Proposed reforms for European jurisdiction – an outside view from an insider

How are non-Member States of the European Union, such as the United States, affected by Europe’s law on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters – a group of instruments which one can call the ‘Brussels-Lugano regime’? Developments in Brussels may be about to bring about significant changes, as part of a package of measures now being considered to update this regime. The other significant development in those proposals, from a non-European perspective, relates to arbitration.

The external dimension

Since before it was signed in 1968, the Brussels Convention on Jurisdiction and the Enforcement of Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters, and its associated instruments, have prompted adverse comment for their inward-looking nature. The Brussels-Lugano regime, now largely based on Council Regulation (EC) 44/2001 (the ‘Brussels I Regulation’), provides mandatory and uniform jurisdictional rules for 32 jurisdictions spread across 30 European countries (the 27 member states of the European Union plus, under the Lugano Convention, three EFTA states – Switzerland, Norway and Iceland).

But it very largely ignores the rest of the world. With just three exceptions, it governs jurisdiction only against defendants domiciled in the member states, providing a framework of rules governing the jurisdiction of the courts of the member state to entertain civil or commercial proceedings. (For these purposes, ‘domicile’ is a much more liberal concept than the rather narrow common law concept of domicile). What it does in this regard, and what it leaves undone, are both significant.

First, what it leaves undone. Article 4(1) of the Brussels I Regulation says,

If the defendant is not domiciled in a Member State, the jurisdiction of the courts of each Member State shall, subject to Articles 22 and 23, be determined by the law of that Member State.

Article 22 contains rules conferring exclusive jurisdiction on the courts of member states with which, by reason of their particular subject-matter, the proceedings are considered to have a particularly close relationship. Thus, proceedings concerned with rights in rem in immovable property in a member state, or the constitutions of companies incorporated in a member state, or public registers, or patents, or the execution of judgments are all assigned exclusively to the member state in question, irrespective of where the defendant is domiciled.

Article 23 confers jurisdiction –exclusively so unless the contrary is agreed – on the courts of member states which the parties have chosen in a forum selection agreement. There are a number of conditions for the efficacy of such an agreement, one of which is that either party must be domiciled in a member state. So a plaintiff who is domiciled in a member state and who has such an agreement with a defendant who is non-European domiciliary can still rely on Article 23 both to confer jurisdiction on the chosen court, provided it is within a member state, and to derogate from the jurisdiction of an otherwise competent court.

The only other exception is of marginal interest: Article 9(2) deems a non-European insurer to be domiciled where its European branch is domiciled.

With those three exceptions, when it comes to non-European defendants, national law rules the day, including the widely varying and sometimes exorbitant rules which the national laws contain. Some of these are mentioned in Annex I to the Brussels I Regulation. In Germany, for example, Article 23 of the Zivilprozessordnung (ZPO, the Code of Civil Procedure) provides for jurisdiction based on the presence of property, irrespective of whether the dispute has any connection with that property. In France, Articles 14 and 15 of the Civil Code notoriously provide a forum for any dispute brought by or against a person of French nationality. In England, jurisdiction may be founded on the service of the claim on a person during their presence in England, even if it is only transitory (although in this case the exorbitance of the rule is tempered by the doctrine of forum non conveniens).

As against persons domiciled in member states, these and other rules of national law are excluded by Article 3(1), which says that persons domiciled in a member state may be sued in the courts of another member state only by virtue of the rules set out in the Regulation. And it is now clear, following the decision of the European Court of Justice in Owusu (case C-281/02, [2005] ECR I-1383) that not only ‘may’ they be sued in the courts of the member states but, if they are to be sued at all, they must be sued there. In other words, proceedings properly brought under the jurisdictional rules of the Brussels-Lugano regime cannot be stayed under national law powers for jurisdictional reasons, either in favour of the courts of another member state which might also be competent under the regime or in favour of the courts of a non-member state.

Which brings us to what the regime Brussels-Lugano leaves undone. What it does not do is to provide exceptions to take account of the external dimension. The three areas which have long been recognized as giving rise to problems are (1) where there is a close connection with a third state, the paradigm case being one concerning title to land in that third state; (2) where there is a valid forum selection agreement giving exclusive jurisdiction to the courts of a third state; and (3) where there are prior proceedings on foot in the third state between the same parties and involving the same cause of action as later proceedings commenced in a member state. In any of those cases, proceedings commenced in a member state under the Brussels-Lugano regime will  not be stayed or dismissed in favour of the third state (or at least they should not be – there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that, at least in the case of forum selection clauses, the clause is sometimes given effect and the Brussels-Lugano regime ignored).

