Opinion of AG de la Tour in Joined Cases C, B (C‑704/20) and X (C‑39/21)
Alicja Słowik, Assistante de recherché, Centre d’études juridiques européennes (CEJE), Université de Genève
Photo credit: Abouttt, via Wikimedia commons
Striking a fair balance between the principle of national procedural autonomy and the necessity to guarantee effective judicial protection of rights derived from EU law has never been an easy task for the European Court of Justice (‘the ECJ’/’the Court’). Yet, the task becomes particularly complex when what is at stake is effective judicial protection of rights of fundamental nature. How could the concern for protection of EU fundamental rights affect the application of national procedural rules? Can national rules limit the power of the judge to assess the lawfulness of detention of foreign national or would such a limitation lead to serious encroachment on the fundamental right to liberty? The recent Opinion of AG Jean Richard de la Tour in the Joined cases Staatssecretaris van Justitie en Veiligheid v. C, B (C‑704/20, ‘Case C, B’) and X v. Staatssecretaris van Justitie en Veiligheid (C‑39/21, ‘Case X’) concerning the issue of ex officio review of detention measures provides for precious insights on the possible answers to these questions.
Legislative background and facts of the Joined cases
The two Joined cases at hand concern the scope of powers of national judges to examine the lawfulness of detention of third country nationals. In EU law, such a detention may be exceptionally imposed with regard to asylum seekers or migrants staying illegally on the EU territory. Articles 15 to 17 of the Return Directive, 8 to 11 of the Reception Conditions Directive and Article 28 of Dublin III Regulation provide for legal basis and conditions pertaining to detention. It is thus by reference to these provisions that the judge examines the lawfulness of detention of third country nationals (‘TCNs’).
In the Netherlands, detention of foreign nationals is governed by administrative procedural law which does not allow national courts to examine the conditions of the lawfulness of detention of their own motion (ex officio). This means that it is impossible for a national judge to review detention measure on the grounds other than those relied on by the foreign national during the proceedings. Moreover, the judge cannot release the detainee even after having found that the detention is unlawful on grounds different than those put forward by the person concerned. The preliminary questions addressed by two Dutch jurisdictions: the Council at State (Raad van State) and the District Court in the Hague (Rechtbank Den Haag) related to the problem of compatibility of Dutch legislation with EU law, especially, with the right to an effective remedy and right to liberty.
The first case, C and B, concerned detention measures imposed with regard to two TCNs. The first individual concerned was put in detention for the purpose of determining the elements necessary for the examination of his application for international protection. The second applicant was placed in detention with the aim of securing his transfer to Italy in accordance with Dublin III Regulation. Both contested the detention orders before the District Court which ordered their release on the ground relating to the non-respect of the obligation of due diligence. Importantly, the argument concerning the non-respect of due diligence obligation was not raised by the detainees during the proceedings.
The Secretary of State brought an appeal against the judgements ordering the release of two foreign nationals before the Council of State. The two TCNs argued that, by virtue of EU law, the national jurisdictions had a duty to examine the lawfulness of detention measure of its own motion. Yet, as explained above, such an ex officio review of detention was impossible to perform under the Dutch legislation. In these circumstances, the Council of State decided to ask the ECJ for clarifications on the interpretation of Article 15, paragraph 2, of Return Directive and Article 9 of the Reception Conditions Directive in light of Article 6 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (‘the Charter’) which guarantees the right to liberty.
The second case, X, concerned the application of the Return Directive. A TCN had been put in detention on grounds relating to the maintenance of public order. The applicant challenged the decision on the continuation of detention before the District Court. The judge again had doubts on the compatibility of Dutch legislation prohibiting the ex officio review of detention with EU law.
Opinion of the Advocate General
At the very beginning of the Opinion, the AG noticed that the role of the judge does not differ much depending on whether he assesses the lawfulness of the detention order or of the order on the continuation of detention (§68). Further, relevant provisions of Return Directive, Reception Conditions Directive and Dublin III Regulation embody the same key principles concerning the power of the judge called upon to assess the lawfulness of detention (§68). For this reason, it was possible to jointly examine the compatibility of Dutch legislation with regard to all these three instruments.
