In a judgment of 27 January 2021, the French Supreme Court for private and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) indicated its willingness to apply strictly the definition of provisional measures developed by the European Court of Justice in Reichert, Van Uden and Saint Paul Dairy Industries. Three years earlier, the Cour de cassation had ignored the limits sets by these rulings and extended the jurisdiction of French courts to order evidentiary measures beyond purely protective measures.
The case was concerned with a contractual dispute between a French and a German company in the film industry. The contracts provided for the jurisdiction of German courts. As the German company wondered whether several French companies had commited the budget agreed upon by the parties to the production of a film and a series, it applied ex parte to a French commercial court for the appointment of a judicial officer (huissier de justice) with the task of conducting “computer investigation” and “gathering data”.
The judgment is short on the description of the measure, but it seems that the huissier was supposed to enter the premises of the French companies and collect data from their computer.
The French companies challenged the jurisdiction of the French court to grant such a measure.
Article 35 of the Brussels I bis Regulation
Because of the jurisdiction clauses, French courts lacked jurisdiction on the merits. Their jurisdiction could only be grounded in Article 35 of the Brussels I bis Regulation. However, in order to avoid that parties bypass the jurisdiction of the chosen court (or any other court having jurisdiction on the merits), the ECJ has limited the scope of this provision to protective measures. As is well known, the ECJ has consistently defined ‘provisional, including protective measures’ in the meaning of this provision as:
referring to measures which, in matters within the scope of the Convention/Regulation, are intended to preserve a factual or legal situation so as to safeguard rights the recognition of which is otherwise sought from the court having jurisdiction as to the substance of the case.
The concept, thus, is limited to measures which ‘preserve a situation’. Despite the title of Article 35, they actually only include protective measures. This narrow definition was codified in Recital 25 of the preamble of the Brussels I bis Regulation, which codified Saint Paul Dairy Industries in the following terms:
The notion of provisional, including protective, measures (…) should not include measures which are not of a protective nature, such as measures ordering the hearing of a witness.
The critical issue was thus to define the purpose of the requested measure.
The lower court had found that the aim of the measure was to prepare the proceedings on the merits by gathering information. It had thus ruled that the requested measure was not protective, as it did not aim at preserving any legal or factual situation. It had also held that the measure was not provisional either, as the provision of the information could not be undone.
The Supreme Court allowed the appeal. It ruled that the reasons of the lower court were too general, and that it should have explored whether the requested measure did not also aim at preserving evidence.
In 2018, the French Supreme Court had allowed the appointment of judicial experts for the purpose of conducting investigations in France and establishing facts without any assessment of whether there was any need to preserve a situation. As foreign courts had jurisdiction on the merits, these judgments were arguably non compliant with the case law of the CJEU defining the scope of Article 35. It seems that these decisions have now been overruled, and rightly so.