The proposal

The European Union has an unusual legislative process. Legislative proposals are made, and can only be made, by the European Commission. But they are adopted, and can only be adopted, by the Council (which represents the governments of the member states and which has a system of qualified majority voting) and, in a fairly recent development, by the European Parliament, which is directly elected. Both the Council and the Parliament have to give their approval.  As it was mandate to do by the Brussels I Regulation, the Commission has carried out a review of the working of the Brussels I Regulation and in December 2010 put forward a proposal for its revision  or ‘recast’  (COM(2010) 748/3).

It is by no means clear that this proposal will pass into law in its present form, not least because the European Parliament is taking a close interest in the matter and has made a number of criticisms, as behind the scenes, no doubt, have the member states. Nevertheless, the Commission is in a powerful position and will be keen to press for some at least of its proposals.

The Regulation in the international legal order

Among the proposals is the repeal of Article 4, removing the power of member states to apply their own laws to defendants domiciled in non-member states, and the removal of the ‘domiciled in a member state’ qualification in most of the Regulation’s jurisdictional rules. This would have the effect that the jurisdiction of the courts of member states over persons domiciled anywhere in the world would then be subject to the Brussels I Regulation. At present, for example, English courts will assume jurisdiction over a contract case where the contract is governed by English law – a common state of affairs in international sale or transport contracts, for example. But if the proposal were adopted, they would no longer be able to do so. Admittedly, if England was the place of performance of the obligation in question, they would then be able to assume jurisdiction on that basis under Article 5(1) of the Regulation, but that is a power which, albeit on slightly different terms, they have already. It seems very likely, especially in the shipping field, that if the proposal is adopted in this form it would result in a significant loss to Europe of dispute-resolution business from around the world. It is probably for this sort of reason that the European Parliament has expressed concern that the repeal of Article 4 should not occur without a lot more detailed analysis and consultation.

An exception to the generalised extension of the Regulation’s jurisdictional rules to defendants domiciled in non-member states is provided by Article 6(1). That provision enables a defendant domiciled in a member state to be sued as a co-defendant in the courts for the place where any of the other defendants is domiciled; but it is not proposed to extend this rule to found jurisdiction against defendants domiciled in non-member states.

One deficiency of the present system is addressed by the proposal, although curiously two more are not.  What the proposal contains is a welcome provision, in Article 34, designed to deal with the problem which may occur when proceedings in relation to the same cause of action and between the same parties are pending before the courts of a third state at a time when a court in a member state is seised.  As we saw, at present the latter court has no power to stay its proceedings, notwithstanding the parallel proceedings in the third state.  Under the proposed revision, the court seised in the member state would have a discretion to stay its proceedings if certain conditions are satisfied, including that,

‘it may be expected that the court in the third State will, within a reasonable time, render a judgment that will be capable of recognition and, where applicable, enforcement in that Member State; and the court is satisfied that it is necessary for the proper administration of justice to do so.’

These conditions are both, to a common lawyer, gratifyingly discretionary and mark something of a shift towards a flexible realism and away from a dogmatic adherence to legal certainty. The court would have power to lift the stay at any time and the stay would not prejudice the plaintiff’s position on limitation. This proposal has been generally welcomed and it seems likely that it will be adopted, whatever the fate of Article 4.

What the Commission’s proposal does not contain, however, is either a provision dealing with cases involving a close connections with a third state of a kind which, within the European Union, would give rise to exclusive jurisdiction under Article 22, or a provision enabling effect to be given to choice of court agreements in favour of third states. The case for the former is less clear cut, but the case for the former is very strong.

