Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Third Time Lucky? The new law on extension of UK membership of the EU




Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex

Introduction

One of the many recent controversies about the Brexit process has been about the ‘Benn-Burt bill’, a new Act of Parliament that was fast-tracked through the legislative process earlier in September against the government’s wishes. It requires the Prime Minister to request a further extension of the UK’s EU membership; he has said that he will not do so. Some believe (wrongly) that the new law bans a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU.

To explain and analyse the new law, given the broad public interest, this blog post takes a question and answer format. At the end, there’s a longer discussion of the linked question of whether the UK would have to nominate a new European Commissioner in the event of an extension of EU membership.  

Q             Does the bill ban a no-deal outcome?

A             No. Its main purpose is to provide for the possibility of a further extension of EU membership. However, to avoid a no deal outcome it is necessary at some point – whether before Oct 31 or at a later date if membership is extended – to either ratify a withdrawal agreement or revoke the notification to leave the EU. The new law makes no mention of revoking that notification, and although it refers expressly to the possibility of parliament voting again on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement, it does not require Parliament to accept an agreement (or even to vote on whether to accept one).  It also provides for the possibility of parliament voting to accept no deal – although this seems unlikely given that Parliament passed this Act with the express intention of avoiding an imminent no deal outcome.  

Q             Does the new law block Brexit?

A             No.  As noted already, it provides expressly for the possibility of Parliament voting again on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement, or Parliament voting to accept no deal. Both of them are forms of Brexit. Also as noted already, it does not refer in any way to the revocation of the notification to leave. Nor does it refer to another referendum on whether to leave. Although some supporters of the bill support another referendum, the bill itself is silent on this. Extending EU membership to another date still leaves intact the possibility of leaving on that date with no deal (as the default position), or leaving at that date or earlier if a withdrawal agreement is ratified.

Q             Does Boris Johnson have to request an extension of EU membership?

A             In principle, yes (if he’s still the Prime Minister). He must request an extension to January 31 2020. However, there are exceptions. If Parliament votes for a withdrawal agreement or for a no deal no later than 19 October, then the obligation to request extension is never triggered. If Parliament votes for either before 30 October, then the obligation to request extension ceases to apply: the Prime Minister in that case ‘may modify or withdraw the request’.

It seems unlikely that Parliament would vote for no deal (given that the new law was backed by opponents of this outcome), but what about a withdrawal agreement? Here’s there’s an apparent loophole, as pointed out by Jolyon Maugham: it’s possible that Parliament could vote in principle to approve a withdrawal agreement, thus disabling the obligation to request an extension, but then not pass further measures in time for the agreement to be fully ratified by October 31. (See further Maugham’s analysis of the limited time available to pass the further measures).

According to the ‘Kinnock amendment’ added to the Act, the request has to be for the purpose of passing a bill to implement the withdrawal agreement, including provisions giving effect to inter-party talks, particularly possible amendments to the political declaration on the EU/UK future relationship (discussed here).  However, this is not reflected in the letter of request which the Prime Minister must send (the letter is a Schedule to the new law), and does not impact upon the separate obligation to accept (subject to an unrelated exception) an extension decision if the EU adopts one. There’s no explicit obligation to hold a vote on a withdrawal agreement, or to publish and/or vote on a bill to implement that agreement.

Q             Does the EU have to extend membership?

A             No. That’s up to the political discretion of the EU. It must act to adopt an extension decision with the unanimous vote of the 27 Member States’ heads of State and government (not including the UK). (I commented earlier on the legal issues of the first extension decision and the second extension decision.) It remains to be seen what the EU will do; remember that rumours about Member States vetoing extension proved to be unfounded in spring.  The European Commission and European Parliament have no formal role in the extension decision, although they can express a point of view that might influence national leaders.

Q             Does Boris Johnson have to accept an extension of EU membership, if the EU adopts one?

A             Yes, subject to a veto by Parliament. If the extension is to the date of January 31, the Prime Minister must accept it. Otherwise it’s possible for Parliament to veto it. It’s therefore false to claim, as some did, that the UK will be obliged to accept any extension decision, no matter what (see further my Prospect article on this point).

Some have argued that Johnson could veto the extension decision as a member of the European Council. This is false: Article 50(4) says that only the remaining Member States vote on this issue. The UK’s role comes at the stage of accepting that decision or not; and the new law specifically regulates that issue.

What if the EU sets conditions for extension? The CJEU has established in its Wightman judgment that the current status of a Member State cannot change during any extension; demanding that a Member State gives up its opt outs, etc would violate that principle.

There is a complicated question of the UK appointing a European Commissioner, which would conversely arguably be simply a matter of complying with its existing obligations as a Member State. I discuss this further below.

In the event that a modest extension goes ahead before the next election, this would shoot the fox of those arguing that the new law could mean the ‘imposition’ of a potentially indefinite or very lengthy extension, since it would be obvious that this had not taken place in practice.

Q             Would national law have to be changed to give effect to the extension of EU membership?

A             Yes.  The new law obliges this to take place automatically. The recent ‘commencement order’ setting the date of Brexit of October 31 would equally be delayed coming into force, as Professor Mark Elliott has explained.

Q             What else happens if an extension decision is adopted?

A             The UK will leave the EU on the new date without a deal, unless a further extension is granted, or it ratifies a withdrawal agreement, or it revokes the notification to leave the EU. It could also leave the EU beforehand if it ratifies a withdrawal agreement. Furthermore, some believe that the departure date can or must be brought forward to an earlier date if the UK requests it, but this interpretation is disputed. Note that, according to the Wightman judgment, the UK can revoke its notification to leave unilaterally, so cannot be subject to conditions like giving up opt-outs in return for staying.

The new law is silent on any of these further developments, including any further extension request. However, it does state that if an extension (presumably of any length) is granted, then the government must publish a report by 30 November 2019 on the progress of negotiations on the UK’s relationship with the EU. It must also table a motion in the Commons and the Lords about the report. If that motion is amended or rejected, the government must publish a further report by 10 January 2020 with a plan for further such negotiations. In any event, the government must make a further report on the progress of negotiations every 28 days starting on 7 February 2020 unless an agreement with the EU is reached or the House of Commons passes a resolution otherwise.

Politically, of course, developments in the period after an extension might be affected by a general election and/or a possible change of government.

Q             What if Boris Johnson refuses to comply with the law?

A             Politically, there might be challenges in Parliament. However, attempting to change the government in a short space of time might be legally and politically difficult. So might a further attempt by Parliament to pass another law circumventing the Prime Minister’s refusal to act. If the Supreme Court accepts that there are no judicial limits on the prorogation of Parliament, the government might advise the Queen to prorogue it again, which would cut off any attempts at legislation or confidence votes.