Subsequently, the AG presented briefly a set common rules concerning the judicial control of detention orders. He recalled in particular that detention of the TCN ordered by an administrative or judicial authority shall be subject to judicial review (§70). The requirement of judicial control serves primarily to protect the TCN against arbitrary deprivation of liberty (§72). Nonetheless, the rules concerning the extent of judicial control have not been harmonised so far at the EU level. The modalities of such a control are therefore covered by the principle national procedural autonomy of Member States (§73). The national legislation determining the extent of judicial control must nonetheless comply with the principles of effectiveness and equivalence. (§75).
Focusing on the assessment of compatibility of national rule with the principle of effectiveness the AG briefly referred to the so called ‘procedural rule of reason test’ . According to this test, while examining the question of whether national procedural rule renders the application of EU law ‘impossible’ or ‘excessively difficult’, the judge must take account of ‘the role of that provision in the procedure, its conduct and its special features, viewed as a whole, before the various national bodies’ (see eg. XC and Others, C‑234/17, §49). In that context, must be considered, in particular, ‘the protection of the rights of the defence, the principle of legal certainty and the proper conduct of the procedure’ (XC and Others, C‑234/17, §49)
Yet, this test was not of particular relevance in the cases at hand, as the AG indicated that the ‘effectiveness requirement’ would not be satisfied if a procedural rule at stake was incompatible with the right to an effective judicial protection enshrined in Article 47 of the Charter (§78). The central problem in the Joined cases boiled down to the question of whether a national rule prohibiting ex officio assessment of conditions pertaining to detention infringed the right to an effective judicial protection.
The Court has ruled on different occasions that the principle of effectiveness ‘does not preclude a national provision which prevents national courts from raising of their own motion an issue as to whether the provisions of Community law have been infringed, where examination of that issue would oblige them to abandon the passive role assigned to them by going beyond the ambit of the dispute defined by the parties themselves’ (Van Schijndel, C-430/93 and C-431/93,§22). Yet, none of the so-far examined situations on ex-officio application of EU law has dealt directly with protection of the right to liberty guaranteed by Article 6 of the Charter (§80).
Relying on Mahdi case (C-146/14 PPU), the AG recalled that the Court assessing the lawfulness of the detention measures ‘must be able to take into account both the facts stated and the evidence adduced by the administrative authority and any observations that may be submitted by the third-country national’ (Mahdi, §62). He then drew attention to the paramount importance of the right to judicial protection in guaranteeing respect of the right to liberty (§86). Detention ordered on the basis of Return Directive, Reception Conditions Directive or Dublin III Regulation must respect the principle of proportionality and fundamental rights of the individuals concerned (§87).
Plunging into the analysis of possible infringements on fundamental rights, the AG observed that the limitation on the scope of judicial control of detention measures constitutes a restriction of fundamental right to a remedy which shall be examined under Article 52 of the Charter. He underlined that the very essence of the right to effective judicial protection as well as protection against arbitrary detention would be infringed if the judge could not release a person detained even after having come to conclusion that detention was illegal (§91).
The impossibility for a judge to examine all relevant issues concerning the lawfulness of detention, may result in person being detained in situation where the conditions pertaining to detention are not (or are no longer) met (§92). This is inadmissible given that Article 15, paragraph 2, of the Return Directive and Article 9, paragraph 3, of the Reception Conditions Directive state clearly that when the detention is unlawful, the person concerned shall be released immediately. The release shall be thus an immediate consequence of finding that detention is illegal (§92).
