On 11 November 2020, the Court of justice issued a judgment on jurisdiction under Brussels I bis Regulation in respect of a dispute on the use of immovable property subject to co-ownership (Case C-433/19, Ellmes Property Services, already reported here and here). Both article 24, point 1, on rights in rem matters and article 7, point 1, a) on contractual matters were submitted to the interpretation of the Court.
Regarding the first provision, the Court leads a classical and very brief analysis of the jurisdictional rule, leaning on the national judge to implement it in casu. On the contrary, the interpretation of the second provision deviates from the settled caselaw and the Court is more prescriptive towards the referring judge.
All in all, the reading of the judgment gives an impression of inconsistency and unfinished work.
Facts and Issues at Stake
A British company is co-owner of an apartment in Austria, which is designated for residential purposes. However, it was using that apartment for touristic purposes by regularly renting it out to holidaymakers. Another co-owner, SP, sought the cessation of that “touristic use” on the ground that it is contrary to the designated use of that building and, therefore, it interferes with his right of co-ownership.
The question of international jurisdiction arose. SP seized the Austrian court following the exclusive jurisdiction provided for in article 24, point 1, of Brussels I bis Regulation, in favour of the court of the Member State in which the property is situated. The British company contested the jurisdiction of that court on the basis of the forum contractus, pursuant to article 7, point 1, a). For the referring court, both grounds of jurisdiction could be admissible under Austrian civil law. Therefore, the Court of justice ruled on both provisions.
Jurisdiction in Matters Relating to Rights in rem in Immovable Property: A Self-restraint Approach?
The Court of justice first assessed whether the action brought by the co-owner against the British company was to be characterised as an action “in matters relating to rights in rem in immovable property” pursuant to article 24, point 1 of the Brussels I bis Regulation. This requires, in particular, that the action is based on a right in rem and not on a right in personam (see the CJEU judgment in Reitbauern, para. 45). A right in rem, existing in corporeal property, has effect erga omnes. The tricky point here was to determine whether the designated use of the building produces such effect. Is the co-owner entitled to oppose the residential purposes of his property beyond the co-ownership agreement, to third parties? For the Court of justice, it falls to the referring court to respond to this question, following its national legal framework. Therefore, the application in casu of article 24, point 1, remains unsure.
Eventually, the national judge would have been in the same position without referring any question to the Court of justice, since its interpretation adds nothing to the settled caselaw in the field. The Advocate General Szpunar went much further in its opinion, clearly doubting of the application of this exclusive ground of jurisdiction. He stressed that “there was a considerable underlying interest at stake in the EU legislature’s decision to make the jurisdiction established by that article [24 point 1] exclusive in nature”, namely “a public interest”. It is characterised when “rights [are] capable of affecting the legal situation of any person (effect erga omnes) or of the public in general” (para. 62). No such public interest seems to be at stake here, as far as “adherence to contractual arrangements between co-owners relating to the designated use of an immovable property” is concerned (para. 68); this is a pure contractual issue, subject to private autonomy.
In that respect, despite the remaining divergence of national civil and property laws within the Member States, it was possible to give the domestic court a clearer guidance. Then I wonder why the Court of justice decided not to be more explicit in its interpretation. Did the Court exercise self-restraint to preserve national private laws? Numerous Member States are indeed still hostile to the European harmonisation in the field. If it is the Court’s motive, it is unfortunate. On the contrary, it seems necessary to reflect on what extent an approximation of core notions of private law within the EU could improve the uniform application of European PIL rules. This reflection is the natural follow-up of the “autonomous interpretation” based on EU law developed and applied by the Court of justice, including in the field of EU PIL.
Jurisdiction in Matters Relating to a Contract: A Return to Orthodoxy?
Given the uncertainty of application of the exclusive jurisdiction provided for in article 24, point 1, the Court of justice also interpreted article 7, point 1, on contractual matters. The Court started to recall the great flexibility of the notion of “contractual matters”. By analogy with its judgment in Kerr, it held that “the co-owners are, on account of the co-ownership agreement, in a contractual relationship freely consented to” (para. 40). Therefore, the action brought by the co-owner against the British company, itself co-owner, is an action “in matters relating to a contract”.