As regards the latter, an argument which Commission officials have been advancing in public for this omission is that such agreements will soon be dealt with by the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements of 30 June 2005, and that if the Brussels I Regulation were to contain a more favourable rule, then third states would have a reduced incentive to ratify the Convention.  Ratification by the EU and by other states around the world is doubtless a desirable objective, but it is not a sufficient reason to exclude a provision from the recast Brussels I Regulation on this question. It is far from certain when, if ever, this Convention will come into force at all, let alone as between the EU and enough states around the world to make any other rule of marginal significance. So far only Mexico has ratified the 2005 Convention, and its eventual effectiveness is likely to depend to a great extent on whether the United States SA ratifies it. But this question is bogged down in a constitutional dispute within the USA on whether its implementation falls within the exclusive competence of the Federal government, or also of the individual states. Even if it does come into effect, it will exclude significant numbers of international contracts and, for a significant period at least, many countries.

The case for legislation on forum selection agreements in favour of third states is now generally agreed, and perhaps the simplest way of doing it would be to adopt wholesale the terms of the 2005 Hague Convention, which could if necessary be done by reference, even in circumstances where that convention itself does not apply. It would, however, be sensible to extend the subject-matter scope of the rule to the subject-matter scope of the Brussels I Regulation, so that the difficulties which the current rules present are not perpetuated for cases which fall outside the subject-matter scope of the Hague Convention, but within the Brussels I Regulation.

Arbitration

The Brussels-Lugano regime expressly excludes arbitration from its scope: Article 1(2)(d). It is clear that for most purposes the law which governs arbitrations is unaffected by the Brussels-Lugano regime. It does not apply to the recognition and enforcement of arbitration awards as such, nor to court judgments which incorporate such awards. Equally, proceedings which form part of the arbitral process – such as the appointment of an arbitrator, setting aside an award or ruling on points of law in the course of the arbitral proceedings – fall outside the regime. But the scope of the exclusion is unclear at the margins and the effectiveness of arbitration as a parallel system of dispute resolution has been potentially compromised by the famous West Tankers decision of the European Court of Justice (case C-187/07, [2009] ECR I-663). The Commission’s proposal contains a provision designed to overcome this difficulty, although whether it does actually do so is less clear.

The critical questions are (1) the extent to which court proceedings which aim to protect or give effect to arbitration agreements and arbitration proceedings are excluded from the regime; and (2) the effect of a dispute involving an incidental or preliminary question relating to arbitration. Both questions are affected by the decision in West Tankers.

West Tankers

In brief, the case involved a jetty in Italy owned by Erg Petroli SpA which was damaged in a collision with a tanker owned by West Tankers Inc. There was a contract between Erg and West Tankers which included a London arbitration clause. Erg was paid by its insurers for the damage up to the policy limits and then made a claim against West Tankers in a London arbitration for the excess. Meanwhile, the insurers, in exercise of their subrogation rights, brought proceedings against West Tankers in Italy. West Tankers disputed the jurisdiction of the Italian court and also sought and obtained from the English courts an anti-suit injunction to restrain the insurers from pursuing the Italian proceedings, arguing that these were covered by the arbitration clause. The question of whether that was permissible under the Brussels I Regulation was referred by the House of Lords to the European Court.

In deciding that that was not permissible, the European Court affirmed two principles. First, it decided that despite even if the London proceedings were their being outside the scope of the Regulation, it could nevertheless have a collateral effect on them if those proceedings would have the consequence of undermining the effectiveness of the regime, “namely preventing the attainment of the objectives of unification of the rules of conflict of jurisdiction in civil and commercial matters and the free movement of decisions in those matters” (para. 24).  This is an example of the ‘principle of effectiveness’ in European law.

Secondly, therefore, it went on to consider whether the Italian proceedings themselves fell within or outside the subject-matter scope of the Regulation. The critical question for these purposes was whether the fact that the dispute was subject to an arbitration agreement (which was assumed for the purposes of the argument) took what was otherwise a straightforward civil or commercial dispute outside the Regulation’s scope. It concluded that it did not: a dispute that fell within the Regulation was not removed from it by reason of a preliminary or incidental issue relating to the validity of an arbitration agreement. It was for the Italian court to rule on its own jurisdiction, even if that involved ruling on the validity or applicability of the London arbitration clause, without interference by the London anti-suit injunction.