Legally, the possibility of non-compliance has already been brought before the Scottish courts, in a pending case.  It remains to be seen what remedies courts might be willing to order in order to enforce the law. Interim measures might be made in the event that the clock runs out before any appeals can be heard and/or decided.

Some have argued that the new law is illegal, because it infringes too much upon the executive’s power over international relations. If such an argument is raised in litigation, it would remain to be seen if a court accepts it; but the advocates of this view have not pointed to any precedents in which a court struck down an Act of Parliament on such grounds.

Q             Does the Act violate EU law?

A             No. This is an incredibly weak legal argument. Article 50 says nothing about a request for an extension, and therefore nothing about how a request must be made. It does refer to the withdrawing Member State accepting a request, but says nothing about how that process of acceptance takes place. It refers to national constitutional requirements determining whether a notification of leaving the EU is sent, but does not define what those requirements are. In the Shindler case (discussed here), the EU courts have said that it’s up to the UK’s legal and political system to define what these requirements are, and whether they have been met.

However, it’s possible that the EU might have legal or political doubts about considering a request for extension that is not from the Prime Minister in person. This remains to be seen.

Q             Does the UK have to appoint a European Commissioner?

A             It’s complicated. Article 17 TEU says that there shall be Commissioners equal to 2/3 of the number of Member States, but the European Council can change this number. It did so in 2013, with a decision that says that the number of Commissioners is equal to the number of Member States. The preamble refers to the Commission having ‘one national of each Member State’. Article 17 says that Commissioners must be appointed ‘on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States’.
At the time of the second extension, it was debated whether the UK would have to hold elections to the European Parliament. It was decided that it would, since the usual obligations of membership continued to apply. Logically the same applies to another extension of membership as regards the Commission.

There are several legal issues and possibilities though. EU law does not expressly state that a Member State must nominate a Commissioner, although arguably that is an implicit obligation. This could be enforced by legal proceedings, which could in principle be fast-tracked. The EU might be willing to approve an extension without a nomination (although that might be legally challenged), or to overlook the absence of a nomination if the extension is short. On previous occasions, the appointment of a new Commission has been delayed for a few months or weeks for various reasons. It is not clear whether or not the actions of a Commissioner lacking in numbers would be legal or not; but the new Commission could hold off from making proposals until the status of the UK was clearer. Most obviously, the European Council could amend the law so that only 27 Commissioners need to be appointed (that requires a unanimous vote, including the UK, although there can be extensions).

The notion of appointing a Commission with two Commissioners from another Member State might be challenged in light of the preamble to the decision on the number of Commissioners, which (as noted above) refers to one national of each Member State. Another notion of appointing a British Commissioner whom the government did not suggest might be legally problematic, due to the reference in the Treaty to making appointments based on ‘suggestions’ from Member States. Politically, either of those two outcomes might backfire politically on Remain advocates, for obvious reasons.

Analogies with non-replacement of retiring Commissioners on previous occasions don’t work, because the Treaties have an explicit procedure for non-replacement in those cases, and this is distinct from appointment of a new Commission.

It would remain to be seen how the EU might try to address these issues in the event that it wishes to adopt an extension decision and the UK is unwilling to suggest a nominee for the new Commission. Politically, the refusal to nominate a Commissioner might be intended to deter the EU from offering an extension decision in the first place. Time will tell whether it becomes an issue in practice.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: Anadoku agency

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Prorogation of Parliament: Conflicting judgments in England and Scotland




Alan S. Reid, Senior Lecturer in Law, Sheffield Hallam University. The author welcomes comments on the blog at a.s.reid@shu.ac.uk.

The A-Z of Scots Law: From Avizandum to the Zany Antics of Boris Johnson

The recent, zany antics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson are being subject to intense interrogation by the Scottish legal system. The case of Cherry has seen the decision to prorogue the UK Parliament declared unlawful and the Prime Minister’s reported defiance to refuse to comply with the specific terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019 will be litigated upon in the Scottish courts next week. This new statute is designed to avoid a No-Deal Brexit on Halloween. It requires the Prime Minister to send a letter to the European Council requesting an extension to the Article 50 TEU negotiating period by the 19th of October 2019 if there is no deal in place (or no vote by parliament approving a no deal outcome) between the UK and EU by that date. 

These developments have exposed non-Scots lawyers and the general public in the UK to a whole new lexicon. In the Cherry case, they were treated to the terms ‘Avizandum’ and ‘stymie’ and in the prospective case forcing Boris Johnson to comply with the 2019 law, the general populace encountered the Latin term ‘nobile officium’.

The term ‘Avizandum’ is a Scots law term of art indicating that the court will take time to consider its judgment and deliver its reasoning at a later date. The word ‘stymie’ has been used in the case of Cherry to refer to the fact that proroguing Parliament will frustrate Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the work of the Executive while it is suspended. The etymology of ‘stymie’ is Scottish and refers to someone who can’t see very well and it was adopted as a golfing term to refer to a ball that prevents their opponent from having a clear shot at the hole. Thus, it is an apposite term for the actions of a Prime Minister attempting to deflect Parliament’s attention away from a No-Deal Brexit.

The ‘nobile officium’ is an ancient power of the supreme court of Scotland (the Court of Session) to offer an equitable remedy for pursuers when there is a perceived deficiency in the law.

This blog will discuss the significance of the unanimous decision of the Scottish judges in Cherry to declare the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful, compare and contrast this with the English High Court’s decision to refuse to rule on the matter in Miller 2 and the potential ramifications of these cases for the Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday the 17th of September 2019. (For an overview of the prorogation case law with links, see here).

The original Cherry case (discussed here) was the first legal test of Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. At first instance, Lord Doherty roundly rejected the petitioner's pleas, holding that the decision to prorogue was an exercise of prerogative power (ie non-statutory) by the executive (the Government) that was non-justiciable (ie not amenable to review by a court), since it involved matters of high policy and political judgment. Thus, such matters were best left to be resolved in the political arena, primarily by the Prime Minister being held accountable for his actions by his equals in Parliament and subsequently by the electorate at the ballot box.

South of the border, Gina Miller, Shami Chakrabarti and Sir John Major instigated a similar claim against prorogation in the English High Court. At this level, both courts were at one on this point: the decision of the Prime Minister to prorogue was a classic exercise of prerogative power that was non-justiciable, since it involved matters of high policy and political judgment (see the Miller justifications at paras. 38, 42 and 60, the dicta of Lord Doherty in Cherry 1 at paras. 25 and 26 and the Scottish case law of MacCormcick v Lord Advocate 1953 SC 390, Gibson v Lord Advocate 1975 SC 136 and Lord Gray’s Motion 2000 SC (HL) 46). In their view, there were no legal standards from which to judge the legitimacy of the decision to prorogue (para. 51). The justifications for such an approach are plentiful and eminent. The long line of judicial precedent confirming such an approach stretch from de Freitas v Benny ([1976] AC 239), R v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, ex parte Everett [1975] 1 QB 811 the GCHQ case through to A v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2005] 1 AC 68 (aka the Belmarsh case) and the case of Shergill v Khaira [2014] UKSC 33.  In the Belmarsh case, Lord Bingham famously declared that:

“The more purely political (in a broad or narrow sense) a question is, the more appropriate it will be for political resolution and the less likely it is to be an appropriate matter for judicial decision. The smaller, therefore, will be the potential role of the court. It is the function of political and not judicial bodies to resolve political questions.”

