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French Supreme Court Rules on Respective Scopes of Brussels II bis Regulation and 1996 Hague Convention

The author of this post is Estelle Gallant, professor of private law at the University of Toulouse 1 Capitole.


On 30 September 2020, the French Supreme Court for civil and criminal matters ruled on the respective scopes of the Brussels II bis Regulation and the 1996 Hague Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-operation in Respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children in a parental conflict between France and Switzerland (Cass. 1st Civil Chamber, 30 Sept. 2020, no. 19-14.761). The difficulty arose following a change in the habitual residence of the child while proceedings concerning his custody were pending before French courts.

Facts and Legal Issues 

The dispute concerned the divorce proceedings of a multinational couple: the husband was of French-Swiss national while the wife was of Swiss, Irish and Danish national. They lived in Switzerland before separating and setting up a cross-border alternating residence between Switzerland and France for their children. It was at that time that a petition for divorce was filed in France. However, after the father’s imprisonment, and with his agreement, the children’s residence was transferred exclusively to the mother’s home in Switzerland. This created an issue with respect to the international jurisdiction of French court.

Judgment of the French Supreme Court

French lower courts had concluded that they had jurisdiction on the basis of the Brussels II bis Regulation. But, before the Supreme Court, the mother invoked the jurisdiction of the Swiss authorities on the basis of the 1996 Hague Convention applicable in both Switzerland and France. In accordance with Article 5 of the 1996 Hague Convention and Article 61 of the Brussels II bis Regulation, the Supreme Court set aside the decision of the Court of Appeal which had retained jurisdiction on the basis of the Brussels II bis Regulation. According to the Supreme Court, since habitual residence had been lawfully transferred to a third State of the European Union but a Contracting State to the 1996 Convention, only that Convention was applicable and French courts therefore had no jurisdiction.

Assessment

How can this conflict between the Brussels II bis Regulation and the 1996 Hague Convention be resolved?

The 1996 Hague Convention has been in force in France since 1 February 2011. The Brussels II bis Regulation has been applicable since 1 March 2005. The two competing instruments have a common material scope of application since they both deal with conflicts of jurisdiction in matters of parental responsibility and child protection. Since both are applicable in France, it is necessary to find out which one should be preferred over the other: a rule of compatibility is therefore necessary.

Article 61 of the Brussels II bis Regulation provides a specific rule on the respective scopes of the Regulation and the 1996 Hague Convention. The Regulation provides that it prevails over the Convention “where the child concerned has his or her habitual residence on the territory of a Member State”.

In this case, the whole question was therefore where the children resided and then to determine the applicable instrument. If the habitual residence was in Switzerland – a third State to the European Union but a party to the Hague Convention –, the 1996 Hague Convention applied; if it were in France, however, the Brussels II bis Regulation applied.

However, the determination of the children’s habitual residence in this case was complicated by the change of habitual residence during the proceedings. At the time of the divorce petition filed in France in January 2016, the habitual residence was a cross-border alternating residence between Switzerland and France. But, when the French Court of Appeal ruled, the habitual residence had been exclusively and lawfully transferred to Switzerland. This new residence was not under discussion. The discussion in this case is therefore not about the location of the children’s habitual residence (initially alternating between France and Switzerland and then transferred exclusively to Switzerland), but about the time at which it should be assessed.

Thus, while the distributive criterion used in Article 61 of the Regulation is perfectly clear – habitual residence in or outside a Member State of the European Union – it does not offer any temporal rule, which would have been eminently useful in this case.

The only area where temporal details can be found is that of the rules of jurisdiction. The latter, based in both texts on the criterion of the child’s habitual residence, resolve the change in the connecting factor.  In this respect, two situations must be distinguished, depending on whether the change of habitual residence occurs outside any pending proceedings or, conversely during the proceedings.

In the event of a “classic” change of habitual residence, outside of any pending proceedings, the two texts resolve the difficulty in favour of the child’s new habitual residence (explicit solution in the Hague Convention ; resulting from a combined reading of Articles 8, 9 and 10 of the Regulation).

If, on the other hand, there is a change of habitual residence in the course of proceedings, the solution is not identical. While the Regulation states that the habitual residence must be assessed “at the time the court is seised” (Article 8(1)), the 1996 Hague Convention provides for the jurisdiction of the authorities of the “new habitual residence”. The difference in wording means that under the Brussels II bis Regulation, once seised, the court retains jurisdiction, even if the child is subsequently lawfully moved to another Member State, whereas under the 1996 Hague Convention, a change of habitual residence during the course of proceedings entails an immediate transfer of jurisdiction to the authorities of the new habitual residence.

The temptation might have been great, in order to resolve the question of the location of the habitual residence in the context of Article 61, i.e. for the purposes of determining the applicable instrument, to use the temporal criterion contained in the rules of jurisdiction. This seems to have been the reasoning of the Court of Appeal, which ruled that although the children’s habitual residence has since been transferred to Switzerland, the habitual residence was in France at the time the first court was seised, thus maintaining the jurisdiction of French courts on the basis of the Brussels II bis Regulation. However, while the reasoning is strictly correct from the point of view of jurisdiction based on the Brussels II bis Regulation, it is not correct from the point of view of the implementation of Article 61.

The Supreme Court does not go down this road. The solution it favours can be summarised as follows: admittedly, under the Brussels II bis Regulation, the French court had jurisdiction, since the children’s habitual residence was in France at the time the French court was seised. However, at the time when the court ruled, the Brussels II bis Regulation was no longer applicable under Article 61 of the Regulation, since the children’s habitual residence was in Switzerland, a third State of the European Union but a Contracting State of the Hague Convention. Under that Convention, and on the basis of Article 5 thereof, French courts therefore no longer had jurisdiction; Swiss courts did.

At last, in order for the change of habitual residence to be effective, both in terms of the relationship between the Regulation and the Convention and in terms of jurisdiction, the judgment suggests that there are two conditions.

Firstly, the new habitual residence must of course be in a Contracting State to the Hague Convention, which is the case of Switzerland. If not, it is not certain that the Brussels II bis Regulation would have ‘lost’ its applicability, but the situation would certainly have led to a conflict of proceedings. The solution provided by the French Supreme Court thus illustrates one of the benefits of judicial cooperation between states.

Secondly, the change of habitual residence must be lawful. In the event of a wrongful change of habitual residence to Switzerland, the Brussels II bis Regulation would have remained applicable and thus led to the French authorities retaining jurisdiction (Article 10). If the abductor brought the case before a Swiss court, the Swiss court could have adopted the same solution and declined jurisdiction on the basis of Article 7 of the 1996 Hague Convention.

Finally, it may be objected that, by reasoning in this way, the Court added criteria to Article 61, which does not contain any: a temporal criterion and a criterion of lawfulness of the change of habitual residence. The solution must, however, be approved, as it is both the most pragmatic and the most consistent with the spirit of the compatibility clause contained in Article 61 of the Regulation. It avoids the – undesirable – diversion through the rules of jurisdiction and allows account to be taken of the reality of the children’s actual situation, to which the criterion of habitual residence adopted by all the texts, undoubtedly aspires.

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