Remember the judgment in C-453/00 Kühne & Heitz NV that we mentioned here ? The Court of Justice held in C-453/00 Kühne & Heitz NV that a national administrative body is, in accordance with the principle of cooperation arising from Article 10 EC, under an obligation to review a decision it has taken in order to consider the interpretation of a relevant provision of EC law given in the meantime by the Court. Such an obligation was made subject to the following four conditions:
- under national law, it has the power to reopen that decision;
- the administrative decision in question has become final as a result of a judgment of a national court ruling at final instance;
- that judgment is, in the light of a decision given by the Court subsequent to it, based on a misinterpretation of Community law which was adopted without a question being referred to the Court for a preliminary ruling under the third paragraph of Article 234 EC; and
- the person concerned complained to the administrative body immediately after becoming aware of that decision of the Court.
For brevity's sake, we won't get into the facts. Suffice it to say that Kempter, the claimant in the national proceedings, was ordered to repay some agricultural subsidies received. The point was litigated in the German courts and the claimant was finally ordered to repay them. After that, a judgment of the Court of Justice held that in a similar situation, the claimant was entitled in EC law to keep the subsidy. Kempter then sought to have the final decision ordering him to repay the subsidy reopened and reviewed based on the subsequent judgment of the Court of Justice.
Two questions came up in Case C-2/06 Willy Kempter AG. First, whether whether Kühne & Heitz requires an administrative decision that has become final by virtue of a judgment of a court of final instance to be reviewed and amended only if the claimant relied on Community law in the legal action under domestic law which he brought against that decision. And second whether EC law imposes a limit in time for making an application for review of a national administrative decision that has become final.
On the first issue, the Court replied that, in the context of a procedure before an administrative body for review of an administrative decision that became final by virtue of a judgment, delivered by a national court of final instance, which, in the light of a decision given by the Court of Justice subsequent to it, was based on a misinterpretation of EC law, EC law does not require the claimant to have relied on Community law in the legal action under domestic law which he brought against that decision.
The Court held that it is sufficient if either the point of EC law the interpretation of which proved to be incorrect in light of a subsequent judgment of the Court was considered by the national court ruling at final instance or it could have been raised by the latter of its own motion. While EC law does not require national courts to raise of their own motion a plea alleging infringement of EC provisions where examination of that plea would oblige them to go beyond the ambit of the dispute as defined by the parties, they are obliged to raise of their own motion points of law based on binding EC rules where, under national law, they must or may do so in relation to a binding rule of national law (Joined Cases C-430/93 and C-431/93 van Schijndel and van Veen, paragraphs 13, 14 and 22, and Case C-72/95 Kraaijeveld and Others, paragraphs 57, 58 and 60).
On the second issue, the Court of Justice held EC law does not impose any limit in time for making an application for review of an administrative decision that has become final. The member States nevertheless remain free to set reasonable time-limits for seeking remedies, in a manner consistent with the EC principles of effectiveness and equivalence.
The Court noted that in the absence of applicable EC rules it is for the domestic legal system of each member State to designate the courts and tribunals having jurisdiction and to lay down the detailed procedural rules governing actions for safeguarding rights which individuals derive from EC law, provided, first, that such rules are not less favorable than those governing similar domestic actions (principle of equivalence) and, secondly, that they do not render practically impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by Community law (principle of effectiveness) (Case C-432/05 Unibet, paragraph 43, and Joined Cases C-222/05 to C-225/05 vander Weerd and Others, paragraph 28 and the case-law cited).
The Court thus recognized that it is compatible with EC law to lay down reasonable time-limits for bringing proceedings in the interests of legal certainty (Case 33/76 Rewe-Zentralfinanz and Rewe-Zentral, paragraph 5; Case 45/76 Comet, paragraphs 17 and 18; Case 61/79 Denkavit italiana, paragraph 23; Case C-208/90 Emmott, paragraph 16; Case C-261/95 Palmisani, paragraph 28; Case C-90/94 Haahr Petroleum, paragraph 48; and Case C-255/00 Grundig Italiana, paragraph 34). Such time-limits are not liable to render practically impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by Community law (Case C-255/00 Grundig Italiana, paragraph 34).