As a footnote, what happened next was that the London arbitration proceeded and was extended to include a counterclaim by West Tankers against Erg and the insurers for a declaration that it was under no liability. Although Erg participated the insurers did not and the arbitrators made an award in West Tankers’ favour against the insurers. West Tankers then applied for and obtained an order that that award be registered as a judgment of the English court. The English court held ([2011] EWHC 829 (Comm)) that although such an order would not normally be made in respect of a declaratory award, where, as in this case, the successful party’s objective was to establish the primacy of its award over any inconsistent judgment, an order would be made because that would make a positive contribution to obtaining the material benefit of the award. That order was appealed, the appeal was heard on 22 November and judgment is awaited. Meanwhile, the Italian proceedings are stayed.

The proposal

The difficulty with the West Tankers decision is that it removed from the London courts the ability to rule on the validity of the London arbitration agreement. It is this difficulty which the Commission’s proposal seeks to address. The way in which it seeks to do so is by providing an exception to the general exclusion of ‘arbitration’ in Article 1(2)(d) of the Regulation. The exception is in a new Article 29(4), which would require a court whose jurisdiction is contested on the basis of an arbitration agreement to stay its proceedings once the arbitral tribunal, or the courts of the member state of the seat of the arbitration, have been seised of proceedings to determine the existence, validity or effects of the arbitration agreement, even if that is merely an incidental question in those proceedings.

It remains to be seen whether this proposal, if adopted, will have its intended effect, the main difficulty being that the original court whose jurisdiction is challenged will have to decide as a threshold matter whether its jurisdiction is actually contested on the basis of an arbitration agreement. It is not hard to imagine that frivolous recourse may be had by recalcitrant defendants to alleged arbitration agreements as a delaying tactic. But abuse of that kind aside, it seems that a proposal along these lines is probably the best that can be achieved in keeping courts away from disputes that really ought to be decided by arbitration. (Other concerns about the proposal, such as its application to insurance disputes, or its potential effect on the competences of member states, are beyond the scope of this paper).

Other proposals

In addition to the proposals relating to the Regulation’s external dimension and to arbitration, the Commission’s proposal contains a number of other matters.

Perhaps of greatest interest to non-Europeans is the inclusion of  two proposed new fora of last resort, for cases in which no court of a member states has jurisdiction under the Regulation’s other rules. Under the first of these – a type of forum arresti – a member state’s courts would have jurisdiction if the defendant’s property was located in that state its value was not disproportionate to the value of the claim and the dispute had a sufficient connection with that member state (Article 25 of the draft). Under the second, which is subsidiary to the first, the courts of a member state with which a dispute is sufficiently connected could accept jurisdiction if the right to a fair trial or the right to access to justice so required, particularly if proceedings could not reasonably be brought or conducted in a third state with which the dispute was closely connected, or if a third state judgment would not be afforded recognition and enforcement in that state, thus counteracting the claimant’s rights – a forum necessitates – (Article 26 of the draft).

Other proposals in the draft recast of the Regulation include

  • the abolition of exequatur in respect of judgments from other member states – a proposal which is exciting controversy because of public policy concerns;
  • proposals to ameliorate the rigidity of the lis pendens priority rule, including a proposal to give priority to the putatively chosen courts to determine the effects of a forum selection clause,
  • provisions to increase communications between courts to aid the co-ordination of interim measures with substantive proceedings and other detailed proposals relating to interim measures,
  • a proposal to give priority over cases involving rights in rem in movable property to the courts of the situs, and
  • a strange proposal affirming the priority of workers’ rights to engage in collective action to protect their rights.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen how much of the Commission’s proposal survives the inter-institutional wrangling which is already under way, and what amendments are finally adopted. With some amendment, it seems likely that much of it will find its way into the law, although a big question-mark still hangs over the extension of the Brussels I Regulation to cover claims against persons domiciled outside the European Union.

Alexander Layton

Queen’s Counsel (barrister) in practice at 20 Essex Street, London. Visiting fellow at NYU School of Law’s Center for Transnational Litigation and Commercial Law. Expert adviser to the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on the proposed reform of the Brussels I Regulation. Immediate past chairman of trustees, British Institute of International and Comparative Law.

The Center for Transnational Litigation and Commercial Law aims at the advancement of the study and practice of international business transactions and the way to solve related disputes either through litigation or arbitration. As commercial transactions become increasingly international, it is vital to the legal and business communities to understand and analyze the practices and legal principles that govern relationships between firms and between firms and consumers in the international arena