Further, as I discussed last week, the dissenting judges in Miller 1 offered a stark warning to judges willing to embark on evaluations of matters involving high policy. Lord Reed expressed the view that:

“It is important for courts to understand that the legalisation of political issues is not always constitutionally appropriate, and may be fraught with risk, not least for the judiciary.”

The English High Court heeded such warnings and tersely stated in the first paragraph of its judgment in Miller 2 that:

“It is not a matter for the courts.”

The non-justiciability argument appeared to have won the day north and south of the border. And further, to the west, beyond the Irish Sea, the High Court of Northern Ireland in Belfast decided not to rule on the prorogation issue at all, in a case brought by Raymond McCord.

Further, the English High Court also considered at the same time that, even if the contested order to prorogue had been reviewable, a number of legitimate and plausible reasons had been put forward by the Prime Minister that supplied sufficient reasoning for the prorogation (para. 51). Primarily, it is entirely normal and expected that a new Prime Minister would desire a Queen’s Speech in order to give legal effect to their policy priorities. Further, in the present instance, even with prorogation, there would still be time to debate and scrutinise Britain’s withdrawal from the EU; there would already be reduced Parliamentary time to scrutinize, given that the prorogation would fall in the middle of the traditional  party conference season when Parliament is recessed; and finally, the previous Parliamentary session had been one of the longest in living memory.

In the face of such insurmountable odds, it appeared that all was lost for the Remain Alliance. The activities of the Prime Minister were beyond legal reproach, even if not beyond political or ethical reproach. And yet...

The original decision of Lord Doherty in the Outer House of the Court of Session in Scotland was immediately appealed against. On Wednesday the 11th of September 2019, the three judges of the Inner House dropped their bombshell unanimous decision – the decision of the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament was justiciable and upon subsequent forensic examination it had been found wanting.

The Scottish judges did not hold back, using rather forceful language to condemn the events laid before them. Lord Brodie found that the decision to prorogue was an ‘egregious case’ of improper behaviour (para. 91) falling well below the generally accepted standards of behaviour expected of public authorities and figures.

At first glance, the remarkable decision of the Scottish Supreme Court flies in the face of received legal orthodoxy. Proroguing Parliament is a classically political act, thus protected from legal challenge. So how do lawyers, north and south, square this circle?

The answer comes down to one of approach and the classification of the question that came before the courts in the three jurisdictions of the UK. As I discussed earlier, the question of the justiciability of royal prerogative powers is no longer a binary one, ever since the GCHQ case. Now, the test for justiciability rests on the nature of the prerogative power in question. The more legalistic in nature the power is, the easier it is for the courts to assume jurisdiction. Conversely, the more political or non-legal the power, the harder it is for the court to assume jurisdiction over that decision-making power. However, this sliding scale argument just outlined, does not help much in explaining the diametrically opposed judgments north and south of the border. Indeed, on this view, the English and Scottish courts should have been at one.

Legal clarification to this confusing situation may come, ironically some may say, from eminent Sassenach (used here in a non-pejorative sense) legal jurists, Professor Paul Craig and Professor Mark Elliott. Both Professor Craig and Elliott have cogently and eruditely explained the constitutional dilemmas borne out of Boris Johnson’s premiership. From their perspective, for the courts to absolve themselves from adjudicating upon a matter of such momentous proportions would be a gross dereliction of judicial duty (See Professor Craig’s view on this in his blog Prorogation: Three Assumptions of the 9th of September). The dangers to the UK constitution posed by the behaviour of Boris Johnson both necessitate and justify judicial involvement. This situation is such a singular affront to the democratic principles of the UK’s unwritten constitution that a judicial response is both right and necessary (See Professor Craig’s blog Prorogation: Constitutional Principle and Law, Fact and Causation, of the 31st of August).

To provide for no legal redress in this pivotal moment would create a legal vacuum and indirectly give succour and implicit legitimation to the decision of the Prime Minister (see the discussion of these matters by Alan Greene in his blog Miller 2, Non-justiciability and the Danger of Legal Black Holes, available here). For Professor Elliott, the sweeping, blanket refusal of the English High Court to entertain any possible review of the decision to prorogue is legally suspect on two main grounds. First, because the refusal to adjudicate goes against the liberalising tendency of the extant judicial precedence on non-justiciability, which is incrementally lessening the scope and reach of the non-justiciability barrier and, secondly, and in my opinion more forcefully, the judgment in Miller 2 misconstrued the legal question before it (see Professor Elliott’s blog Prorogation and justiciability: Some thoughts ahead of the Cherry/Miller (No. 2) case, available here).

Thus, the argument for intervention can be justified by looking at the questions before the UK courts from a slightly different perspective. The argument runs that the English High Court focussed, incorrectly, on the evaluation of the exercise of the discretionary power to prorogue. From this perspective, the English High Court fixated on the practical aspects of the decision to prorogue, asking itself questions about the justifications offered for the prorogation and the reasonableness of the length of time of the prorogation.  Therefore, the purpose of the judicial review appears to be one of substitution, that is the court is putting itself in the shoes of the Prime Minister and declaring whether it is reasonable for the Prime Minister to have asked for such a long period of prorogation. If that is so, then traditional legal orthodoxy kicks in: courts are not there to be a substitute for a bad decision maker, particularly when that decision is not made according to legal principles or considerations but rather, is a decision based on pure politics. Such decisions, rightly, cannot and should not be subject to supervision and substitution by the courts. The Inner House of the Court of Session chose another path for adjudication.

The Inner House, having reviewed the legal authorities, considered that the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament was justiciable (para. 31). The Court of Session approached the question from first principles of the UK constitution. The Court of Session asked a different question to that of the English High Court, namely does the legal power exist and if so, what are its boundaries? Questions about the scope of legal powers are classic judicial review questions that need resolution. Indeed, the fundamental grundnorm of the UK unwritten constitution is observance of the rule of law.

Lord Drummond Young, at para. 102, summed up this fundamental truth concisely when he said:

“The rule of law requires that any act of the executive, or any other public institution, must be liable to judicial scrutiny to ensure that it is within the scope of the legal power under which it is exercised.”

