ECtHR: mere indication from last instance court that applicable national rules ‘are not contrary to EU law’ does not justify refusal to request preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has given its judgment in Bio Farmland Betriebs S.R.L. v. Romania (application no. 43639/17), ruling that the Court of Appeal of Timișoara breached the applicant’s right to a fair hearing (Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR) when it rejected its application for a preliminary ruling to be sought from the Court of Justice without giving any reasons for its decision.
The case stems from a dispute between the applicant, Bio Farmland Betriebs S.R.L. (a limited company based in Romania, specialising in farming) and the Bucharest Agency for Payments and Intervention in Agriculture (APIA). The latter declared the applicant to be eligible for a grant in the framework of the European Agricultural Funds for Rural Development in 2011, but in 2012 it issued a decision reducing the support awarded by 50%. The applicant brought the case before the Court of Appeal and asked for a preliminary ruling to be sought from the Court of Justice, but its application was rejected.
In its judgment on the case, the ECtHR started by recalling its settled case law, according to which Article 267 TFEU imposes on national courts an obligation to request a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice where a question relating to the interpretation of EU law is raised in proceedings before them and national law does not provide for a judicial remedy against their decisions (Ullens de Schooten and Rezabek v. Belgium, Sanofi Pasteur v. France). The ECtHR also recalled that this obligation is not absolute, because in accordance with the Court of Justice’s Cilfit case law (C-283/81), it is up to the national courts whose decisions are not subject to appeal under national law, as well as the other national courts, to assess whether a decision on a point of EU law is necessary to enable them to give their decision. As it is well known, the Cilfit doctrine includes three situations in which, by way of exception, national courts are not obliged to request a preliminary ruling: (i) where they find that the question concerning the interpretation of EU law is not relevant, (ii) where the EU provision at issue has already been interpreted by the Court of Justice, and (iii) where the correct interpretation of EU law is so obvious as to leave no room for reasonable doubt. Under the ECtHR’s case law, Article 6(1) ECHR imposes on the domestic courts an obligation to give reasons under the applicable law for decisions refusing to refer a question for a preliminary ruling, especially where the applicable law allows such a refusal only as an exception. The duty to give reasons is satisfied if, in concreto, the reasons for rejecting the reference for a preliminary ruling in the light of the Cilfit criteria may be deduced from the reasoning of the decision of the court concerned.
Applying these standards to the case at hand, the ECtHR noted that the Court of Appeal had not expressly referred to any of the three Cilfit criteria, and that in response to the applicant company’s request for a preliminary ruling it confined itself to stating that ‘it was not necessary to discuss the request for a preliminary ruling’. The ECtHR noted that the judgment of the Court of Appeal had not indicated the reasons that led it to that conclusion. In this regard, it clarified that the mere fact of mentioning that the provisions of national law under discussion ‘were not contrary to EU law’ is not a clear answer as to the reason for the refusal. It therefore concluded that there had been a breach of Article 6(1) ECHR.
The judgment is available here.