Summaries of judgments made in collaboration with the Portuguese judge and référendaires of the CJEU (Nuno Piçarra, Mariana Tavares and Sophie Perez)
Failure of a Member State to fulfil obligations — Second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU — Rule of law — Effective judicial protection in the fields covered by Union law — Principles of the irremovability of judges and judicial independence — Lowering of the retirement age of Supreme Court judges — Application to judges in post — Possibility of continuing to carry out the duties of judge beyond that age subject to obtaining authorisation granted by discretionary decision of the President of the Republic.
On 3 April 2018, the new Polish Law on the Supreme Court (‘the Law on the Supreme Court’) entered into force. Under that law, the retirement age for Supreme Court judges was lowered to 65. The new age limit applied as from the date of entry into force of that law, and included judges of that court appointed before that date. It was possible for Supreme Court judges to continue in active judicial service beyond the age of 65 but this was subject to the submission of a declaration indicating the desire of the judge concerned to continue to carry out his duties and a certificate stating that his health allowed him to serve, and had to be authorised by the President of the Republic of Poland. In granting that authorisation, the President of the Republic of Poland would not be bound by any criterion and his decision would not be subject to any form of judicial review.
Thus, according to that law, serving Supreme Court judges who reached the age of 65 before that law entered into force or, at the latest, on 3 July 2018, were required to retire on 4 July 2018, unless they had submitted such a declaration and certificate by 3 May 2018 inclusive and the President of the Republic of Poland had authorised them to continue in active service at the Supreme Court.
On 2 October 2018, the Commission brought an action for failure to fulfil obligations before the Court of Justice. The Commission considers that by, first, lowering the retirement age and applying that new retirement age to judges appointed to the Supreme Court up until 3 April 2018 and, second, by granting the President of the Republic of Poland the discretion to extend the active judicial service of Supreme Court judges, Poland has infringed EU law.
By order of 15 November 2018, the President of the Court granted the Commission’s request to decide this action under an expedited procedure.
By its judgement delivered on the 24th June, the Court hold, first that EU law is based on the fundamental premiss that the common values referred to in Article 2 TEU are shared by each Member State with all the other Member States. That premiss both entails and justifies the existence of mutual trust between the Member States and, in particular, their courts that those values upon which the European Union is founded, including the rule of law, will be recognised, and therefore that the EU law that implements those values will be respected. Furthermore, although the organisation of justice in the Member States falls within the competence of the latter, the fact remains that, when exercising that competence, the Member States are required to comply with their obligations under EU law. The Court then considered that It follows that the Member States must put in place remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection, within the meaning of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in the fields covered by EU law. More specifically, every Member State must, under the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU, ensure that the bodies which, as ‘courts or tribunals’ within the meaning of EU law, come within its judicial system in those fields meet the requirements of that protection. Therefore, the national rules called into question by the Commission in its action may be reviewed in the light of the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU.
Then, the Court then hold that that the principle of irremovability is an essential guarantee for protecting the individuals who have the task of adjudicating in a dispute. This principle requires, in particular, that judges may remain in post provided they have not reached the obligatory retirement age or until the expiry of their mandate, where that mandate is for a fixed term. Though not totally absolute, there can be no exceptions to that principle unless they are warranted by legitimate and compelling grounds, subject to the principle of proportionality. The Court considered that In the present case, the application of the measure consisting in lowering the retirement age of judges of the Supreme Court to judges already serving on that court results in the latter prematurely ceasing to carry out their judicial office. Such an application is acceptable only if it is justified by a legitimate objective, it is proportionate in the light of that objective and inasmuch as it is not such as to raise reasonable doubt in the minds of individuals as to the imperviousness of the court concerned to external factors and its neutrality with respect to the interests before it.
In this regard, the Court rejected Poland’s argument that the decision to lower to 65 the retirement age of the judges of the Supreme Court was taken with the goal of standardising that age with the general retirement age applicable to all workers in Poland and, in doing so, improving the age balance among senior members of that court. Therefore, the Court considered that the application of the measure lowering the retirement age of the judges of the Supreme Court to the judges in post within that court was not justified by a legitimate objective and undermines the principle of the irremovability of judges.
