The Prestige, 20 years on. CJEU reference may be withdrawn at last gasp.

The London Steam-Ship Owners’ Mutual Insurance Association Ltd v The Kingdom of Spain M/T “PRESTIGE” (No. 5) [2022] EWCA Civ 238 (01 March 2022),  concerns a reference to the CJEU by Butcher J, arising out of the longstanding litigation between Spain and the owners’ P&I Club in connection with the Prestige oil spill in 2002. The Club had appealed against an order registering the judgment of the Spanish Supreme Court on 28 May 2019. The appeal was fixed for a two-week trial from 2 December 2020 to determine (i) as a matter of law, whether the judgment entered by Hamblen J constituted a judgment within the meaning of Article 34(3) and, if not, whether that judgment and the arbitration award (and the res judicata to which they give rise as a matter of English law) could be relied upon and (ii) as a matter of fact and law, whether the Spanish Proceedings had breached the human rights of the defendants, including the Club.

Spain made an application seeking the reference of six questions to the CJEU (later adding a seventh) and invited  Butcher J to determine that application at the hearing of the appeal in order to be in a position to lodge any request with the CJEU before “the Brexit cut off”  with the end of the Implementation Period on 31 December 2020. On 21 December 2020 Butcher J then referred three issues to the CJEU.

“(1) Given the nature of the issues which the national court is required to determine in deciding whether to enter judgment in the terms of an award under Section 66 of the Arbitration Act 1996, is a judgment granted pursuant to that provision capable of constituting a relevant “judgment” of the Member State in which recognition is sought for the purposes of Article 34(3) of EC Regulation No 44/2001?

(2)  Given that a judgment entered in the terms of an award, such as a judgment under Section 66 of the Arbitration Act 1996, is a judgment falling outside the material scope of Regulation No 44/2001 by reason of the Article 1(2)(d) arbitration exception, is such a judgment capable of constituting a relevant “judgment” of the Member State in which recognition is sought for the purposes of Article 34(3) of the Regulation?

(3)  On the hypothesis that Article 34(3) of Regulation No 44/2001 does not apply, if recognition and enforcement of a judgment of another Member State would be contrary to domestic public policy on the grounds that it would violate the principle of res judicata by reason of a prior domestic arbitration award or a prior judgment entered in the terms of the award granted by the court of the Member State in which recognition is sought, is it permissible to rely on 34(1) of Regulation No 44/2001 as a ground of refusing recognition or enforcement or do Articles 34(3) and (4) of the Regulation provide the exhaustive grounds by which res judicata and/or irreconcilability can prevent recognition and enforcement of a Regulation judgment?”

At the time of making the reference Butcher J had not decided the Club’s human rights argument. That was decided against the Club in May 2021, after the end of the Implementation Period, and could not be referred to the CJEU. The reference, C-700/20, was heard by the CJEU on 31 January 2022 and the opinion of the Advocate General is expected on 5 May 2022, with the judgment of the CJEU to be delivered at any time thereafter.

The Club appealed the decision of Butcher J, and on 1 March 2022 the Court of Appeal held that Butcher J did not have the authority to refer the questions to the CJEU. The necessity test mandated in Art 267 of 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union would only be satisfied if the European law question is conclusive of the issue which the national court has to decide on a particular occasion in accordance with its national procedure. The judge’s discretion as to whether to make a reference only arises once the test of necessity has been satisfied.  That was not the case here as Butcher J had not decided the human rights policy issue raised by the Club. Unless and until that issue had been determined against the Club, the questions referred could not be said to be conclusive or even substantially determinative of the appeal. The questions could have been resolved entirely in Spain’s favour, yet the Club could have won on the human rights issue. Looking at previous CJEU authority in Cartesio Oktato es Szolgaltato bt (Case 210/06) [2009] Ch 354 it was clear that as a matter of national law a reference can be set aside on appeal.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and set aside the Judge’s order referring the questions to the CJEU. However, only the referring judge has jurisdiction to withdraw the reference. The Court of Appeal referred to Butcher J, pursuant to CPR 52.20(2)(b), the question of whether, in the light its judgment, he should withdraw the reference he made to the CJEU on 21 December 2020. The Court of Appeal indicated that the hearing should take place as soon as possible, and in any event in time for any decision to withdraw the reference to be effective.

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  1. Pingback: The Prestige case. Victory for Spain in the CJEU. – International Maritime and Commercial Law

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