Georgina Garriga Suau and Christopher Whytock have recently published a paper on SSRN, entitled “Choice of Law for Immovable Property Issues: New directions in the European Union and the United States”.
Building on a comparative assessment of recent developments in US and EU private international law (PIL), the paper address the changing fate of lex rei sitae conflict-of-law rule, which went from being the cornerstone of the PIL regime for issues about immovable property to see its scope of application substantially reduced over the last years.
In the US, the current drafts of the Third Restatement limits the scope of application of the lex rei situs to “core immovable property issues”, to the exclusions of other ancillary matters that were subsumed under this rule according to the First and Second Restatement, such as succession and matrimonial property issues involving immovables, and even issues concerning contracts for the transfer of immovable property interests. Behind the retrocession of this rule lies a different and more holistic approach to the appraisal of the policies underpinning the laws governing matrimonial property regimes, successions and contracts: these are usually not policies about immovables as such, meaning a State other than that where the immovables are located will likely have a stronger interest in having its law applied to these issues, considered as an inseparable whole.
The authors give evidence of a similar trend in EU PIL. Although the lex rei sitae conflict-of-law rule is maintained, in principle, by the Rome I Regulation with respect to contracts relating to a right in rem in immovable property, later on it did not find its way in either the Succession Regulation or the Matrimonial Property Regulation, both axed on the connecting factor of habitual residence.
Similarly, the Registered Partnership Regulation does not adopt the lex rei sitae conflict-of-law rule, even when the issues covered by it arise in relation to immovable property. All these Regulations favour the unity of the applicable law, extending their conflict-of-law rules to the issues that are within their scope regardless of the property’s location and regardless of whether it is characterized a movable or immovable property.
They do, nonetheless, indirectly allow for the “survival” of the lex rei sitae conflict-of-law rule, insofar as they exclude from their scope (and delegate to national PIL) certain core immovable property issues, namely, the nature of rights in rem and the recording o immovable property rights in a register, including the legal requirements for recording and the effects of recording or failing to record. Such exclusions (which are narrowly interpreted by the ECJ) pose the problem of defining such “core immovable property issues”.
According to the authors, these include, that these issues include, at a minimum, issues about permissible interests in immovable property and about the requirements for and effects vis-à-vis third parties of recording immovable property transfers in immovable property registries. On this point, there is certainly room for enhancing coherence among the several EU Regulations and improving legal certainty as concerns the EU’s understanding of “rights in rem in immovable property”. This challenge is currently being tackled by several academic initiatives, that are briefly discussed by Garriga Suau and Whytock.
The authors conclude that the comparative analysis of EU and US PIL reveals that similar reasons lie behind the “shrinking” scope of application of the lex rei sitae conflict-of-law rule, relating mostly to the objective of avoiding fragmentation a corpus of property in the case of matrimonial property/succession issues, and in those contexts as well as in the context of contractual matters, avoiding the need to characterize issues as involving either immovable property or movable property. Another underlying reason is, in both legal systems, a shift in the interest analysis that underpins the conception of conflict-of-law rules in those matters, which now tends to attach less weight to the sheer location of property, to the benefit of other interests that can usually be better ensured through the application of a law other than the lex rei sitae.