In applying this principle to the present case, the Scottish court was being asked if the exercise of the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament was being used for a purpose that was objectively outwith its scope (para. 104). This question could be answered by the Scottish court since the UK case-law evidenced a great deal of judicial flexibility in responding to these types of questions (see the case of Pham v Home Secretary [2015] 1 WLR 1591). In answer to this question, given the voluminous redacted information submitted to the court by Her Majesty’s Government, the answer must be yes: the Prime Minister had prorogued Parliament for an improper purpose, namely to stymie Parliamentary debate, oversight and scrutiny of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Regardless of their view on the justiciability and merits or otherwise of the case, the seriousness of the case, according to the Scottish judges, absolutely required a robust judicial response in any case. The actions of the Prime Minister had been an egregious case where there had been a clear failure to comply with generally accepted standards of behaviour of a public authority (see para. 91). The exceptional seriousness of the case would require the court to act.

It can be argued that the Scottish judges were not engaged in usurping power from Parliament. On the contrary, the Scottish judges, rather than emasculating Parliament, were, by delivering judgment, empowering Parliament.

The finding of the Inner House means that the decision to prorogue Parliament was illegal and as such the Order in Council is of no legal effect, that is the decision is void ab initio. However, given the constitutional significance of the case and its brethren cases in Belfast and London, the Lord President declined to enforce the judgment at once, given that all these judgments were the subject of an appeal to the Supreme Court of the UK. If the Supreme Court were to ultimately follow the dicta of the Inner House, then the judgment in Cherry 2 would be fully enforced and applied at that date.

The outcome of the conjoined appeals at the Supreme Court of the UK on Tuesday the 17th of September is far from certain. The Scottish judgment is a constitutional first: the first time a serving Prime Minister has been found guilty of acting illegally in relation to the proroguing of Parliament.

What is certain is that the 11 justices of the Supreme Court will once again make UK constitutional history after the hearing on Tuesday week.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: parliament.uk

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Who takes back control? Parliamentary prorogation in the courts



Alan S. Reid, Senior Lecturer in Law, Sheffield Hallam University. The author welcomes comments on the blog at a.s.reid@shu.ac.uk.

Lord Doherty, gave his eagerly anticipated judgment on Wednesday morning in the Outer House of the Court of Session. The judgment in Cherry [2019] CSOH 70 was a legal blow for the 79 petitioners and the wider Remain Alliance. Lord Doherty had been asked by the petitioners to rule on the legality or otherwise of Prime Minister Johnson's advice to the Queen to Prorogue Parliament sometime between the 9th and 12th of September. Lord Doherty roundly rejected the petitioner's pleas, holding that the decision to prorogue was an exercise of prerogative power that was non-justiciable, since it involved matters of high policy and political judgment.

It is supremely ironic that the Scottish court, at the heart of Remain Scotland, delivered a conservative judgment, albeit with a small c. However, the judgment was not altogether unsurprising. As I have argued previously, the main obstacle for the petitioners was the justiciability question (ie whether the issue should be decided by courts, or left to politics) and this is where the case fell. Lord Doherty inclined towards the traditional dichotomy between prerogative powers that are reviewable and those which are not ((R (Sandiford) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs [2014] 1 WLR 2697, de Freitas v Benny [1976] AC 239 and the dicta of Lord Roskill in Council of the Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service [1985] AC 374 (the GCHQ case)).  

Famously, Lord Roskill in the GCHQ case observed, obiter dicta, that certain executive powers were not amenable to judicial review. For the present case, the main executive power excluded from judicial review is the power to dissolve Parliament. Thus, according to Lord Doherty's view, decisions of a Prime Minister, or the wider Privy Council, to advise the Queen to prorogue Parliament are matters of high policy and involve highly politically sensitive assessments, decision making which is generally beyond the purview of the courts.

However, notwithstanding the terse rejection of their claim, the petitioners have indicated their intention to appeal. At first light, this may appear like clutching at straws, however, it is at least arguable that the original decision could be reversed. In these topsy-turvy times of Brexit, anything is indeed possible and perseverance has served the Good Law Project well during Brexit - the Wightman case (discussed here) was seen by some as a hopeless case without merit and yet they were fully vindicated at the European Court of Justice. In a similar vein, the Miller (No 1) case (Miller v S. of S. for Exiting the EU [2017] UKSC 5]) also confounded some experts with its surprising inroads into the exercise of royal prerogative.

For the petitioners, the need for prerogative powers to be subject to oversight, be it legislative or judicial, is absolutely fundamental to the proper functioning of the modern United Kingdom, a state governed by an overriding adherence to the rule of law (Teh Cheng Poh v Public Prosecutor [1980] AC 458, per Lord Diplock at p 473, as discussed by Lord Doherty at para. 6).

This is invariably true and the UK courts are understandably somewhat wary of the royal prerogative as a 'relic of a past age' (as per Lord Reid in Burmah Oil).  As such, as I have argued in a previous blog ...'the royal prerogative is a diminishing executive power, subject to ever more control and supervision by the legislative wing of the state. The status quo pertaining to the exercise of the royal prerogative is under attack on two fronts: replacement of the amorphous executive power with a statutorily defined, controlled and exercised power and judicial and democratic supervision of the remaining executive powers of prerogative.'

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to simply assume that the judges' wariness of the exercise of prerogative power and its potential to be abused will translate, further up the court hierarchies in Scotland the rest of the UK, to a willingness to intervene in such affairs. Rather, Joanna Cherry, the other 78 petitioners and the Remain Alliance may face an uphill battle in reversing the traditional view of the royal prerogative espoused by Lord Doherty.

The GCHQ case was a watershed case, carving out exemptions to the absolutist view that any use of the royal prerogative was beyond the purview of the courts ((R (Bancoult (No 2)) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs [2016] UKSC 35) as discussed here. However, the common law develops incrementally and carefully and it is still the case in the second decade of the 21st Century that the UK courts show a great deal of deference to the UK Executive and its prerogative powers. This judicial reasoning is not hard to fathom. Prerogative powers are the engine of Parliamentary democracy in the UK, even if they are anachronistic and diminishing in scope and number and as such they are still given a surprising degree of deference by the judiciary.

For example, in Shergill v Khaira [2014] UKSC 33, the UK Supreme Court opined that the courts would decline to interfere with prerogative powers in the domestic plane when the issues relate to the separation of powers and executive powers. Lord Reed, one of the dissenters in the Miller case, has some pronouncements that may provide a foretaste of the challenges that face the petitioners in Cherry.

