legislation of other Member States [e.g. the Republic of Ireland, and partly France]. Therefore, fresh applications are not to be ruled out. Prospective applicants are however advised to prepare the file more diligently: English orders are issued on the basis of a judgment. It is therefore considered necessary to produce a translated true copy of the foreign judgment, so that the judge is able to understand the peculiarities of the foreign system, and to decide upon having seen the whole picture in advance.

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