Monday 21 March 2016

Libel law, EU law and the ECHR: A Comment on Arlewin v. Sweden

Athanassios Takis: PhD, Special Adviser to General Secretariat of Greek government

The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 1 March 2016 in the case of Arlewin v. Sweden concerns the (mis)application of EU Regulation 44/2001 (which determines which Member State’s courts have jurisdiction over civil and commercial cases) on behalf of the Swedish courts and illuminates the limits of the ‘acte clair’ doctrine (the principle that final national courts do not always have to send questions about EU law to the CJEU).

The Arlewin judgment

The facts of the Arlewin case, which gave the ECHR the chance to decide on an issue concerning the application of EU law have as follows: The applicant, Raja Arlewin, is a Swedish national, a self-employed businessman, who attempted to bring private prosecution proceedings and a claim for damages for gross defamation against X. X is a Swedish national, the Chief Executive Officer of a television company and anchor-man of a popular show in which Mr. Arlewin was accused of, among other things, involvement in organised crime in the media and advertising sectors. The television programme had been produced in Sweden, in the Swedish language and was sponsored by Swedish advertisers. The programme was sent from Sweden via satellite to a London-based company (Viasat Broadcasting UK Ltd), which broadcast and transmitted it to viewers in Sweden.

In a preliminary ruling the Stockholm District Court declined jurisdiction over Mr. Arlewin’s claims because the programme had not originated from Sweden. The court applied the relevant Swedish law, mainly the Constitutional law on freedom of expression, and followed the case law of the Swedish Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal upheld this decision, finding that Mr. Arlewin had not established that the decisions concerning the content of the programme had been taken in Sweden, a fact which was a prerequisite for the jurisdiction of Swedish courts. It contested that the defamation claim should be decided by the courts of the United Kingdom where the seat of the company transmitting the programme is.

Mr. Arlewin appealed, alleging that the Swedish courts’ position ran counter to EU law and specifically to the Brussels I Regulation (44/2001), as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The Regulation establishes the principle that in cases relating to liability for wrongful acts, jurisdiction is to be exercised by the courts of the place where the harmful event had occurred and, according to Mr. Arlewin, in his case the harmful effects of his defamation had occurred in Sweden. He also requested that a question concerning the interpretation of the Brussels I Regulation be referred by the national court to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. The Swedish Supreme Court rejected Mr. Arlewin’s referral request, finding no reason to request a preliminary ruling from the CJEU, and rejected the case.

Since Mr. Arlewin was not satisfied with this, he brought an application against the Kingdom of Sweden before the ECtHR claiming that he had been deprived of effective access to court and that the State had failed to provide him with sufficient protection against allegations that violated his right to privacy. In its judgment of 1 March 2016 the ECtHR notes that the core issue in this case is whether the Swedish State violated the applicant’s rights through the courts’ decisions to dismiss the defamation suit on grounds of admissibility. The Court examined the relevance to Mr Arlewin’s case of two instruments adopted within the framework of the European Union, namely the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive (2010/13) and the Brussels I Regulation.

The Court rejected the Government’s argument that the Audiovisual Media Services Directive determined the country of jurisdiction when an individual initiated a defamation claim. In particular the Directive. More precisely Article 28, which addresses the situation where a person’s reputation and good name have been damaged in a programme, sets out only the right of reply; it does not deal with defamation proceedings or a related claim for damages. The Court therefore considered that the Audiovisual Media Services Directive did not regulate the matter of jurisdiction when it came to defamation proceedings arising out of the content of a transborder programme service.