For example, Lord Reed made much of the extant political accountability mechanisms that are integral to the UK constitution. He stated, at para. 240 of Miller, that the 'controls over the exercise of ministerial powers under the British constitution are not solely, or even primarily, of a legal character'. He went on to warn that:

For a court to proceed on the basis that if a prerogative power is capable of being exercised arbitrarily or perversely, it must necessarily be subject to judicial control, is to base legal doctrine on an assumption which is foreign to our constitutional traditions. It is important for courts to understand that the legalisation of political issues is not always constitutionally appropriate, and may be fraught with risk, not least for the judiciary.

His reason for judges exercising caution in this area is the well-established principles of Executive accountability to Parliament and Parliament's sovereignty, which includes Parliament's power to govern itself, free of outside influence and interference. Indeed, he stated, at p. 249

It is wrong to see this as a simple choice between Parliamentary sovereignty, exercised through legislation, and the “untrammelled” exercise of the prerogative by the Executive. Parliamentary sovereignty does not begin or end with the Tin Council principles. No less fundamental to our constitution is the principle of Parliamentary accountability. The Executive is accountable to Parliament for its exercise of the prerogative, including its actions in international law. That account is made through ordinary Parliamentary procedures. Subject to any specific statutory restrictions (such as under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010), they are a matter for Parliament alone. The courts may not inquire into the methods by which Parliament exercises control over the Executive, nor their adequacy."

Further, Lord Reed then quoted Lord Mustill's view of the separation of powers doctrine. Lord Mustill's view is that:

It is a feature of the peculiarly British conception of the separation of powers that Parliament, the executive and the courts each have their distinct and largely exclusive domain. Parliament has a legally unchallengeable right to make whatever laws it thinks right. The executive carries on the administration of the country in accordance with the powers conferred on it by law. The courts interpret the laws, and see that they are obeyed. This requires the courts on occasion to step into the territory which belongs to the executive, not only to verify that the powers asserted accord with the substantive law created by Parliament, but also, that the manner in which they are exercised conforms with the standards of fairness which Parliament must have intended. Concurrently with this judicial function Parliament has its own special means of ensuring that the executive, in the exercise of delegated functions, performs in a way which Parliament finds appropriate. Ideally, it is these latter methods which should be used to check executive errors and excesses; for it is the task of Parliament and the executive in tandem, not of the courts, to govern the country

These views accord closely with those of Lord Doherty. His view was that political not legal accountability is the proper approach and remedy for any alleged wrongdoing of Prime Minister Johnson in advising the Queen to prorogue Parliament. On such a view, Boris Johnson will be, in due course, held accountable by his Parliamentary colleagues and by the electorate at the ballot box.

In a perverse way, the fact that the case failed may help the petitioners in their bid to stop a No-Deal Brexit. The longer Boris Johnson continues with his No-Deal plan, the more he will face political and reputational consequences of his actions. The court case had one serious political consequence - the release of documentation undermining the Prime Minister's assertions as to when the decision to prorogue Parliament had been taken. This factor, more than the arcane legal arguments over the justiciability or otherwise of exercises in Royal Prerogative, may seal the fate of Boris Johnson.

The reluctance of judges to interfere with executive power is a high barrier to a successful outcome for the petitioners in Cherry. However, on appeal, the Inner House of the Court of Session might be convinced to go against the dissenting view of Lord Reed, one of the two Scottish judges in the Miller case, however it is a big ask, but not insurmountable. Alongside the ongoing Cherry case, south of the Scottish border, Gina Miller and and Sir John Major will have their day in court this week as well. They have engaged Lord Pannick QC to also seek a judicial review of the decision to prorogue in the English High Court, starting on Thursday the 6th of September. A day later, over in Belfast, Raymond Mccord, will start his action against prorogation, alleging that imposing a No-Deal Brexit on Northern Ireland will breach the Good Friday Agreement.

These three cases illustrate the strength of feeling against Boris Johnson's plans to prorogue Parliament and ensure a No-Deal Brexit. However, given his political defeats in the Commons this week, which mean laws attempting to stop No-Deal Brexit can progress through Parliament and an imminent general election looks to be ebbing away, the political arena seems to be a more fruitful area for challenging the Prime Minister than through the courts of the three jurisdictions of the UK. 

Photo credit: Telegraph
Barnard & Peers: chapter 27 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Remain Alliance Strikes Back? Background to the legal challenge to the prorogation of Parliament





Alan S. Reid, Senior Lecturer in Law, Sheffield Hallam University. The author welcomes comments on the blog at a.s.reid@shu.ac.uk.

(Update: since this blog post was published, Parliament has been prorogued. The blog post explains the background to the Scottish challenge to prorogation, but this first para will be regularly updated as regards this and other legal challenges to prorogation. August 30: a request for interim measures in the Scottish challenge (Cherry and others) was dismissed (although the ruling did not determine the merits of the case). A hearing in this case will be held Tuesday Sept 3rd. In addition, a hearing will be held before Friday Sept 6th in a Northern Ireland case brought by Raymond McCord. A hearing will be held Thurs Sept 5th in a case brought by Gina Miller. John Major has requested to be added as an intervener to this case. August 31: for documentation on the Cherry case, see the Good Law Project blog. September 2: the note of argument for the Cherry case. The Welsh government has intervened in the Miller case. September 4: the Cherry case was unsuccessful at first instance. An appeal has been requested. September 6: the Miller case was unsuccessful at first instance. See the skeleton arguments of Miller and the government.) September 7th: the appeal in the Cherry case was heard on the 5th and 6th September. The judgment will be delivered on Sep 11th. See the summary of the appeal hearing.) September 11: the appeal judgment in the Cherry case found that prorogation was unlawful (see the summary of the judgment). The High Court judgment ruling against Miller's challenge to prorogration was published. September 12: the Scottish appeal ruling in the Cherry case was published. The McCord ruling (which deals with issues other than prorogation) was released; the challengers lost. September 16: An appeal in the McCord case was heard in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court will hear the appeals in Cherry and Miller, with McCord intervening, from Tuesday 17th September to Thursday 19th September. The cases of some of the parties in the Supreme Court appeal are available.)

In 2018, Scots law was thrust four square into the legal maelstrom that is Brexit. The Court of Session in Edinburgh, and latterly the European Court of Justice, were the scene of intense legal wrangling over the intricacies of the UK's departure from the EU. The Wightman case (discussed here), ultimately resolved that Article 50 TEU, the lex specialis for a member State of the European Union to extricate itself from the EU, was unilaterally revocable at the suit of the withdrawing member State. Contemporaneously, the UK's Supreme Court also had to grapple with the Scots law and rest of the UK legal implications of the UK's exit from the EU in the snappily titled case of The UK Withdrawal From the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill -  A Reference by the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland ([2018] UKSC 64)(discussed here).

The first half of 2019 was a more sedate legal period, with limited Scots law pronouncements on Brexit. The second half of 2019 looks set to be as entertaining as the latter half of 2018. Now that Boris Johnson is fully ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street as the UK's Prime Minister, the likelihood of a No-Deal Brexit appears a near certainty, particularly with the installation of the Brexit clock in No. 10 and hard-line pronouncements emanating from the No. 10 Press Office. 

