CJEU - C-205/15 / Judgment Toma and Biroul Executorului Judecătoresc Horațiu-Vasile Cruduleci

Key facts of the case:

Reference for a preliminary ruling — Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union — Article 47 — Right of access to a court — Principle of equality of arms — Principles of equivalence and effectiveness — Proceedings for the enforcement of a judicial decision ordering the repayment of a tax levied in breach of EU law — Exemption of public authorities from certain legal costs — Jurisdiction of the Court

Results (sanctions) and key consequences of the case:

...the Court (Second Chamber) rules as follows:

Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the principles of equivalence and effectiveness must be interpreted as not precluding legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings which exempts legal persons governed by public law from judicial stamping fees when they lodge an objection to the enforcement of a judicial decision relating to the repayment of taxes levied in breach of EU law and exempts those persons from the obligation to lodge a security at the time of bringing an application for a stay of such enforcement proceedings, while the applications submitted by legal and natural persons governed by private law in the context of such procedures remain, in principle, subject to court costs.

Paragraphs referring to EU Charter: 
  1. However, the scope of the Charter, in so far as the action of the Member States is concerned, is defined in Article 51(1) thereof, according to which the provisions of the Charter are addressed to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law. That provision confirms the Court’s settled case-law, which states that the fundamental rights guaranteed in the legal order of the European Union are applicable in all situations governed by EU law, but not outside such situations (judgments of 27 March 2014 in Torralbo Marcos, C‑265/13, EU:C:2014:187, paragraphs 28 and 29, and 6 October 2015 in Delvigne, C‑650/13, EU:C:2015:648, paragraphs 25 and 26).
  2. Thus, where a legal situation does not come within the scope of EU law, the Court does not have jurisdiction to rule on it and any provisions of the Charter relied upon cannot, of themselves, form the basis for such jurisdiction (see judgments of 26 February 2013 in Åkerberg Fransson, C‑617/10, EU:C:2013:105, paragraph 22; 27 March 2014 in Torralbo Marcos, C‑265/13, EU:C:2014:187, paragraph 30 and the case-law cited; and 6 October 2015 in Delvigne, C‑650/13, EU:C:2015:648, paragraph 27).
  1. The Court has already stated that Article 47 of the Charter includes, as a component of the principle of effective judicial protection, the principle of equality of arms or procedural equality (see, to that effect, judgment of 17 July 2014 in Sánchez Morcillo and Abril García, C‑169/14, EU:C:2014:2099, paragraph 48). Since the latter principle constitutes a specific expression of the general principle of equality before the law found in Article 20 of the Charter, it is appropriate to examine the questions of the referring court set out in paragraph 31 of the present judgment from, in particular, the perspective of Article 47.
  2. Concerning Article 21 of the Charter, it should be observed that the referring court does not state the reasons which led it to raise the question of the interpretation of that provision separately from that of Article 20 of the Charter or the link which it establishes between Article 21 and the national legislation applicable to the dispute in the main proceedings, and thus does not explain why it has doubts as to the compatibility of legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings with Article 21 of the Charter.
  3. In the light of those preliminary considerations, the question referred must be understood as meaning that the referring court is essentially asking whether Article 47 of the Charter and the principles of equivalence and effectiveness must be interpreted as precluding legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings which exempts legal persons governed by public law from judicial stamping fees when they lodge an objection to the enforcement of a judicial decision relating to the repayment of taxes levied in breach of EU law and exempts those persons from the obligation to lodge the security provided for at the time of the bringing of the application for a stay of such enforcement proceedings, while the applications submitted by legal and natural persons governed by private law in the context of such procedures remain, in principle, subject to court costs.
  4. Given that the question referred for a preliminary ruling falls within the context, inter alia, of effective judicial protection, in so far as it concerns national legislation laying down exemptions from certain court costs in favour of certain categories of persons, it is necessary to examine, in the first place, the compatibility of legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings with Article 47 of the Charter, which enshrines the right to such protection (see, to that effect, judgment of 22 December 2010 in DEB, C‑279/09, EU:C:2010:811, paragraph 29).
