Centraal Justitieel Incassobureau (CJIB) (exécution des sanctions pécuniaires)
On 5 December 2019, the First Chamber of the Court of Justice delivered its judgment in case C-671/18, which concerns the interpretation of Framework Decision 2005/214/JHA on mutual recognition of financial penalties. On 9 November 2017, the Dutch Central Fine Collection Agency delivered a decision requiring Z.P. to pay a financial penalty in respect of a road traffic offence committed by the driver of a vehicle registered in Poland in his name. That decision was notified to Z.P. by placing it in his letterbox and he did not exercise his right to contest the decision in the following six weeks, so that the decision became final in December 2017. In May 2018, the Dutch agency, in accordance with Framework Decision 2005/214, lodged a request for recognition and execution of the decision at the District Court of Chełmno in Poland. The latter, which is the referring court, requires the Court to clarify some aspects of that Framework Decision. Z.P. claimed that the decision was incomprehensible to him and that on the date of the contested offence he had sold the vehicle in question, yet had failed to inform the authority responsible for the registration of the vehicle.
The Court of Justice deals with the questions referred by grouping them in two batches. First, the Court lingers over Article 7(2)(g) – which provides for a ground of refusal when the ‘person concerned […] was not, in accordance with the law of the issuing State, informed personally or via a representative […] of his right to contest the case and of time limits of such a legal remedy’ – and Article 20(3), which allows each Member State to oppose the recognition and the execution of decisions ‘where the certificate […] gives rise to an issue that fundamental rights or fundamental legal principles […] may have been infringed’. In particular, the referring court asks whether these two provisions must be interpreted as meaning that, where a decision requiring payment of a financial penalty has been notified in accordance with the national legislation of the issuing Member State indicating the right to contest the case and the time limits for such a remedy, the execution may be refused since it transpires that the person concerned has not had sufficient time to contest that decision. The related question is whether the fact that the decision to be recognised and enforced is administrative in nature has any effect on the obligations of the competent executing authorities.
After highlighting the objective of the Framework Decision and the fact that, as in any mutual recognition instrument, the grounds for refusal must be interpreted restrictively, the Court contends that – as is clear from the wording of Article 7(2)(g) – the EU legislator has ‘left it to the Member States to decide on the manner in which the person concerned is to be informed of his right to contest the case, of the period for such a legal remedy and of when that period begins, provided that the notification is effective and the exercise of the rights of the defence is guaranteed’ (para. 35). In the case at hand, Z.P. was duly notified of the decision of the Dutch competent agency and of the right to contest that decision in accordance with Dutch law and, as he was given a period of six weeks to appeal that decision, it cannot be argued that the principle of the effective judicial protection was violated. Furthermore, ‘nothing in the order for reference indicates that […] Z.P. did not have sufficient time to prepare his defence’ (para. 42). At any rate, the Court adds, it is for the referring court to verify whether the person was in fact provided with the decision and had sufficient time to prepare his defence. If this is the case, the request for recognition and execution shall be enforced. As for the nature of the decision imposing a fine, it is immaterial whether it was issued by a judicial or administrative authority since Article 1 of the Framework Decision does not limit the application of the principle of mutual recognition of financial penalties to decisions issued by judicial authorities.
Therefore, the Court answers to the first question as follows: ‘Article 7(2)(g) and Article 20(3) of the Framework Decision must be interpreted as meaning that where a decision requiring payment of a financial penalty has been notified in accordance with the national legislation of the issuing Member State, indicating the right to contest the case and the time limit for such a legal remedy, the authority of the Member State of execution may not refuse to recognise and execute that decision provided that the person concerned has had sufficient time to contest that decision, which is for the national court to verify, and the fact that the procedure imposing the financial penalty in question is administrative in nature is not relevant in that regard’ (para. 50).
The Court then moves on to the second question referred, with which in essence the referring court asks whether Article 20(3) of the Framework Decision must be interpreted as authorising the competent executing authority to refuse to recognise and execute a decision requiring payment of a financial penalty where such a penalty has been imposed on the person in whose name the vehicle in question is registered on the basis of a presumption of liability laid down in the national legislation of the issuing Member State. This may indeed jeopardise the right to presumption of innocence. Recalling a case of the ECtHR that concerned precisely the Dutch system of fines concerning road traffic offences (Falk v. the Netherlands), the Court notes that presumptions of fact or of law exist in every criminal law system and are not, as such, prohibited under the ECHR nor they violate the presumption of innocence as long as the persons who are fined on their basis can challenge the fine before a trial court. Furthermore, it is clear that Z.P. could have obtained the annulment of the fine, had he been able to prove that he was not the owner, or was not in possession, of the vehicle at the time of the offending conduct. Hence, the Court answers to the second question as follows: ‘Article 20(3) of the Framework Decision must be interpreted as meaning that the competent authority of the Member State of execution may not refuse to recognise and execute a decision requiring payment of a financial penalty in respect of road traffic offences where such a penalty has been imposed on the person in whose name the vehicle in question is registered on the basis of a presumption of liability laid down in the national legislation of the issuing Member State, provided that that presumption may be rebutted’ (para. 58).
Case Number C-671/18
Name of the parties Centraal Justitieel Incassobureau, Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie (CJIB) (exécution des sanctions pécuniaires)
Date of the judgement 2019-12-05
Court Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)