For Remainers, the coronation of Boris Johnson is of grave concern. The primary reason for their nervousness is the limited time left available to arrange for a managed exit of the UK from the EU. The economic impact of No-Deal Brexit may be extreme. The Office for Budget Responsibility considers a No-Deal Brexit at Halloween to be economically catastrophic, with a forecasted resultant 2% reduction in the economy, a 5% rise in unemployment and a 10% drop in house prices by 2020. Thus, the Remain Alliance is looking to prevent No-Deal Brexit at all costs.

As things stand, the UK will leave the EU, 'come what may', on Halloween, by automatic operation of both UK law (European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) and EU law (Article 50(3) TEU). The only way to avoid a No-Deal Brexit is to arrange for Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement to be approved by both the UK and EU Parliaments, for the UK to seek, and the EU-27 to agree, to a further extension of the Article 50 TEU process or to unilaterally revoke the Article 50 TEU notification, as confirmed by the ECJ in Wightman. An extension of the time period available under the Article 50 TEU process, could then be used to hold a Second Referendum on UK membership of the EU (which Remainers would hope would reverse the original slim majority to leave), to hold a General Election, which would (hopefully for the Remainers but by no means certain) return enough MPs to Parliament who would definitively want to hold a second referendum, revoke Article 50 TEU or seek a managed softer Brexit with the EU. In a similar vein, Remainers hope that a vote of no confidence under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 would allow a unity government to be installed, appointed to ensure at the least, a softer Brexit with an agreement in place between the UK and the EU.

The one thing that unites all these various permutations is that they would all take time to achieve. The UK Parliament is in recess until the Autumn. Once Parliament returns on the 3rd of September 2019, there are only 10 days until the Conference Season starts with the Lib Dems Conference in Bournemouth, and then Parliament is again suspended.

Prime Minister Johnson, buoyed by positive affirmation from various ERG members, is seriously contemplating proroguing Parliament as a mechanism to ensure that the UK exits the European Union, come what may, on Halloween. Under this scenario, Parliament could be prorogued, meaning that virtually all Parliamentary business ceases, in mid-October just before the Brexit Doomsday clock counts down to zero. Thus, Parliament would be unable to make any Brexit pronouncements or laws until the State Opening of a new Parliament, perhaps on the 1st of November 2019.

This stance is legally uncertain, hence the need for legal clarification, clarification which can be provided by the eminent Senators of the College of Justice of the Court of Session, in Edinburgh.

Thus, the complexities and intricacies of Brexit have led to yet another Scots law conundrum.

The legal team behind the successful Wightman case, have been called back into service. A large cross-party group of MPs and Peers have joined forces to seek a declarator from the Court of Session that proroguing Parliament to simply ensure that Parliament cannot sit, and thus deliberate and enact laws concerning Brexit, would be unlawful.

The legal action is an attempt to delineate the exact legal contours of the scope of the UK Prime Minister's executive prerogative power to prorogue Parliament.

Proroguing Parliament is a well-established feature of the UK constitutional landscape. In the annals of history, proroguing of Parliament, for reasons other than the ending of a session of Parliament or for the holding of a General Election, has taken place only sporadically and in response to various affronts against democracy and constitutional norms.  The choice of Scotland and Scots law for another legal determination is by design, not by accident. First, the most practical reason for electing to go to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, is that that court is in session throughout the summer, in contrast to the position of the courts south of the Border, which are now past the Trinity term, the final term of the judicial calendar. Indeed, the English courts are not due to be back in session before the 1st of October 2019, at Michaelmas.

Lord Doherty, sitting in the Outer House of the Court of Session on Tuesday the 13th of August 2019, has agreed to hear the substantive case on the 6th of September 2019.

Secondly, the Scottish courts may generally be more receptive to the claims pronounced by the pursuers. The system of judicial review furth of the Forth is rather different to that of England. In particular, the judicial review procedure in Scotland is often less formalistic than its English counterpart. Indeed, judicial review in Scotland is often quoted as being generally available as of right (Eba v Advocate General for Scotland (2010 [CSIH] 78)) rather than as a discretionary option in the gift of the English court. However, given this significant legal distinction and the obvious danger of the floodgates argument, Scottish rules as to standing were traditionally rather restrictive, with the pursuer needing to prove both title and interest to sue. Such rules thus limited access to the courts (D & J Nicol v Dundee Harbour Trustees 1915 SC (HL) 7 and Swanson v Manson 1907 SC 426). However, this limitation on access to justice was swept away by the Supreme Court in AXA General Insurance Ltd & Ors v Lord Advocate & Ors (Scotland) [2011] UKSC 46 and given statutory backing via the Courts Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, thus now making Scotland an attractive jurisdictional choice, albeit with the anglicised innovation that leave must be granted by the court.

Additionally, the procedure and remedies available to the Scottish courts under judicial review are commonly agreed to be less formalistic than those pertaining south of the border. One unique feature relied on in the current case is the remedy of declarator.  

A declaratory action is a unique Scots law action before the Scottish courts which simply seeks a declaration from the court that the pursuer has a right (or does not have a right). In the case, the pursuer is simply seeking clarification as to the legal position. As such, the type of legal questions apt for a declaratory action are multifarious (Macnaughton v Macnaughton's Trustees 1953 SLT 240, at p. 244). The main bar to the Scottish courts entertaining a declaratory action is that there would be no legal consequence's flowing from the court's pronouncement (Aberdeen Development Co. v Mackie, Ramsay & Taylor 1977 SLY 177). Thus, the admissibility criterion for the action is that there is a clear, pressing need for the court's decision and that the ruling will have real consequences for the parties. For Continental lawyers, an analogy could realistically be made between this Scottish action and the Article 267 TFEU Preliminary Ruling Procedure, whereby the European Court of Justice will refuse to determine questions of EU law unless the dispute is a real and genuine one between the parties (Foglia v Novello; Wightman). 

The remedy of declarator is a routine request in judicial review cases north of the border.

The present action will seek a declarator that it would be ultra vires for any Minister of the Crown to seek to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament just before the intended date of departure of the UK from the EU, with the sole purpose of ensuring that there is no Parliamentary consideration of No-Deal Brexit. The argument that such an action by Prime Minister Johnson or members of his cabinet would be ultra vires rests on two propositions. First, that in doing so, proroguing Parliament would frustrate both the government's political accountability to Parliament and its legal accountability to the courts and secondly, that the will of Parliament, as expressed in sections 13 and 20 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the desire to resurrect devolution in Northern Ireland via the passing of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, would be frustrated. As regards the withdrawal legislation, it is argued that the law requires that Parliament needs to approve a deal between the UK and the EU (section 13 of the 2018 Act). 