  5. In that connection, according to the explanations relating to Article 47 of the Charter, which, in accordance with the third subparagraph of Article 6(1) TEU and Article 52(7) of the Charter, have to be taken into consideration for the interpretation of the Charter, the first and second paragraphs of Article 47 of the Charter correspond to Article 6(1) and Article 13 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms signed in Rome on 4 November 1950 (‘the ECHR’).
  6. Article 52(3) of the Charter states that, in so far as it contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the ECHR, the meaning and scope of those rights is to be the same as those laid down by that convention. According to the explanations relating to that provision, the meaning and scope of the guaranteed rights are determined not only by the text of the ECHR, but also, in particular, by the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, in the light of which Article 47 of the Charter should therefore be interpreted (see, to that effect, judgment of 22 December 2010 in DEB, C‑279/09, EU:C:2010:811, paragraphs 35 and 37 and the case-law cited).
  7. So far as concerns the content of Article 47, the Court has already held that the principle of effective judicial protection laid down in that provision comprises various elements: in particular, the principle of equality of arms and the right of access to a court (see, to that effect, judgment of 6 November 2012 in Otis and Others, C‑199/11, EU:C:2012:684, paragraph 48).
  1. That being the case, it is necessary to examine whether legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, which creates, according to the referring court, an imbalance between legal persons governed by public law and legal and natural persons governed by private law in a procedure such as that at issue in the main proceedings, but does not disproportionately hinder those latter persons’ access to courts, satisfies the requirements stemming from Article 47 of the Charter.
  2. In that regard, it should be observed that the principle of equality of arms is a corollary of the very concept of a fair hearing, which implies that each party must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to present his case under conditions that do not place him at a substantial disadvantage vis-à-vis his opponent, the harm caused by that imbalance having as a general rule to be proved by the person who suffered it (see, to that effect, judgments of 6 November 2012 in Otis and Others, C‑199/11, EU:C:2012:684, paragraphs 71 and 72, and 17 July 2014 in Sánchez Morcillo and Abril García, C‑169/14, EU:C:2014:2099, paragraph 49).
  1. Therefore, it must be held that legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, in so far as it merely exempts, a priori, legal persons governed by public law from the payment of certain court costs in procedures relating to the enforcement of judicial decisions concerning the repayment of taxes levied in breach of EU law, while subjecting, in principle, the applications submitted by natural and legal persons governed by private law in such procedures to the payment of those costs, does not place those persons in a clearly less advantageous position compared with their opponents and therefore does not call into question the fairness of that procedure.
  2. Such an interpretation of Article 47 of the Charter is supported by the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights relating to Article 6(1) of the ECHR. Legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings must be distinguished from legislation considered by the European Court of Human Rights to be incompatible with the requirements of Article 6(1) of the ECHR in the case which gave rise to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 6 April 2006 in Stankiewicz v. Poland (CE:ECHR:2006:0406JUD004691799).
  1. The same applies in relation to the principle of effectiveness where national legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, in so far as it does not exempt individuals who derive their rights from the EU legal order from costs such as those at issue in the main proceedings, in enforcement proceedings relating to public revenues, does not seem to make, by itself, the exercise of those rights impossible in practice or excessively difficult.
  2. It follows from all the foregoing that Article 47 of the Charter and the principles of equivalence and effectiveness must be interpreted as not precluding legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings which exempts legal persons governed by public law from judicial stamping fees when they lodge an objection to the enforcement of a judicial decision relating to the repayment of taxes levied in breach of EU law and exempts those persons from the obligation to lodge a security at the time of bringing an application for a stay of such enforcement proceedings, while the applications submitted by legal and natural persons governed by private law in the context of such procedures remain, in principle, subject to court costs.