On 17 September 2020 the Court of Justice of the EU issued a judgement in the case of WV v Landkreis Harburg (C-540/19) concerning the interpretation of the jurisdictional rules of the EU Maintenance Regulation, in particular its Article 3(b). An opinion in this case was prepared by AG Sánchez-Bardona.
WV’s mother lived in a residential care home for the elderly in Germany. In accordance with § 1601 of the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, WV, the son, was required to provide maintenance to his mother. However, he failed to do so. As the mother did not have adequate means to cover expenses, she received, under the German Sozialgesetzbuch, social assistance from a public body – the Landkreis Harburg. Pursuant to § 94(1) Sozialgesetzbuch, maintenance claims are by way of statutory subrogation transferred to the public body providing social assistance. Relying on this provision, the Landkreis Harburg lodged an application with the Amtsgericht Köln (Germany) claiming from WV the payment of maintenance arrears and regular maintenance for the future.
WV submitted that German courts lack jurisdiction. The lower instance court shared this view, noting that, according to Article 3(b) of the Maintenance Regulation, jurisdiction lies with the court for the place where the creditor is habitually resident. At the same time the concept of “creditor” is defined in Article 2(1)(10) of this Regulation as meaning “any individual to whom maintenance is owed or is alleged to be owed”. Hence, only the creditor personally can make use of the ground listed in Article 3(b). The dispute reached the Bundesgerichtshof, which referred a preliminary question to the CJEU.
Previous Jurisprudence of the CJEU
As reminded in the opinion and in the judgement, the Brussels Convention and Brussels I Regulation included jurisdictional rules for maintenance claims (until Maintenance Regulation has started to be applied on 18 June 2011). Pursuant to these rules, jurisdiction lies with the courts of the defendant’s domicile (based on general rule – Article 2 Convention; Article 4 Regulation) and with the courts for the place where the maintenance creditor is domiciled or habitually resident (Article (5)(2) of both acts).
The CJEU ruled on the interpretation of Article (5)(2) of the Convention in Blijdenstein (C- 433/01), a case similar, as to its factual background, to the one considered in Landkreis Harburg. The Court stated in Blijdenstein that Article 5(2)
cannot be relied on by a public body which seeks, in an action for recovery, reimbursement of sums paid under public law by way of an education grant to a maintenance creditor, to whose rights it is subrogated against the maintenance debtor.
The CJEU explained on that occasion that the general principle is that the courts of the State in which the defendant is domiciled are to have jurisdiction “and that rules of jurisdiction which derogate from this general principle cannot give rise to an interpretation going beyond the cases expressly envisaged.” (24)
The “derogation provided for in Article 5(2) of the Convention is intended to offer the maintenance applicant, who is regarded as the weaker party in such proceedings, an alternative basis of jurisdiction (…) that specific objective had to prevail over the objective of the rule contained in the first paragraph of Article 2 of the Convention, which is to protect the defendant as the party who, being the person sued, is generally in a weaker position.” (29).
Then, it submitted that “a public body which brings an action for recovery against a maintenance debtor is not in an inferior position with regard to the latter. Moreover, the maintenance creditor, whose maintenance has been covered by the payments of the public body, is no longer in a precarious financial position.” (30) Additionally, “the courts of the defendant are better placed to determine the latter’s resources.” (31)
AG’s Opinion Arguing the Need to Depart from Blijdenstein
The AG’s Opinion submitted numerous reasons for which the CJEU should depart from Blijdenstein. The AG underlined the differences between Brussels Convention and Maintenance Regulation, analyzed the CJUE’s “new” jurisprudence relating to the latter (namely: Sanders and Huber, C-400/13; V, C-499/15; R, C-468/18), in particular as regards the regulation’s overarching principles, like protection of maintenance creditors or the effective recovery of maintenance claims in cross-border situations. Additionally, with reference to the Hague Protocol on the law applicable to maintenance obligations, the advantages of the coincidence between ius and forum were sketched.
Departure from Blijdenstein and its Justification
The CJEU shared the views of the AG and departed from Blijdenstein jurisprudence. In practical terms, it means that public bodies like Landkreis Harburg might file claims against maintenance debtors at the place of maintenance creditor’s habitual residence, which in most instances would coincide with their own.
The CJEU underlined that Article 3 of the Maintenance Regulation:
contains neither a general principle, such as jurisdiction of the court for the defendant’s domicile, nor derogating rules which would have to be interpreted strictly (…) but rather a number of criteria which are equal and alternative (…). (29)
does not specify that the claim must be brought by the maintenance creditor himself or herself before the courts identified in paragraphs (a) and (b) [and therefore does not] preclude a claim relating to a maintenance obligation from being brought by a public body, to which the claims of that creditor have been transferred by way of statutory subrogation, before one or the other of those courts. (31)
Consistent with the opinion, the CJEU also pointed to the fact that the Maintenance Regulation, as opposed to Brussels Convention and the Brussels I Regulation, does apply no matter domicile or habitual residence of the defendant. Hence:
refusing to allow a public body subrogated to the claims of a creditor to bring an action before the courts where that creditor is habitually resident in circumstances where the maintenance debtor is domiciled in a third State is most likely tantamount to requiring that public body to bring its action outside the European Union. (35)
This would result in legal and practical difficulties, which go against the objective of the effective recovery of maintenance claims.
The CJEU convincingly added that:
The transfer of the maintenance creditor’s claims to such a public body impairs neither the interests of the maintenance debtor nor the predictability of the applicable rules of jurisdiction; that debtor must, in any event, expect to be sued either before the court for the place where he or she is habitually resident or before the courts for the place where that creditor is habitually resident. (38)
The CJEU also referred to Hague Protocol, underling that its Article 10 provides that the right of a public body to seek reimbursement of a benefit provided to the creditor in place of maintenance is governed by the law to which that body is subject. This:
ensures, in the vast majority of cases – which are those in which the seat of the public body and the habitual residence of the creditor are in the same Member State – a parallel between the rules on jurisdiction and those concerning the applicable substantive law. (43)