Untraceable consumers under Brussels I

Section 4 of the Brussels I Regulation (Regulation 44/2001/EC) contains special rules of jurisdiction over consumer contracts, generally designed to protect the weaker party (i.e. the consumer). According to Article 16 (2), the professional party may sue the consumer only in the courts of the Member State where the consumer is domiciled. Does this provision also apply to consumers who left their last known domicile and are simply nowhere to be found? Does the Brussels I Regulation preclude the use of provisions of national law which enable proceedings to be brought against persons of unknown address? These, essentially, were the questions referred to the Court in the case of mr Lindner (C-327/10). A Czech bank brought proceedings in the Czech republic against Lindner, a German national. It appeared Lindner had left his last known domicile in the Czech republic before the proceedings against him were brought. The Czech courts tried to track him down, to no avail. The court held:

55    – (…) in a situation such as that in the main proceedings, in which a consumer who is a party to a long-term mortgage loan contract, which includes the obligation to inform the other party to the contract of any change of address, renounces his domicile before proceedings against him for breach of his contractual obligations are brought, the courts of the Member State in which the consumer had his last known domicile have jurisdiction, pursuant to Article 16(2) of that regulation, to deal with proceedings in the case where they have been unable to determine, pursuant to Article 59 of that regulation, the defendant’s current domicile and also have no firm evidence allowing them to conclude that the defendant is in fact domiciled outside the European Union;

– that regulation does not preclude the application of a provision of national procedural law of a Member State which, with a view to avoiding situations of denial of justice, enables proceedings to be brought against, and in the absence of, a person whose domicile is unknown, if the court seised of the matter is satisfied, before giving a ruling in those proceedings, that all investigations required by the principles of diligence and good faith have been undertaken with a view to tracing the defendant.

It is interesting to note the last part of the judgment, where the Court addresses the requirements to be complied with during the subsequent proceedings and refers to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The Court stipulates that Article 47 of the Charter demands that the rights of the defence are observed (para. 48). However, fundamental rights do not constitute unfettered prerogatives and may be subject to restrictions (para. 50). Therefore:

52     As regards the requirement relating to the need to avoid a disproportionate interference with the rights of the defence, it must be pointed out that this applies in particular for the interpretation of Article 26(2) of Regulation No 44/2001. That provision must be understood as meaning that a court having jurisdiction pursuant to that regulation may reasonably continue proceedings, in the case where it has not been established that the defendant has been enabled to receive the document instituting the proceedings, only if all necessary steps have been taken to ensure that the defendant can defend his interests. To that end, the court seised of the matter must be satisfied that all investigations required by the principles of diligence and good faith have been undertaken to trace the defendant.