The author of this post is Cristina González Beilfuss (University of Barcelona).
The MPA case (Case C-501/20), decided by the CJEU on 1 August 2022, deals, at first sight, with a fairly unusual divorce scenario. The Spanish wife and the Portuguese husband are two members of the contract staff of the European Union working in the latter’s delegation in Togo. Leaving this aspect aside, the case, however, turns out to be quite ordinary. As highlighted by Advocate General Szpunar in his opinion, the situation of European citizens posted to a third State for work reasons is fairly commonplace.
EU expats might have an expectation to be able to divorce in the European Union, particularly, when their connection with the third State in question is tenuous. This seems to be the case here. The spouses were formerly based in Guinea – Bissau; whether they were already employed by the EU at that stage cannot be ascertained by reading the judgment or the Advocate General’s Opinion, but can be safely assumed. In any case, their degree of integration in either Guinea Bissau or Togo seems to be relative. The couple chose to get married in the Spanish Embassy in Guinea-Bissau and the Spanish wife came to Spain to give birth to their two children in 2007 and 2015. It therefore might have seemed only natural to her to file the divorce petition in Spain.
The divorce claim was, in fact, quite standard; she sought the dissolution of the marriage, a decision on the custody of the two children of the marriage and the award of maintenance for the children, including the use of the family home in Togo. But apparently the husband refused to accept that the marriage was over, which is why the divorce became contentious. This was most unfortunate because empirical research has shown that habitual residence is very often not examined unless it is a contested matter, as happened in this case. The court of first instance declined hearing the case. The decision was appealed, because the wife wanted to divorce. The Court of Appeal in Barcelona subsequently made a request for a preliminary ruling on a number of issues.
As regards the dissolution of the marriage, which is the aspect dealt with in this entry, the most significant question referred to the CJEU was the interpretation of the rule formerly contained in Article 6 of Regulation 2201/2003. Many commentators have found this rule confusing, particularly in connection with Article 7 (residual jurisdiction). A clarification by the CJEU is therefore most welcome.
The CJEU chose to interpret the rule literally. A spouse who is habitually resident in a Member State or who is a national Member State can only be sued in another Member State in accordance with the rules of jurisdiction contained in the Regulation. This entails that in an expat situation only the courts in the Member State of the defendant’s nationality (i.e. in the case at hand the courts in Portugal) can have recourse to domestic residual jurisdiction rules. The courts in the Member State of the plaintiff’s nationality have to decline hearing the case. This is what the requesting Court, the Court of Appeal in Barcelona, has done in a decision rendered on the 21 October 2022.
The purpose of this post is not to question the interpretation of the CJEU nor the decision of the Spanish Court. The main problem is, in my view, that the rule as such does not make sense. In the context of marriage dissolution in the strict sense, i.e. in connection with the continuation of the matrimonial bond, there is, in my view, no justification for protecting the defendant, i.e. the spouse that does not want the divorce and making life difficult for the spouse who wants to dissolve the marriage. The rule is moreover only workable if the divorce is contentious and one can distinguish between a defendant and a plaintiff. Would the Spanish court have been able to resort to its domestic rules of jurisdiction had the spouses decided to jointly request the divorce?
And what are the consequences of the rule? If the Spanish wife wants to divorce in the EU, she has to go to Portugal. Whether Portuguese courts have jurisdiction is, however, uncertain. Article 62 of the Portuguese Código de proceso civil grants international jurisdiction to Portuguese courts when the action may be brought before a Portuguese court under the rules of territorial jurisdiction. Such rules allocate jurisdiction to the courts of the habitual residence or domicile of the plaintiff. The Portuguese courts also have jurisdiction if the fact that gave rise to the cause of action in the lawsuit or any facts leading to the cause of action have taken place in Portugal. Since the Spanish wife never had an habitual residence or domicile in Portugal and there is no factual connection to Portugal, the only possibility left would be to argue that Article 62(c) of the Código de proceso civil, containing a forum necessitatis, applies. The rule seems to be more open ended than the European forum necessitatis as available under the Maintenance, the Succession, the Matrimonial Property and the Registered Partnership Regulations. It grants jurisdiction to the Portuguese courts when effect cannot be given to the invoked right other than through an action filed in Portuguese territory or the claimant has appreciable difficulty in commencing an action abroad, as long as there is a relevant connecting element, either personal or physical, between the subject matter of the dispute and the Portuguese legal order.
A forum necessitatis is, in principle, only available exceptionally if the proceedings in question cannot reasonably be brought or conducted or would be impossible in the third State in question. This has been examined by the Court of Appeal of Barcelona in relation to the maintenance claim ancillary to the divorce petition. Following the guidance given by the CJEU in the MPA decision, the court undertook a detailed analysis of the procedural conditions in Togo and their consequences on the individual case and reached the conclusion that there is no evidence that access to court would not be possible or extraordinarily difficult in Togo.
If the Portuguese courts reached the same conclusion and the Portuguese forum necessitatis was also found to be inapplicable, the Spanish wife would have to seek divorce in Togo. And assuming that they accepted to hear the case, would the courts in Togo dissolve the marriage? In accordance with Article 714 of the Code des personnes et familles of Togo, the courts in Togo would, in the absence of a common nationality of the spouses, apply the law of their common domicile i.e. the law of Togo. Under the law of Togo divorce is available either on the basis of mutual consent (which is not the case here) or in the absence thereof, on the ground of fault. The Spanish wife would have to plead and prove that marital life had become intolerable as a result of infidelity, excesses, abuse or insults attributable to her husband; that the family life and the safety of children are seriously compromised by notorious misconduct, moral or material abandonment of the home or the sentencing of one of the spouses to a firm sentence exceeding four years of imprisonment. Other grounds are impotence or definitive medical sterility or a refusal to consummate the marriage. Failing that the required separation period would be of at least five years. A stark contrast to the situation under Spanish law which takes the position that nobody should be forced to stay in a marriage he or she no longer wants and accepts divorce on unilateral demand! And to the situation under Portuguese law where divorce can be requested after a de facto separation of only one year!
A forum patriae thus appears to be necessary in order to guarantee access to divorce, not to court. Given the development of EU citizenship which the CJEU has repeatedly stated is destined to be the fundamental status of nationals of the Member States, it is outdated to provide a forum patriae only if spouses hold the nationality of the same Member State, and to treat the situation of an expat couple of EU citizens in the same manner as that of a couple where only one spouse is an EU citizen and even more so as the situation of a couple of an EU citizen and a third State national who happens to be a national of the third State in question.
The implications of EU citizenship in connection with access to European courts were not analysed in the MPA case, simply because the argument was not raised. In his Opinion on Case C‑603/20 PPU, which the CJEU did not follow, Advocate General Rantos derived from Article 20 of the TFUE a right to have parental responsibility examined by a court of a Member State, if the child is an EU citizen (paras 76 and 77). The idea should be further explored in connection with marriage dissolution.
The 2006 Commission Proposal for the amendment of Regulation 2201/2003, which was withdrawn included a provision stipulating that, where neither of the spouses is habitually resident in the territory of a Member State and the spouses do not have the common nationality of a Member State, the courts of a Member State should be competent by virtue of the fact that: (a) the spouses had their common previous habitual residence in the territory of that Member State for at least three years; or (b) one of the spouses had the nationality of that Member State (Article 7 of the Proposal). Life would have been easier for the Spanish wife had this proposal been adopted. In the end, she has been lucky though, because the husband has returned to the EU! Otherwise she would continue being trapped in a marriage that she no longer wants.