The main issue facing the pursuers in September may well be the justiciability or otherwise of the question posed. When the substantive arguments are duly aired in court, the UK Government's legal representatives will undoubtedly argue that the exercise of prorogation is a prerogative power unsuitable for judicial pronouncement, as classically set out in de Freitas v Benny [1976] AC 239. In response a number of arguments will no doubt be raised by the pursuers. First, the pursuers will argue that this traditionalist view of the non-justiciability of exercise of Crown prerogative is inappropriate, ever since the GCHQ case (Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service [1984] UKHL 9) created inroads to the absolutist approach to the immunity of Crown decision making (R (Bancoult (No 2)) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs [2016] UKSC 35). Indeed, the pursuers may make much of the fact that the process of prorogation is now set out in statutory terms, namely the Prorogation Act 1867, and might argue that the process has been affected by virtue of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. As such, once a prerogative power is placed on a statutory footing, or at least reference to a prerogative power is made in statute, then that power is, in principle, amenable to be judicially reviewed.

It can reasonably be argued that the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament is a two-stage process. First, the Prime Minister and members of the Privy Council provide advice to the Queen on the need to prorogue Parliament and then the Queen formally accedes to that request. It would of course be entirely within the gift of the Queen to refuse to prorogue Parliament, even where the advice of the Privy Council has been to prorogue. To do so, would of course trigger a constitutional crisis, the likes of which the UK has never witnessed for over three centuries. This is a highly remote possibility, however the former aspect of the process is much more likely.

Since prorogation is a two-stage process, it is entirely possible that the courts could hold that one, both or none of the sections of the process could be judicially reviewable. That is, the prorogation process is legally divisible.

The actions of the Queen in the process of prorogation are a classic non-justiciable example of the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. However, the real issue of concern in the present case is the first limb of the process, namely the proferring of advice by Ministers of the Crown, including the Prime Minister. That aspect of prorogation may well be capable of being judicially reviewed, and, fortuitously for the pursuers, the remedy of declarator may well be apposite for just such a claim for they are seeking in essence a simple statement from the court that the Prime Minister can (or cannot) advise the Queen to prorogue Parliament.

However, as stated above, the biggest problem for Remainers is the effluxion of time. Even if the Court of Session were to adjudicate in favour of the pursuers, the judgment may well become a Pyrrhic victory. The UK Government would invariably appeal such a judgment to the Outer House and then to the Supreme Court, freeing the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament when he sees fit. Additionally, other political events may conspire against Remainers, such that prorogation is the least of their worries.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: BBC

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Vorsprung durch Technik? Audi scores victory in trade mark appeal before the EU General Court




Alexandros Antoniou, University of Essex School of Law, a.antoniou@essex.ac.uk

On 12 July 2019, the EU General Court (GC) dismissed an appeal (Audimas v EUIPO - Audi (AUDIMAS)) from a Lithuanian sportswear company, whose trade mark was successfully opposed by the German automobile manufacturer Audi.

Background

In October 2014, the applicant, Audimas AB, obtained through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) an international registration for the mark displayed below, designating the European Union (EU) as one of the protection territories.

The mark above represents the applicant company’s name in black font, with stylised open and closing brackets right above the word element. Registration was sought for classes 18, 25 and 35 of the Nice Agreement, covering a wide variety of leather goods, clothing, footwear and headgear as well as advertising and business management services. In June 2015, the international registration designating the EU was notified to the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), pursuant to the provisions of the Council Regulation 207/2009 on the Community Trade Mark (now replaced with Regulation 2017/1001 on the EU Trade Mark).

In August 2015, the German automotive company AUDI AG opposed the mark applied for on the basis of its previously registered EU word mark ‘AUDI’ for goods and services falling in classes 18, 25 and 35 of the Nice Agreement as well as class 12, which covers vehicles and vehicle components. Audi claimed, in particular, infringement of Article 8(1)(b) of the 2009 Regulation, i.e. invalidity based on ‘relative grounds’ which relate to conflicts with earlier trade mark rights that belong to third parties (these provisions are preserved under the new 2017 Regulation). The Opposition Division of the EUIPO upheld the opposition two years later. Audimas appealed the decision in November 2017 but the Office’s Second Board of Appeal rejected the appeal in May 2018 (‘the contested decision’).

Specifically, the Board of Appeal found that the relevant public in this case consisted of ‘professional customers' and 'end consumers', whose level of attention varied from medium to high. In addition, the signs at issue were broadly similar at least to the extent that Audi’s earlier mark was reproduced in full in the dominant element of the applied-for mark. The Board also considered that a Spanish-speaking consumer would break down the mark applied for in two verbal parts, i.e. ‘audi’ and ‘mas’, because the latter element alluded a meaning to them, namely 'more' or ‘plus’. Moreover, the figurative element of the brackets was found to be ‘purely ornamental’ and its combination with the term ‘mas’ meant that the mark in question was at best only weakly distinctive. The Board of Appeal ultimately concluded that there was a likelihood of confusion for the Spanish-speaking part of the relevant public within the meaning of Articles 8(1)(b) of the 2009 and 2017 Regulations.

The legal framework and applicable principles

Under both Regulations 2009 and 2017, an opposition must be based on rights held by the opponent in an earlier trade mark (or other form of trade sign). The grounds on which an opposition can be based are called ‘relative grounds for refusal’, the relevant provisions of which are found in Article 8 the Regulation. By contrast to ‘absolute grounds for refusal’, which are examined ex officio by the EUIPO, relative grounds for refusal are inter partes proceedings based on the likely conflict with earlier rights. This means that the burden falls on the owner of earlier rights who needs to be vigilant in checking the filing of potentially conflicting EUTM applications and oppose the registration of marks when necessary.

More specifically, under Article 8(1)(b):

upon opposition by the proprietor of an earlier trade mark, the trade mark applied for shall not to be registered if, because of its identity with or similarity to the earlier trade mark and the identity or similarity of the goods or services covered by the trade marks, there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public in the territory in which the earlier trade mark is protected. The likelihood of confusion includes the likelihood of association with the earlier trade mark.