The AG insisted again on the importance of the right to liberty and underlined that national procedural rules shall not allow doubts as to the lawfulness of detention to persist (§95). In a nutshell, the jurisdiction called upon to assess the lawfulness of detention order must control respect of general and abstract rules setting the conditions and modalities of detention. The limitation on the possibility for a judge to examine the issues and arguments which were not raised by the parties does not respect the principle of effectiveness. The Dutch legislation is incompatible with Article 15 of the Return Directive, Article 9 of the Reception Conditions Directive and Article 28 of the Dublin III Regulation read in conjunction with Articles 6 and 47 of the Charter.
The Opinion of AG de la Tour deserves attention for several reasons. Most importantly, the Joined cases would be the first occasion for the Court to directly adjudicate upon the question of an obligation to apply EU law ex officio in the context of detention of TCNs. Should the Grand Chamber follow the solution proposed by the AG, the judgement will be another example of the increasing influence of EU law on shaping national procedural rules in the field of migration (I). Furthermore, the Opinion sheds more light on the potential of EU fundamental rights to play a key role in setting limits of national procedural autonomy (II).
Obligation of ex officio review of detention: a sign of ‘progressive revolution’ in the ECJ’s approach towards national procedural rules?
The AG underscored the unprecedented nature of the subject-matter in the cases at hand. This will be the first time when the Court will rule on the obligation of ex officio application of EU law in the context involving the application of the fundamental right to liberty (§1 and §80). As mentioned above, the Court has already stated that, in principle, national courts do not have obligation to raise points of EU law of their own motion. There are some exceptions to this rule, for instance in the field of consumer law (see eg. case Mostaza Claro, C-168/05). The AG proposed that in the situations concerning fundamental right to liberty the judge must proceed to assessment of all conditions pertaining to detention of his own motion, establishing thus a new exception to the rule on the lack of obligation to apply EU law ex officio. Importantly, the AG referred to obligation rather than a simple possibility for a national judge to review the lawfulness of detention on the grounds different from those relied on by the parties. In this regard, he opted for a more intrusive interference with the national procedural rules.
The creation of positive obligations and direct intervention into national procedures are a fairly rare phenomenon in the ECJ’s case law which has nonetheless become more visible in the recent years, at least as far as the field of migration and asylum law is concerned. Suffice it to mention for instance Országos (C‑924/19 PPU and C‑925/19 PPU) case in which Court stated that the national judge had to declare himself competent to examine detention measures decided by administrative body even though he did not have such a power under national law. In that judgement, the right to fundamental remedy enshrined in Article 47 of the Charter as well as in the relevant provisions of secondary law (Article 15 of Return Directive and Article 9 of Reception Conditions Directive 2013/33) played an eminent role in the Court’s reasoning.
Importantly, the developments regarding the significance of the right to an effective remedy in protection of procedural rights of migrants are not confined to the cases dealing with detention: they are also present in other areas of EU migration law. In a relatively recent case H. A. v État belge (C‑194/19) concerning the scope of the right to a judicial remedy as guaranteed under Dublin III Regulation, the Court ruled that, when examining the lawfulness of transfer decision, the national judge shall be able to take due account of circumstances subsequent to the adoption of that decision. These findings were similarly the fruit of generous interpretation of the right to an effective remedy and a limited application of the doctrine of national procedural autonomy. Earlier, in the context involving the application of the Visa Code, building on the potential of Article 47 of the Charter, the Court interpreted the provision on the right to bring appeal against the refusal of visa (Article 32(3)) as requiring the establishment of judicial (and not solely administrative) remedy (El Hassani, C‑403/16). On several occasions, Article 47 of the Charter has thus served as a tool for unearthing the ‘creationist’ side of the principle of effective judicial protection which allows the Court to readjust or directly establish new remedies for the protection of rights guaranteed by EU law.
Given that, in the past, the Court directly conferred to national judges’ power to review the legality of detention (Országos), the imposition of duty to raise the point of EU law of their own motion would not constitute a revolutionary move in the Court’s case law on national procedural rules. Yet, cumulatively, case law on procedural rights and obligations is a significant step forward for enhanced protection of fundamental rights which may lead to renewal of the Court’s approach towards the doctrine of national procedural autonomy.
