Paul Lorenz Eichmüller (University of Vienna) has kindly provided the following post.
Austria is one of the few European countries that still retains the institution of fault divorce, which means that a court will have to examine the grounds for a separation. With an increasing number of States abolishing this type of divorce (England and Wales being one of the most recent examples), conflicts problems may arise due to the incompatibility between the different systems. This is well illustrated by a recent decision of the Austrian Supreme Court from 10 December 2020.
The parties of the underlying case were both Austrian citizens who got married in Austria and later moved to Belgium for professional reasons. Subsequently, they got divorced there under Belgian law in accordance with Article 8(a) of the Rome III Regulation. Belgium had abolished fault divorce in 2007. Thus, no statement on fault for the divorce was issued in the judgment.
After the divorce, the former wife moved back to Austria and brought an action for a supplementary pronouncement of fault in Austrian courts to improve her situation in subsequent maintenance proceedings under Austrian law. The former husband had in the meanwhile relocated to Guinea.
The Decision by the Austrian Supreme Court
After the court of first did not discuss the applicable law at all and the court of second instance ruled that pursuant to Article 8(c) of the Rome III Regulation, Austrian law was applicable to the issue of determining fault in a marriage, the Supreme Court of Austria decided that Austrian law was indeed applicable. According to the Supreme Court, the supplementary pronouncement of fault serves primarily for the purposes of maintenance, as it determines the amount of maintenance that a divorced spouse receives. As such, it is a preliminary question for the maintenance claim and hence governed by the maintenance statute, rather than the divorce statute. This would also be in line with the Rome III Regulation, which excludes matters of maintenance from its sphere of application in Article 1(2)(g). The Hague Protocol on the Law Applicable to Maintenance Obligations, which determines the maintenance statute in Austria (Article 15 of the Maintenance Regulation), stipulates in Article 3 that the applicable law is the law at the habitual residence of the creditor, which in this case was Austria. However, in order to give the former husband the opportunity to argue for the possible application of a law with a closer connection according to Article 5 of the Hague Protocol, the court referred the dispute back to the court of first instance.
The decision of the Supreme Court is overall not very convincing, leaving many open questions that have not been dealt with in the reasoning of the judgment.
First of all, the decision is insofar remarkable as it unnecessarily brought confusion to an issue that had previously been settled in well-established case law. Given the unclear qualification of fault in a divorce in private international law, a referral of the case to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling would have thus been preferrable, as the scope of application of the Rome III and Maintenance Regulations is concerned. The previous rulings of the Austrian Supreme Court had always determined the supplementary pronouncement of fault according to the divorce statute (RS0077266; approving also in literature: Nademleinsky, EF-Z 2019, p. 139).
Apart from this procedural issue, the Supreme Court surprisingly broke with precedent (1 Ob 340/58) stating that it is not a preliminary question for the award of maintenance whether there was fault, but rather a mere question of fact, whether the divorce judgment contains a pronouncement of fault. That approach is also followed in literature (Zankl/Mondel in Schwimann/Kodek, ABGB4 § 69 EheG Rz 1). But even if it is classified as a preliminary question in the exception of international cases (as supported by Nademleinsky, EF-Z 2019, p. 139), the law applicable to preliminary questions nevertheless has to be determined separately in accordance with the applicable rules of private international law. Therefore, this would in itself not provide any additional value for the scope of application of the abovementioned regulations or for the applicable law.
Now, what actually is the applicable law determining fault in a divorce? At a first glance, the argumentation of the Supreme Court seems plausible: As the pronouncement of fault after a finalised divorce only serves the purpose of creating a better position for the maintenance creditor, it might be regarded as an issue of the Maintenance Regulation. However, a question is not automatically within the scope of the Maintenance Regulation, solely because its main relevance lies in maintenance law. In a fault divorce, the question who bears fault for the end of the marriage falls without the shadow of a doubt under the divorce statute. Yet, in maintenance proceedings following a no-fault divorce the exact same question would be determined by another statute, just because the law applicable to the divorce under Art 8 Rome III does not know a fault divorce. It is not convincing that the classification should depend on the type of proceedings initiated, as this undermines the aim of the European private international law regulations, namely to uniformly determine the applicable law.
Additionally, the rules of the Hague Protocol are designed in such a way that they protect the creditor by referring to the law at the creditor’s habitual place of residence. This is appropriate given that the creditor has to make a living at that place. However, the question whether there was fault in ending the marriage is not at all connected to the place of the creditor’s habitual residence. It is much more closely connected to the marriage and its dissolution. Thus, it should be determined according to the divorce statute.
Contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Belgian law is thus relevant for fault in divorce in the present case. Does that, however, mean that the former wife necessarily receives a lower maintenance and the husband’s fault cannot be taken into account? Not necessarily. If there is no pronouncement of fault in the divorce judgment, the maintenance is determined according to equity (§ 69(3) EheG) rather than by a fixed percentage, as when there is a pronouncement of fault. Up to the present decision, this was also the case for any foreign judgment from a jurisdiction without fault divorce (RS0114475).
According to some opinions (Zankl/Mondel in Schwimann/Kodek ABGB4 § 69 EheG Rz 18; LGZ Wien 11.6.1984, 44 R 1049/84), the fault of a spouse can then be weighed in this equitable evaluation. Although the Supreme Court seems to disagree with this interpretation – for good reasons if both the divorce and the maintenance proceedings were held under Austrian law – this line of jurisprudence should not be followed in an international context, since a failure to consider fault would lead to a qualitative discrepancy of norms.
If the Supreme Court were to remain adamant in its position that the fault may in principle not be weighed in cases of § 69(3) EheG, the legal norms in the foreign divorce statute and the Austrian maintenance statute would be in qualitative discrepancy to each other, as the latter simply assumes that fault will be pronounced in the divorce judgment if there is any. Based on this assumption, it assigns lower maintenance to divorces where no fault is pronounced. However, this assessment does not have foreign judgments in mind where there is no possibility for a pronouncement of fault according to the divorce statute. While Austrian maintenance law requires the existence of this legal institute, its absence in many jurisdictions results in the connection of this question ending up nowhere. Hence, the incompatibility of the two legal systems has to be remedied by the means of adaptation.
While adaptation can be conducted both on the level of private international law (as Gitschthaler in Gitschthaler, IntFamR Art 11 HUP Rz 2 seems to suggest) and on the level of substantive law, the choice between the two should depend on which one is the less invasive.
As maintenance after divorces without the pronouncement of fault is under Austrian law determined on the basis of equity anyway, the adaptation on a substantive level – by allowing the weighing of fault – is relatively non-invasive compared to applying a different statute altogether. The application of Austrian law on the determination of fault can therefore not be considered the preferred option.
Thus, the Supreme Court should have dismissed the action for a supplementary pronouncement of fault, so that the maintenance court could weigh the fault in its equitable evaluation – if not by default, then at least by the means of adaptation. Also from a point of procedural economy, this would be a desirable outcome, as the additional supplementary proceedings could be avoided.