Rather, jurisdiction under EU law was regulated solely by the Brussels I Regulation. Under Articles 2 and 5 of that Regulation, it appears prima facie that both the United Kingdom and Sweden had jurisdiction over the subject matter of Mr. Arlewin’s case. On the one hand, X is domiciled in Sweden, and, on the other, Viasat Broadcasting UK Ltd is registered, and thus domiciled, in the United Kingdom (Article 2 gives jurisdiction to the country of domicile of the defendant). Furthermore, Article 5 gives jurisdiction to the place where the harmful event occurred, and it could be argued that the harmful event had occurred in both countries, as the television programme had been broadcast from the United Kingdom and the alleged injury to Mr. Arlewin’s reputation and privacy had manifested itself in Sweden. The programme had been produced in Sweden in the Swedish language, was backed by Swedish advertisers, was to be shown live to an exclusively Swedish audience, while the alleged harm to Mr. Arlewin’s reputation had occurred in Sweden. With the exception of the technical detail of satellite reception transmission, the facts of the case were entirely Swedish in nature.

Therefore, the Court noted that the content, production and broadcasting of the television programme as well as its implications had very strong connections to Sweden and very little to the United Kingdom. Under those circumstances the Swedish State had an obligation under Article 6 of the Convention to provide Mr. Arlewin with an effective right of access to court. The Swedish courts’ interpretation of both the Swedish and the EU law had led to a situation where the alleged victim of the defamation could not hold anyone responsible under Swedish law and could only find his way to a court in the UK. Requiring Mr. Arlewin to take proceedings before the UK courts could not be said to have been an equally viable and reasonable alternative, as far as the practical and economic obstacles to initiate proceedings abroad would render the remedy inefficient. The Swedish courts, by dismissing Mr. Arlewin’s action without examination of the merits and by referring to the alternative of initiating proceedings in another country, had impaired the very essence of his right of access to court and consequently breached Article 6 of the ECHR.


This is an ECHR judgment which directly examines the application of the EU acquis by the Member States’ courts and indirectly touches upon the issue of these courts’ obligation to apply for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU. As far as the first matter is concerned, the ECtHR clarifies the scope ratione materiae of the EU's Audio-visual Media Services Directive as not regulating every issue of substance and jurisdiction that may arise in relation to the broadcast of a television programme. The Directive only regulates a person’s right to reply to claims concerning him or her and not his or her right to initiate civil or criminal proceedings before national courts for his or her defamation.

The Court further addresses the issue of the provisions of the Brussels I Regulation and their impact on the right to a fair trial. In underlining the importance of the systematization of solutions ensured by the Regulation and the criterion of ‘strong connections’ of a dispute to a country as a jurisdictional basis (article 5 paragraph 3 of the Regulation), the judgment affirms that in general the Regulation observes the right to a fair trial and draws a fair balance between diverging interests. The special jurisdiction in matters relating to tort establishes the jurisdiction of the courts of the place where the harmful event occurred or may occur (locus damni) and constitutes a comprehensive derogation from the main rule set in Article 2. 

The ratio of this provision rests on the indissoluble ties between the component parts of liability with the evidence and of the conduct of the proceedings and the causal connection between the damage and the event from which that damage originates. That is why litigation before an alternate forum abroad would be too burdensome for the applicant and a violation of his right to enjoy practical and effective access to a court. The Court of Strasbourg relies upon the findings of the Luxembourg Court and reaffirms the existence of a direct dialogue between the two jurisdictions, with the first affirming the findings of the second in a noteworthy manifestation of its endeavour to choose -whenever possible- an interpretation of the ECHR that facilitates the proper application of EU law by national authorities.

As for the second issue at hand, namely the obligation to address a question to the CJEU, the Court doesn’t explicitly address this issue. However, it seems rather apparent that had the Swedish courts applied for a preliminary ruling, the CJEU would have affirmed that the referring courts were competent to examine the defamation claims of Mr. Arlewin by virtue of Article 5 paragraph 3 of the Brussels I Regulation. This is clearly the outcome of the CJEU judgments cited and of the paragraphs 36-39 of the ECtHR judgment concluding that ‘Brussels I Regulation requires EU Member States to make their courts available if jurisdiction is confirmed, [as] the ECJ noted in Kongress AgenturHagen GmbH v. Zeehaghe BV that the Regulation does not govern matters of procedure. This means that a court can reject a case for reasons relating to domestic procedural rules as long as the national procedural law does not impair the effectiveness of the Brussels I Regulation’.

