Case law Developments in PIL

CJEU Rules on Jurisdiction to Lift Cross-Border Provisional Attachments

The judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Supreme Site Services v. Shape (Case C‑186/19) did not only raise the issue of the impact of the immunity of enforcement of international organisations on the definition of civil and commercial matters in the meaning of the Brussels I bis Regulation. The main question asked to the CJEU was that of the jurisdiction to lift cross-border provisional attachments under the Brussels I bis Regulation.

Background

The case was concerned with a dispute relating to the supply of fuel by a group of private companies to the headquarters of NATO in Europe (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE), for the purpose of a mission in Afghanistan. SHAPE is established in Belgium, but it has a regional headquarter in the Netherlands, the Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (‘JFCB’). In order to guarantee the payment of all the costs related to the supply contracts, JFCB and the private companies signed an escrow agreement, whereby funds were deposited in a bank in Brussels.

After a dispute arose between the parties, the private companies sued JFCB and SHAPE on the merits in a Dutch court in 2015.

In 2016, the plaintiffs applied ex parte to the same Dutch court for an authorisation to carry out a provisional attachment on the monies held by the bank in Brussels. The application was granted and, two days later, was carried out in Brussels by a Belgian enforcement officer (huissier de justice) on the basis of a certificate issued on the ground of Art 53 of the Brussels I bis Regulation. In other words, the Dutch order was directly enforced under the Brussels I bis Regulation.

Jurisdiction to Issue a Cross-Border Attachment

After SHAPE was notified, it challenged the order before the court of origin. Interestingly enough, it does not seem that JFCB was notified, and that it was a party to the interim proceedings. The debate essentially revolved around the immunities of NATO, but there was also an issue of jurisdiction. On which ground could a Dutch court authorise the attachment of monies in Belgium? When the Dutch court of appeal considered the issue, it referred to Article 35 of the Regulation. Is that because, in the absence of JFCB, it considered that it did not have jurisdiction on the merits? If so, its jurisdiction should have been restricted to Dutch territory (see Recital 33 of the Preamble to the Regulation).

Enforcement in Belgium

In addition to the jurisdictional issue, there was an obstacle for enforcing the Dutch order in Belgium. It had been issued ex parte. It was therefore not a decision in the meaning of Article 2 of the Regulation, and it could not benefit from the enforcement regime of the Regulation.

But after the abolition of exequatur, the enforcement of foreign judgments is only to be challenged ex post for grounds listed in Art 45. Violation of the scope of Art 35 is not one of them. Issuance of protective measures ex parte is not either. Was there a remedy for SHAPE in Belgium? Maybe Adrian Briggs is right when he writes that Art 45 should not be read literally, and that other grounds for opposing enforcement should be admissible.

It must be underscored that ex parte provisional measures may not benefit from the Brussels regime, but the Brussels I bis Regulation expressly recognises that national law might allow their enforcement. In this case, after Dutch courts lifted the authorisation on the ground that NATO benefited from an immunity, SHAPE sought a declaration of enforceability of the Dutch judgment on the ground of a 1925 bilateral treaty between Belgium and the Netherlands (that the Brussels instruments have replaced, but not terminated – rings a bell?), because the argument of SHAPE was that its immunity excluded the application of the entire regulation (the argument was rightly rejected by the CJEU).

Jurisdiction to Lift the Provisional Attachment

SHAPE applied to the Dutch court, and the Dutch court of appeal set aside the authorisation and lifted the attachment on the ground of the immunity of SHAPE. The creditors appealed, and, although the issue of jurisdiction was not raised, the Dutch supreme court wondered whether Belgian courts had exclusive jurisdiction to lift an attachment over assets situated in Belgium on the grounds of Article 24(5) (“enforcement of decisions”), and thus referred the case to the CJEU.

The question was framed narrowly, and the CJEU only answered that Article 24(5) did not apply, because the proceedings did “not concern per se the enforcement of judgements in the meaning of Article 24(5)”. The court had just insisted that the provision applies to “proceedings relating to recourse to force, constraint or distrain on movable or immovable property”, so it seems that it considered that an application to lift a provisional attachment could not be considered to relate to use of force.

One must also say that Article 24(5) applies to the enforcement “of decisions”, and that it is unclear which decision would have been enforced in this case, since the proceedings on the merits were pending.

Most unfortunately, the CJEU only answered the question as it had been framed and did not elaborate on the court which would have jurisdiction under the Regulation.

It is submitted that, for a number of reasons, it should be the court which issued the order in the first place. A first reason is that the process of lifting a provisional attachment requires to reconsider and, as the case may, set aside, a judicial order. Under the Regulation, it is hard to see how any other court than the court of origin could be entitled to do so. Another reason is that the court of origin will apply the same rules to decide whether the decision was rightly granted.

2 comments on “CJEU Rules on Jurisdiction to Lift Cross-Border Provisional Attachments

  1. Carlos Santalo Goris

    Thank you very much for raising these jurisdictional issues concerning Supreme Site Services. I have also given some thoughts to them. Could It be also that the Dutch court misunderstood the scope of Article 35, considering this provision as the general jurisdiction forum to any kind of provisional measures? (the infamous “even if” could lead to flexible interpretations of Article 35)

    Concerning the bilateral treaty between Belgium and the Netherlands, I also think that it was used on purpose to avoid the strict rules on recognition and enforcement of the Brussels I bis Regulation applied to inaudita altera parte provisional measures. As you remark, the possibility to rely on national regime on recognition and enforcement is acknowledged in Recital 33 of the Brussels I bis Regulation.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Carlos.

    In fact, SHAPE sought a declaration of enforceability under the Bilateral Treaty of the Dutch judgment lifting the provisional attachment. This judgment had been delivered inaudita altera parte. So the reason why SHAPE did not resort to the Brussels Ibis Regulation was to be consistent with the argument that it later put before the CJEU, namely that the Brussels Ibis Regulation did not apply because of its immunities.

    It is unclear what the Dutch court of appeal understood when it referred to Art 35. Maybe a reader who reads Dutch could tell us.

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