Op-Ed: “Ex Officio Application of EU Choice of Law Rules: Should the Interests of the Parties Matter?” by Gilles Cuniberti
As reported by my colleague Fabienne Jault-Seseke on the EAPIL Blog, the French supreme court for civil and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) ruled in a judgment of 26 May 2021 that ‘the principles of primacy and effectiveness of European Union law’ require that French courts apply ex officio certain choice of law rules contained in EU Regulations.
This is a significant evolution from the doctrine that the court had adopted 20 years ago. This doctrine was the result of decades of academic debates and changes in the case law of the court. Interestingly enough, at the end of the 1980s, the court had ruled that choice of law rules contained in international conventions (essentially the conventions negotiated under the aegis of the Hague Conference of Private International Law) deserved a different status and should be applied ex officio, but the court dropped this exception a few years later.
Background: the peculiar consequence of applying choice of law rules
As most civil law jurisdictions, France recognises the principle jura novit curia. Article 12 of the French Code of Civil Procedure provides that courts must decide disputes in accordance with the legal rules which are applicable and that they should do so ex officio if necessary.
The extension of these principles to choice of law rules was always debated, however. One likely explanation is that the operation of choice of law rules may result in the designation of foreign law. The content of foreign law needs then to be determined, and this process typically involves private experts who must be remunerated (remarkably, French courts virtually never appoint judicial experts for that purpose, although they routinely do so for establishing complex facts). It is understandable, therefore, that the parties would not always want to engage the resources for establishing the content of foreign law, in particular for cases with limited financial stakes, or involving impecunious parties. The obligation to apply systematically choice of law rules may thus have appeared as generating severe practical difficulties, and it took the Cour de cassation decades to craft a doctrine which would weigh the competing interests in a satisfactory manner.
Why impose ex officio application when the parties could settle?
The current doctrine of the court was adopted in two judgments of 26 May 1999. The obligation of French courts to apply ex officio choice of law rules has since then been based on a major distinction. In matters where the parties may not dispose of their rights (for example parenthood, as in the first 1999 judgment), French courts ought to apply choice of law rules ex officio. In contrast, in matters where the parties may dispose of their rights (for example an international sale of goods, as in the second 1999 judgment), French courts have no obligation to apply choice of law rules if none of the parties raised their application or the application of foreign law. The system is mixed: some choice of law rules must be applied ex officio, others need not.
The distinction is between rights that the parties may dispose of, and rights that parties may not dispose of. The origin of the distinction is to be found in the writings of the most influential scholar in French private international law in the last decades, Pierre Mayer. Mayer argued that, while in principle foreign law should be considered as law and thus applied ex officio, an exception should be made for those rights which the parties could modify, and indeed waive. This is because they could decide to settle their dispute at any time, under any terms. Thus, a pragmatic solution should be to allow them to argue their case under the (French) law of the forum if they so wish. Just as they could have ignored the content of the applicable law to reach a settlement, they should be allowed to implicitly designate another law.
The scope of the new obligation to apply EU choice of law rules ex officio
The new rule laid down by the court in the judgment of 26 May 2021 establishes a distinction between two categories of EU choice of law rules. The Cour de cassation rules that the obligation to apply them ex officio is limited to mandatory choice of law rules, and that mandatory choice of law rules are rules that cannot be derogated from. This is a clear reference to party autonomy, that many EU regulations of private international law recognise. The meaning of the ruling is thus that the obligation is limited to the application of choice of law rules for which the European lawmaker did not grant freedom of choice to the parties.
The particular case was concerned with a tort action for unfair competition. The applicable choice of law rule is contained in Article 6 of the Rome II Regulation, and it expressly excludes the power of the parties to choose the applicable law (Article 6(4)). The rule in Article 6 is thus to be considered as an EU mandatory choice of law rule, and French courts must now apply it ex officio.
In contrast, the general choice of law rule in Article 4 of the Rome II Regulation (application of the law of the place of damage in tort actions) is a default choice of law rule. It only applies in the absence of a choice of the applicable law made by the parties pursuant to Article 14 of the Rome II Regulation. Likewise, in contractual matters, the parties may choose the law governing their contract in most cases (under Article 3), which means that most choice of law rules contained in the Rome I Regulation are defaults.
Although the Court does not say so, it seems clear that the distinction that it has introduced is inspired from its 20 year old doctrine distinguishing between rights that the parties may dispose of, and rights that parties may not dispose of. But it is not absolutely identical. In this case, the action was concerned with an act of unfair competition which affected exclusively the interests of a single competitor (Rome II Regulation, Article 6(2)). It was governed by general fault based tort liability. The interests involved were purely private, and it is likely that the parties could freely settle the action. Under the old doctrine, it seems that a French court would not have had the obligation to apply the choice of law rule ex officio. Under the new doctrine, it should have, because the parties may not freely choose the applicable law (although they may still freely settle).
Primacy and Effectiveness of EU Law?
Would it be a problem for the effectiveness of EU law if the parties were allowed to argue a case of unfair competition under the law of the forum instead of the law designated by the applicable EU choice of law rule? The Brussels Ibis Regulation grants jurisdiction to a number of courts in the EU, and other courts might apply all choice of law rules ex officio. In most Member States, however, the idea that courts, after ruling that foreign law applies, might then go on and establish the content of foreign law without the cooperation of the parties is, at best, unrealistic. And in most Member States, if foreign law cannot be established, courts will apply the law of the forum. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
So the crucial question is that of the establishment of the content of foreign law. At the present time, the courts of most Member States do not have the possibility to ascertain the content of foreign law without the assistance of the parties. For this to change, considerable resources would need to be invested, to establish either centre(s) of comparative law which could provide expert opinions, or a network of courts which would be required to cooperate for that purpose. As long as these resources are not invested, the issue of the ex officio application of choice of law rules cannot be addressed without taking into account the interests of the parties.
Gilles Cuniberti is Professor of Private International Law at the University of Luxembourg and the President of the European Association of Private International Law.