Furthermore, the Court pointed out that the guarantees of the independence and impartiality of the courts require that the body concerned to be protected against external interventions or pressure liable to impair the independent judgment of its members and to influence their decisions. It considered that the conditions and the detailed procedural rules provided for under the Law on the Supreme Court with regard to a potential extension beyond normal retirement age of the period for which a judge of the Supreme Court carries out his or her duties do not satisfy such requirements. Such an extension is now subject to a decision of the President of the Republic, which is discretionary inasmuch as its adoption is not, as such, governed by any objective and verifiable criterion and for which reasons need not be stated.
The Court concluded that that power is such as to give rise to reasonable doubts, inter alia in the minds of individuals, as to the imperviousness of the judges concerned to external factors and as to their neutrality with respect to any interests before them.
Reference for a preliminary ruling — Insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles — Directive 2009/103/EC — Article 3, first paragraph – Concept of ‘use of vehicles’ — Damage to property as a result of a fire in a vehicle parked in the private garage of the property — Compulsory insurance cover
The request for a preliminary ruling was made in proceedings between Línea Directa Aseguradora SA (‘Línea Directa’) and Segurcaixa, Sociedad Anónima de Seguros y Reaseguros (‘Segurcaixa’), concerning the reimbursement of the compensation which Segurcaixa paid to the victim of a fire originating in the electrical circuit of a car insured by Línea Directa.
In August 2013, a vehicle parked in a private garage of a building for more than 24 hours caught fire and caused damage. The fire originated in the vehicle’s electrical system. The owner company of the building was compensated by Segurcaixa for the damage caused to the building by the vehicle fire.
In March 2014, Segurcaixa brought proceedings against Línea Directa seeking an order that it reimburse the compensation paid, on the grounds that the incident had originated in an event covered by the vehicle’s motor insurance. Segurcaixa’s claim was rejected at first instance but, in the appeal proceedings, Línea Directa was ordered to pay the compensation sought by Segurcaixa, the competent court ruling that a ‘use of vehicles’, for the purposes of Spanish law, covered ‘a situation in which a vehicle parked in a private garage on a non-permanent basis has caught fire, when this fire was started by causes specific to the vehicle and without the intervention of third parties’.
Línea Directa lodged an appeal in cassation against that judgment before the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court, Spain). Having doubts concerning interpretation of Article 3(1) of Directive 2009/103/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 September 2009 relating to insurance against civil liability in respect of the use of motor vehicles, and the enforcement of the obligation to insure against such liability, that court decided to refer questions to the Court of Justice asking, in essence, whether the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ referred to in that provision covered a situation such as that at issue in the main proceedings.
In its judgment, the Court of Justice pointed out that the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ is an autonomous concept of EU law, the interpretation of which cannot be left to the discretion of each Member State. It also emphasised that the objective of protecting the victims of accidents caused by those vehicles has continuously been pursued and reinforced by the EU legislature.
The Court noted that, according to its case-law, the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ is not limited to road use, and that it covers any use of a vehicle that is consistent with the normal function of that vehicle, in particular any use of a vehicle as a means of transport. The Court specified that the fact that the vehicle involved in an accident was stationary when the accident occurred does not, in itself, preclude the use of that vehicle at that time from falling within the scope of its function as a means of transport, and that no provision in the directive limits the scope of the insurance obligation, and of the protection which that obligation is intended to give to the victims of accidents caused by motor vehicles, to the use of such vehicles on certain terrain or on certain roads.
The Court concluded from this that the scope of the concept of ‘use of vehicles’ does not depend on the characteristics of the terrain on which the vehicle is used and, in particular, the fact that the vehicle at issue is, at the time of the accident, stationary and in a car park. The Court also concluded that parking and the period of immobilisation of the vehicle are natural and necessary steps which form an integral part of the use of that vehicle as a means of transport. This conclusion is not, according to the Court, affected by the fact that the vehicle was parked for more than 24 hours in that garage since parking a vehicle presupposes that it remains stationary until its next trip, sometimes for a long period of time.
In light of these considerations, the Court interpreted Article 3(1) of Directive 2009/103 as meaning that a situation in which a vehicle parked in a private garage of a building, used in accordance with its function as a means of transport, has caught fire, giving rise to a fire which originated in the electrical circuit of that vehicle and caused damage to that building, even though that vehicle has not been moved for more than 24 hours before the fire occurred, falls within the concept of ‘circulation of vehicles’ referred to in that provision.