Audimas contested the Board of Appeal’s findings in relation to the comparison of the signs and the existence of a likelihood of confusion. According to the established case law of the Court of Justice on the interpretation of Article 8(1)(b), the risk that the public might believe that the goods or services in question come from the same undertaking or from economically-linked undertakings, constitutes a likelihood of confusion (see Canon [1998] EUECJ C-39/97). The likelihood of confusion on the part of the public must be appreciated globally, according to the perception of the marks in the mind of the average consumer of the goods or services concerned. It is also settled case law that the average consumer normally perceives a mark as a whole and does not proceed to examine its various details (see Sabel [1997] EUECJ C-251/95). Consequently, the visual, aural and conceptual similarities of the marks must be assessed with reference to the overall impression created by the marks bearing in mind their distinctive and dominant components. Account must be taken of all factors relevant to the circumstances of the case and, in particular, the similarity between the marks and the goods or services. A lesser degree of similarity between those goods or services may be offset by a greater degree of similarity between the marks, and vice versa (see Lloyd Schuhfabrik Meyer [1999] EUECJ C-342/97). Where the earlier trade mark has a highly distinctive character, such as Audi’s mark in the present case, either because of its intrinsic qualities or because of the use that has been made of it, the likelihood of confusion is greater.

The level of attention of the relevant public

The GC disagreed with the applicant’s claim that buyers of Audi cars would demonstrate an increased level of attention, which would in turn decrease the likelihood of confusion between the marks at issue. Indeed, the prospect of an expensive purchase, e.g. in the case of luxury products, is a good reason for the average consumer to be more circumspect in relation to the origin and the quality of the articles concerned. A high degree of attention is likely to be displayed during the purchasing process of a specific product which is generally regarded as reflecting its owner’s social status. Nevertheless, both Audi’s earlier mark and Audimas’ applied-for mark extended to clothing and footwear as well. These are mass consumption goods, which are frequently purchased and used by the average consumer who nevertheless still pays a fair degree of attention in choosing them, albeit not above average (see Esprit International v OHMI-Marc O'Polo International [2011] EUECJ T-22/10). Thus, the Board of Appeal was not wrong in assessing the relevant public’s attention in the present case as varying from medium to high.

The goods and services concerned

The goods and services covered by Audimas’ mark were deemed at least in part identical or similar to those covered by Audi’s earlier mark. This conclusion was not disputed by the applicant and was approved by the GC.

The comparison of the signs and the likelihood of confusion

The GC agreed with the Board’s ruling that the dominant element of the applied-for mark was the fanciful term ‘audi’, since the second verbal element of the applied-for mark, i.e. ‘mas’, was already well-known to Spanish speakers and had a lower distinctive character. Moreover, the figurative element of the brackets was not, in the GC’s view, ‘particularly original or elaborate’. As such, it did not add anything ‘striking’ to the overall impression created by it in the perception of the relevant public.

The visual similarity between the marks was reinforced by the fact that both shared the ‘audi’ element which constitutes the earlier mark and is found at the beginning of the applied-for mark. This is consistent with previous case law, according to which the fact that a mark consists exclusively of the earlier mark to which another word is attached is an indication of the similarity between those two marks (see Fon Wireless v EUIPO-Henniger [2016] EUECJ T-777/14). On the phonetic level, the degree of similarity between the marks was found to be essentially ‘greater than average’, notwithstanding the different pronunciation given to the contested mark by the syllable ‘mas’. It is also a settled principle that both verbally and phonetically the average consumer generally pays more attention to the beginning of the mark than its ending, since the first part of a trade mark normally has a greater impact than the final part (see L'Oréal v OHMI-SPA Monopole [2009] EUECJ T-109/07 and Gappol Marzena Porczynska v EUIPO-Gap [2017] EUECJ T-411/15). Finally, the GC noted that the absence of conceptual similarities between the two signs should not deflect attention from their substantial visual and phonetic similarities and concluded that they were ‘broadly similar’.

In the GC’s view, the Board’s conclusion that the Spanish-speaking part of the relevant public would eventually establish a link between the contested mark and Audi could not be called into question. The Board of Appeal had held, and the GC agreed, that it could not be ruled out that the applied-for mark, with its element ‘mas’ attached to the word ‘audi’, could be taken to identify an exclusive series of goods or services of the Audi family of brands. The relevant public could perceive the ‘Audimas’ mark as a ‘particular variant’ of the earlier mark for a specific type of goods with a positive quality. In light of the foregoing, the GC dismissed the applicant’s action.

Commentary

In sum, the GC upheld the original EUIPO decision, ruling that the applied-for mark by Audimas would likely be confused with Audi’s earlier trademark. The upheld contested decision is undoubtedly a victory for Audi, one of the world leaders in the automotive sector. On the other hand, Audimas has become, since its incorporation in 1931, one of the market leaders in the design and manufacture of sports and active lifestyle apparel in the Baltic States. The brand has been cooperating with the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee as an official supplier of sportswear for the Lithuanian Olympic family for more than 15 years. In 2013, Audimas also began sponsorship of the Belarus National Olympic Committee. This is certainly a displeasing for them outcome, which might be appealed to the Court of Justice of the EU.

Despite Audi’s weak connection to the clothing industry, the GC’s ruling can hardly be a surprise. It is grounded in some well-established principles relating to the comparison of signs in trade mark disputes. When assessing their similarity, the marks in question will be considered as a whole. Although it is not possible to isolate and focus exclusively on one component of a complex mark and compare it with another mark, the assessment of similarity may be made solely on the basis of the dominant component of a complex mark where all the remaining components of the mark – like the brackets and the element ‘mas’ in this case – add very little to, or are negligible in, the overall impression produced by it.

In addition, where a complex mark comprises word and figurative elements, the former would in principle be considered more distinctive than the latter, because the average consumer tends to refer to the goods or services in question by quoting the name of the mark in question, rather than by describing its figurative element (see Coca-Cola v OHMI-Mitico [2014] EUECJ T-480/12). The shared ‘audi’ element was incapable in this instance of lending the applied-for mark a distinctive character and accentuated the likelihood of confusion. Also, the presence of a few different syllables is not always enough to exclude the existence of a phonetic similarity between two signs. In the present case, the phonetic difference between the signs at issue, resulting from the addition of a second syllable ‘mas’ in the applied-for mark, was not sufficient to overcome and preclude the phonetic similarity between ‘Audi’ and ‘Audimas’ taken as a whole.

These opposition proceedings also confirm that, if a likelihood of confusion between two conflicting rights relating to the EU is established in a specific linguistic area, this is enough for the registration of the later mark to be refused. When an opposition is filed pursuant to Article 8(1)(b) and a likelihood of confusion can indeed be found on a substantial part of the public, the reasoning of the decision typically concentrates on that part of the public that is most prone to confusion, making the examination of the perception of the marks in several languages redundant. In addition, where the relevant public consists of both professional and general consumers, the finding of a likelihood of confusion in relation to just one part of the public is enough to uphold an opposition.

Finally, the outcome serves as a useful reminder of the need to conduct comprehensive trademark searches prior to filing a trade mark application, which needs to be carefully tailored to in order to maximise the chances of a successful registration. Opposition hearings can be very costly to defend. If unsuccessful, an applicant will have to pay not only their legal costs but some of the costs of the other party too – and will still not be able to achieve registration of their mark.