However, the Swedish courts applied the Brussels I Regulation in a manner inconsistent with EU law and in considering the jurisdictional provisions to be an acte clair, rejected the request of the applicant. According to Article 267 of the TFEU, when questions on the interpretation or validity of EU law are raised in a case pending before a court of a Member State against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy under national law, that court is required to bring the matter before the Court of Justice of the European Union and apply for a preliminary ruling. The CJEU in the Cilfit and Others case has established three limited exceptions to this rule. Under the third of these exceptions, a national court against whose decisions there is no judicial remedy doesn’t have to apply to CJEU for a preliminary ruling when it is convinced that no doubt arises as the meaning or the validity of the law to be applied is clear and unequivocal (acte clair) and therefore, immediately comprehensible.

A court or tribunal adjudicating at last instance may take the view that, although the lower courts have interpreted a provision of EU law in a particular way, the interpretation that it proposes to give of that provision, which is different from the interpretation espoused by the lower courts, is so obvious that there is no reasonable doubt as to its meaning. The Court has also made clear that the existence of such a possibility must be assessed in the light of the specific characteristics of EU law, the particular difficulties to which the interpretation of the latter gives rise and the risk of divergences in judicial decisions within the European Union (see judgments in Intermodal Transports, para 33, and in João Filipe Ferreira da Silva e Brito and Others, para 39, and discussion here and here). 

However, the Court in the latter judgment found that, in cases where a question of EU law has given rise to a great deal of uncertainty on the part of many national courts, the courts of last instance should deem themselves obliged to make a reference to the Court of Justice. A persistent uncertainty strongly indicates not only that there are difficulties of interpretation, but also that there is a real risk of divergences in judicial decisions within the European Union. Should a failure on behalf of the national court to observe this duty imposed by Article 267 TFEU cause damages to individuals (see Köbler), the Member States should either set aside the court’s decision or, where this is impossible due to the principle of res judicata, compensate the individual for infringement enacted by the court of last instance of its EU law obligation (João Filipe Ferreira, para 60).

The relationship between the refusal to request a preliminary ruling and the violation of the right to a fair trial has been the subject of two other important judgments delivered by the ECtHR. At the same time, a third application is still pending (Repcevirág Szövetkezet v. Hungary, Application no. 70750/14 vii Application no. 17120/09). In the case of Dhahbi v. Italy the Court said that refusing a request for a preliminary ruling, while providing no reasoning at all for the refusal, constitutes a breach of Article 6 ECHR. In the more recent judgment of 21 July 2015 in the case of Schipani and others v. Italy (discussed here), the Italian Cour de cassation did not make any reference whatsoever to whether the issue at hand was an acte clair and therefore, justified an exemption from the rule that renders the preliminary reference obligatory for the last instance courts. According to the ECtHR ‘it is therefore not clear from the reasoning of the impugned judgment whether that question was considered not to be relevant or to relate to a provision which was clear or had already been interpreted by the CJEU, or whether it was simply ignored’. The Court of Strasbourg again reached the conclusion that the applicants’ right to a fair trial had been breached.

Examining the cases of Dhahbi, Schipani and Arlewin of the ECtHR and João Filipe Ferreira of the CJEU together, indicates that the Courts of Luxembourg and Strasbourg have restricted the criteria of the application of the doctrine of acte clair. The national courts have to accurately reason their decisions not to apply for a preliminary ruling based on their unequivocal understanding of the EU law. The combination of the Arlewin and João Filipe Ferreira judgments shows that a breach of EU law resulting from the misapplication by the highest national courts of Article 267 TFEU may entail the responsibility of the Member State to compensate the individuals at the same time for both their material damages (a EU law consequence in line with the Francovich and Köbler rulings) and their non-pecuniary damages (a ECtHR consequence in line with the Arlewin judgment).

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 10

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