On 6 October 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered its ruling in Skarb Państwa Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej reprezentowany przez Generalnego Dyrektora Dróg Krajowych i Autostrad v. TOTO SpA – Costruzioni Generali and Vianini Lavori SpA (Case C‑581/20). The decision is currently only available in French and Bulgarian.
Although three questions were referred for a preliminary ruling, the Court asked the Advocate-General to focus only on one of them, which was concerned with parallel interim litigation under the Brussels Ibis Regulation. This post will also focus on this issue (for the answer of the Court to the other questions, see the post of over at Conflictoflaws.net).
In 2015, in order to guarantee obligations assumed under a public contract concluded in Poland for the construction of a section of expressway, the undertakings which had been awarded the contract provided to the Polish contracting authority a number of guarantees underwritten by a Bulgarian insurer.
Some years later, the contractors unsuccessfully applied to a Polish court for provisional, including protective, measures prohibiting the contracting authority from making use of those guarantees. The contractors made a similar application to the Bulgarian courts, which dismissed the application at first instance and granted it on appeal.
The Polish contracting authority appealed to the Varhoven kasatsionen sad (Supreme Court of Cassation, Bulgaria) which referred three questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.
Jurisdiction of the Polish and Bulgarian Courts under the Regulation
The most interesting issue in the case arose out of the fact that the contractors had applied for protective measures in two Member States: Poland, then Bulgaria.
The relevant contract included a jurisdiction clause granting jurisdiction to Polish courts. Polish courts had thus jurisdiction on the merits. As a consequence, they had unlimited jurisdiction to grant any kind of protective measure available under Polish law.
In contrast, Bulgarian courts did not have jurisdiction on the merits. Their jurisdiction to grant provisional, including protective measures, could only be founded in Article 35 of the Brussels I Regulation, and was limited in a number of ways which will be familiar to the readers of this blog. It could be argued that their jurisdiction in this case was justified because the subject matter of the interim measure was the debt of a Bulgarian legal person.
How were then the Polish proceedings and decision to influence the power of Bulgarian courts to grant the interim measures applied for?
Proceedings or Decisions?
To answer this question, an important conceptual distinction was in order.
There are two different rules in the Brussels Ibis Regulation which address parallel litigation.
The first is lis pendens. If the same proceedings are brought in two different courts, the lis pendens doctrine requires that the court seised second decline jurisdiction. The rule, therefore, strips the court seised second from its jurisdiction.
The second is the recognition of foreign decisions. If recognised, foreign decisions are res judicata. They prevent relitigation of the claims. They have no impact on the jurisdiction of the forum. Res judicata makes the claims inadmissible.
So what was this case concerned with? Interim proceedings had been initiated first in Poland, and they had resulted in decisions. From the perspective of Bulgaria, was the issue the jurisdiction of Bulgarian courts, or the admissibility of claims which had been decided by Polish courts?
Unclear Question, Unclear Answer?
The Bulgarian court had formulated its question as follows:
After the right to make an application for provisional/protective measures has been exercised and the court having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter has already ruled on that application, is the court seised of an application for interim relief on the same basis and under Article 35 of [Regulation No 1215/12] to be regarded as not having jurisdiction from the point at which evidence is produced that the court having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter has given a ruling on that application?
Was the question concerned with the jurisdiction of Bulgarian courts?
Of course, the CJEU reformulated the question, as it always does. It is unclear whether this is always necessary to do so, but in this case, it would have been good to clarify what the case, or at least the judgment of the CJEU, was about.
Unfortunately, the CJEU did not clarify anything.
It reformulated the question by asking whether an Art 35 court was under the obligation to decline jurisdiction if the foreign court had already decided the same dispute.
It held that there is no hierachy between the two jurisdictional grounds for issuing provisional measures, Art. 35 and jurisdiction on the merits.
It thus concluded that an Art 35 court was under no obligation to decline jurisdiction if the foreign court had already decided the same dispute. It ruled:
L’article 35 du règlement no 1215/2012 doit être interprété en ce sens qu’une juridiction d’un État membre saisie d’une demande de mesures provisoires ou conservatoires au titre de cette disposition n’est pas tenue de se déclarer incompétente lorsque la juridiction d’un autre État membre, compétente pour connaître du fond, a déjà statué sur une demande ayant le même objet et la même cause et formée entre les mêmes parties.
Advocate-General Rantos had done a much better job. In his conclusions, he had distinguished between two hypotheticals: the foreign provisional measure could be recognised, or it could not. He had explained that he had to distinguish, because he could not assess in the present case whether the foreign provisional measure could be recognised.
What is the contribution of the answer of the Court to this question?
I am not sure.