Concern for protection of fundamental rights as a key rationale for further limitation of national procedural autonomy in EU migration law
The principle of national procedural autonomy has traditionally been subject to requirements resulting from the principles of equivalence and effectiveness, subsequently complemented by the principle of effective judicial protection currently enshrined in Article 47 of the Charter. It has been argued that analysis focused on the respect of Article 47 of the Charter had a vocation to replace the ‘traditional test’ of effectiveness. The present opinion does not provide much clarification on the blurred relationship between effectiveness and effective judicial protection. The principle of national procedural autonomy, effectiveness and the ‘procedural rule of reason test’ are the starting point of the AG’s examination of compatibility of national legislation with EU law. Yet, very quickly the focus shifts towards the assessment of the effects the said legislation may have on the protection of fundamental right to liberty and right to a judicial remedy. All in all, fundamental rights-based analysis trumps the ‘procedural rule of reason test’. Whereas Article 47 constitutes a natural benchmark for assessing the compatibility of national procedural rules with EU law, the extensive reliance on the fundamental right to liberty in the AG’s reasoning illustrates a new trend in the field.
At the very beginning of his Opinion, AG de la Tour underlined that the importance of the right to liberty and the essential role of judges in protection of the latter justify a certain distrust (‘une certaine méfiance’) towards national procedural rules limiting the powers of judges (§1). The reasoning of the AG conspicuously marked by the concern for protection of the fundamental right to liberty (see in particular §86 and following).
On many occasions the AG refers to Article 6 of the Charter and to the provisions of secondary law concerning the detention conditions. The intrinsic links between the effective access to judge and adequate protection against arbitrary detention underlie a more demanding approach towards national procedural rules. The prominent role of the right to remedy in the protection of fundamental right to liberty justified the creation of obligation for national judge to examine the respect of all detention conditions of his own motion.
The Opinion illustrates that the concern for protection of fundamental rights may significantly affect the process of drawing the boundaries of national procedural autonomy. Presumably, in the future, the Court will leave less margin of manoeuvre for the application of national procedural rules in situations where the protection of EU fundamental rights is at stake. Such a stricter approach towards national rules could have been observed in previous case law. In the aforementioned cases Mahdi and Országos, the extension of powers of national judges served primarily as a mean of protection of fundamental right to an effective remedy and right to liberty. In those two cases however, the Court relied mostly on the sources of secondary law, making only minor references to Article 6 of the Charter. By contrast, the latter provision, together with Article 47 of the Charter constituted the very basis of the AG’s analysis. The Opinion confirms that the limitation of constantly shrinking area of national procedural autonomy may result not solely from the large scope Article 47 of the Charter but also, the necessity to protect substantive fundamental rights such as the right to liberty.
Finally, it is worth noting that, as the Council of State accurately pointed out (§39), ex officio examination of the conditions of lawfulness of detention has not been so far imposed by the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’). Assuming that the Court will follow the solution proposed by the AG, the standard of protection of fundamental right to liberty and right to an effective remedy under EU legal framework will be arguably higher than the one guaranteed within the system of the European Convention of Human Rights. In this regard, the joined cases at hand have potential to become another example of judgement in which the CJEU did not hesitate to go further than the ECtHR in terms of protection of basic freedoms of migrants.
It will be interesting to observe whether the Grand Chamber’s judgement in C, B and X will be, alike the AG’s Opinion, centred around the concern for protection of fundamental rights and whether such an approach would result in a more thorough review of national procedural rules. Should the ECJ decide to impose a new duty to national judges, the judgement will confirm the tendency in recent case law on adjusting the application of national procedural rules for the sake of protecting the fundamental rights. Independently of the of the outcome of the judgement, the Opinion of AG de la Tour confirms that Article 47 of the Charter has already become as a powerful tool for boosting effective judicial protection, in particular in situations where it is relied upon for purposes of securing the respect of substantive fundamental rights.