Then, the Court implemented the complex connecting factor laid down in article 7, point 1, a) – since the special rules in respect of the contracts on sale of goods and the contracts regarding the provision of services did not apply here, i.e. the presumptions regarding the place of performance –. Remarkably, the Court of justice removed the classical conflict-of-laws reasoning inherited from its judgment in Tessili (contrary to the Advocate General Szpunar in his opinion, para. 83 in fine). Following this settled caselaw, if the parties did not agree on the place of performance, that place must be determined by the law governing the contract in question pursuant to the PIL rules of the forum.
However, the Court of justice decided here to locate “directly” the place of performance, without the intermediary of the applicable law to the contract. The obligation in question is the guarantee of a “peaceful enjoyment of the property subject to co-ownership” by the owner and “must be performed in the place in which it is situated” (para. 44), i.e. in Austria.
This solution makes the application of article 7, point 1), a), much easier in practice. The “direct” reasoning followed by the Court of justice leads to a substantial designation of the competent jurisdiction, here the Austrian judge. The two-steps reasoning, i.e. the implementation of a conflict-of-laws rule in order to apply a jurisdictional rule, has always been criticized by a large majority of scholars. It is indeed unorthodox regarding the classical PIL methodology. Issue of competence is, in principle, independent from the solution of conflict-of-laws.
The law designated by the choice of law rules has generally to be determined under the Rome I Regulation, except if the contract in question was concluded before the entering into force of this text. It seemed to be the case here (see par. 84 of the opinion, and even before the entering into force of the 1980 Rome Convention), imposing the referring court to apply its previous national choice of law rules in contractual matters. This further difficulty was probably an additional incentive for the Court to remove the Tessili reasoning.
This “streamlined” interpretation was already followed by the Court, a few years ago, in a case related to the avoidance of a contract of gift of immovable property (see the CJEU judgment in Schmidt, para. 39). However, in both judgements, the Court of justice did not bother to mention the change of approach. This is unfortunate as it makes difficult to assess the scope of the solution.
It is, most probably, only an exception in the context of immovable property, based on its strong attraction on the place where the property is situated and on the resulting proximity with the forum. In that sense, the Court of justice has stated that this solution “meets the objective of predictability of the rules of jurisdiction laid down by Regulation n° 1215/2012 since a co-owner bound by a co-ownership agreement stipulating such a designated use may, when he or she arbitrarily and unilaterally changes that designated use, reasonably expect to be sued in the courts of the place where the immovable property concerned is situated” (para. 45).
However, the “simplification” of application of article 7, point 1), a), stays unclear. The Court of justice mentions that the obligation in question “relates to the actual use of such property” (para. 44 in fine). Following an a contrario reading, would the “direct” location of the place of performance still be the solution if the obligation relates to an abstract use of property? (in that sense, see here). And how to understand and to draw the line between actual and abstract use of property?
Finally, it seems that a same “direct” approach was recently followed by the Court in the field of prorogation of jurisdiction. In its judgment in DealyFix (reported here on this blog), where the enforceability of a choice of court agreement to a third party was at stake, the Court held that it can be enforced only if, under the (substantive) legislation of the Member State whose courts are designated in that clause, the enforceability is allowed. The Court of justice did not refer to the “rules of private international law of the court” designated in the agreement, as it did before in its judgment in CDC (see para. 65, regarding the “court seised of the matter”). By analogy, the same “renvoi” to PIL rules is laid down in article 25, §1 and recital 20 of the Brussels I bis Regulation, in case of alleged substantive invalidity of a choice-of-court agreement; the question shall be decided “in accordance with the law of the Member State of the court […] including the conflict-of-laws rules of that Member State”.
I wonder whether it could illustrate a latent tendency of the Court of justice to avoid the overriding conflict-of-laws reasoning, in favour of a direct application of the jurisdictional rules concerned. Such a “material approach” is convincing, but one could call the Court to be more explicit in its judicial policy. It would make its interpretation more convincing and effective.