In a recent ruling (No 120 of 23 February 2021, unreported) the Court of Appeal of Piraeus was asked to determine whether, for the purposes of exequatur under Regulation No 44/2001 (Brussels I), a Maltese ship mortgage is considered an authentic instrument.
The issue had the following practical ramifications. A classification of the mortgage as an authentic instrument for the purposes of the Regulation would entail that immediate enforcement ought to be stayed by virtue of Article 37 as a result of the lodging of an appeal. Instead, if the ship mortgage were seen as falling outside the scope of the Regulation, domestic law would apply, which does not provide for an automatic stay of execution if the debtor challenges the enforceability of the foreign title.
A Greek bank granted in 2011 a loan of nearly 12 million Euros to a company seated in La Valetta (Malta). In oder to secure the bank’s claim, a mortgage was registered on a ship belonging to the debtor, registered in Malta. Due to delays in payment, the bank seised the Court of First Instance of Piraeus seeking a declaration of enforceability of the ship mortgage. It relied for this on Article 905 Greek Code of Civil Procedure.
The court granted the application. The company filed a third-party opposition, i.e. the remedy available under Greek law, arguing that the court had failed to apply the Brussels I Regulation. The move was successful. The bank appealed.
Article 57(1) of the Brussels I Regulation reads as follows:
A document which has been formally drawn up or registered as an authentic instrument and is enforceable in one Member State shall, in another Member State, be declared enforceable there, on application made in accordance with the procedures provided for in Articles 38, et seq. The court with which an appeal is lodged under Article 43 or Article 44 shall refuse or revoke a declaration of enforceability only if enforcement of the instrument is manifestly contrary to public policy in the Member State addressed.
The Report by Jenard and Möller on the 1988 Lugano Convention 1988 (para. 72) posed the following conditions for the application of Article 50 of the Lugano Convention, which addresses the same issue as Article 57 of the Brussels I Regulation (formerly, Article 50 of the 1968 Brussels Convention):
The authenticity of the instrument should have been established by a public authority; this authenticity should relate to the content of the instrument and not only, for example, the signature; the instrument has to be enforceable in itself in the State in which it originates.
In Unibank, the CJEU ruled as follows:
An acknowledgment of indebtedness enforceable under the law of the State of origin whose authenticity has not been established by a public authority or other authority empowered for that purpose by that State does not constitute an authentic instrument within the meaning of Article 50 of the [1968 Brussels Convention].
Maltese law regulates the matter under Chapter 234 of the Merchant Shipping Act. Article 38(1) provides that:
A registered ship or a share therein may be made a security for any debt or other obligation by means of an instrument creating the security (in this Act called a “mortgage”) executed by the mortgagor in favour of the mortgagee in the presence of, and attested by, a witness or witnesses.
Article 41(2) states that
A registered mortgage shall be deemed to be an executive title for the purposes of Article 253 of the Code of Organization and Civil procedure.
The latter provision, in turn, regards the following as enforceable titles:
… (b) contracts received before a notary public in Malta, or before any other public officer authorised to receive the same where the contract is in respect of a debt certain, liquidated and due, and not consisting in the performance of an act.
The company submitted a legal opinion signed by a foreign lawyer, according to which a ship mortgage is considered as a ‘public deed’, given that it was received in accordance with the law by a public functionary, entrusted to give full faith and credit to the document in question. In addition, the authenticity of the signature of the ship registrar had been certified by an apostille pursuant to the Hague Apostille Convention, which referred to the ship mortgage as a public deed.
The company referred also to the Scottish public register of deeds as an example of authentic instrument, in order to convince the court to consider the ship mortgage as an authentic instrument for the purposes of the Brussels I Regulation.
The Court of Appeal of Piraeus granted the bank’s appeal. Relying on Article 57 of the Brussels I Regulation, the Jenard-Möller Report and the judgment of the Court of Justice in Unibank, it noted that an authentic instrument is a document which has been formally drawn up or registered as such.
In addition, Che court emphasized on the lack of any involvement of the Register of Ships in regards to the content of the mortgage. Contrary to the first instance judgement, the court considered that the mere registration in the Valetta ship registry does not suffice. The act of the Register of Ships does not attribute the nature of an authentic instrument to a document drawn and signed by two private parties.
The Court made extensive reference to the opinion of the Advocate General La Pergola in the Unibank case, stating that the authenticity of the document’s content had not been examined by the registrar. In other words, the sole registration without any examination of the content, does not attribute to the ship mortgage the nature of an authentic instrument. It is just a formal procedure for the purposes of solemnity and publicity.
In addition, the Court of Appeal clarified that the reference of the registrar to the document as a public deed does not hinder the court to examine the ship mortgage from the Regulation’s point of view.
The core issue is whether the procedure followed for the registration of a Maltese ship mortgage entails any participation of a public authority, i.e. the decisive factor according to the Court of Justice in Unibank.
The Court of First Instance answered in the affirmative, whereas the Court of Appeal took the opposite view.
The judgment demonstrates the variety of legal documents balancing between the private and public divide. It serves as an additional example for the interpretation of Article 57 Brussels I Regulation and Article 58 Brussels I bis Regulation.