>> Case C-282/10, Maribel Dominguez

Court clarifies role of national courts when national provision conflicts with European Union law

>> This reference for a preliminary ruling concerned the interpretation of Art. 7 of the Working Time Directive (Directive 2003/88)

The national court asked, inter alia, whether Art. 7 of the Working Time Directive must be interpreted as meaning that in proceedings between individuals a national provision which made entitlement to paid annual left conditional on a minimum period of actual work during the reference period, which was contrary to Art. 7, must be disregarded.

The Court held that the question whether a national provision must be disapplied in as much as it conflicts with European Union law arose only if no compatible interpretation of that provision proves possible.

The Court reiterated that when national courts applied domestic law they were bound to interpret it, so far as possible, in the light of the wording and the purpose of the directive concerned in order to achieve the result sought by the directive and consequently complied with Art. 288(3) TFEU.

The Court held that this obligation to interpret national law in conformity with European Union law was inherent in the system of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, since it permitted national courts, for the matters within their jurisdiction, to ensure the full effectiveness of European Union law when they determined the disputes before them (see, inter alia, Joined Cases C-397/01 to C-403/01 Pfeiffer and Others (2004); Joined Cases C-378/07 to C-380/07 Angelidaki and Others (2009); and Case C-555/07 Kücükdeveci (2010)).

>> Interpreting in conformity with EU law

The Court admitted that this principle of interpreting national law in conformity with European Union law had certain limitations. Thus the obligation on a national court to refer to the content of a directive when interpreting and applying the relevant rules of domestic law was limited by general principles of law and it could not serve as the basis for an interpretation of national law contra legem (see Case C-268/06 Impact (2008).

In the dispute in the main proceedings, the national court stated that it had encountered such a limitation. According to that court, the first paragraph of Art. L. 223-2 of the Code du travail, which made entitlement to paid annual left conditional on a minimum of one month’s actual work during the reference period, was not amenable to an interpretation that was compatible with Art. 7 of Directive 2003/88.

The Court of Justice clarified that the principle that national law must be interpreted in conformity with European Union law also required national courts to do whatever lies within their jurisdiction, taking the whole body of domestic law into consideration and applying the interpretative methods recognised by domestic law, with a view to ensuring that the directive in question was fully effective and achieving an outcome consistedent with the objective pursued by it (see Case C-212/04 Adeneler and Others (2006)).

The Court pointed out that Article L. 223-4 of the Code du travail, which provided an exemption from the requirement of actual work during the reference period in respect of certain periods of absence from work, was an integral part of the domestic law to be taken into consideration by the French courts.

The Court held that if Art. L. 223-4 of the Code du travail were to be interpreted by the national court as meaning that a period of absence due to an accident on the journey to or from work must be treated as being equivalent to a period of absence due to an accident at work in order to give full effect to Art. 7 of Directive 2003/88, that court would not encounter the limitation as regards interpreting Art. L. 223-2 of the Code du travail in accordance with European Union law.

Art. 7 of Directive 2003/88 did not make any distinction between workers who were absent on sick left during the reference period and those who had actually worked in the course of that period. It followed that the right to paid annual left of a worker who was absent from work on health grounds during the reference period could not be made subject by a Member State to a condition concerning the obligation actually to have worked during that period. Thus, according to Art. 7 of Directive 2003/88, any worker, whether he be on sick left during the reference period as a result of an accident at his place of work or elsewhere, or as the result of sickness of whatever nature or origin, could not have his entitlement to at least four weeks” paid annual left affected.

The Court thus concluded that it was for the national court to determine, taking the whole body of domestic law into consideration and applying the interpretative methods recognised by domestic law with a view to ensuring that Directive 2003/88 was fully effective and achieving an outcome consistent with the objective pursued by it, whether it could found an interpretation of that law that allowed the absence of the worker due to an accident on the journey to or from work to be treated as being equivalent to one of the situations covered by that Article of the Code du travail.

>> Direct effect

In the event that such an interpretation was not possible, it was necessary to consider whether Art. 7(1) of Directive 2003/88 had a direct effect and, if so, whether Ms Dominguez might relied on that direct effect against the respondents in the main proceedings, in particular her employer, the CICOA, in view of their legal nature.

The Court reiterated that, whenever the provisions of a directive appear, so far as their subject-matter was concerned, to be unconditional and sufficiently precise, they might be relied upon before the national courts by individuals against the State where the latter had failed to implement the directive in domestic law by the end of the period prescribed or where it had failed to implement the directive correctly.

The Court held that Article 7 of Directive 2003/88 fulfils those criteria as it imposed on Member States, in unequivocal terms, a precise obligation as to the result to be achieved that was not coupled with any condition regarding application of the rule laid down by it, which gave every worker entitlement to at least four weeks” paid annual left.

According to the Court, even though Art. 7 of Directive 2003/88 left the Member States a degree of latitude when they adopted the conditions for entitlement to, and granting of, the paid annual left which it provided for, that did not alter the precise and unconditional nature of the obligation laid down in that Article.

Since Art. 7(1) of Directive 2003/88 fulfilled the conditions required to produce a direct effect, it should also be noted that the CICOA, one of the two respondents in the main proceedings and Ms Dominguez’s employer, was a body operating in the field of social security.

>> Horizontal direct effect

It was true that the Court had consistently held that a directive could not of itself impose obligations on an individual and could not therefore be relied on as such against an individual (see, inter alia, Case C-91/92 Faccini Dori (1994) ; Case C-192/94 El Corte Inglés (1996) ).

The Court however recalled that where a person was able to rely on a Directive as against an individual but as against the State he might do so regardless of the capacity in which the latter was acting, whether as employer or as public authority. In either case it was necessary to prevent the State from taking advantage of its own failure to comply with European Union law (see, inter alia, Case 152/84 Marshall (1986); Case C-188/89 Foster and Others (1990); and Case C-343/98 Collino and Chiappero (2000)).

The Court thus held that the entities against which the provisions of a directive that were capable of having direct effect might be relied upon included a body, whatever its legal form, which had been made responsible, pursuant to a measure adopted by the State, for providing a public service under the control of the State and had for that purpose special powers beyond those which result from the normal rules applicable in relations between individuals (see, inter alia, Case C-356/05 Farrell (2007)).

>> Liability

The Court concluded that even a clear, precise and unconditional provision of a directive seeking to confer rights or impose obligations on individuals could not of itself applied in proceedings exclusively between private parties. In such a situation, the party injured as a result of domestic law not being in conformity with European Union law could none the less relied on the judgment in Joined Cases C-6/90 and C-9/90 Francovich and Others (1991) in order to obtain, if appropriate, compensation for the loss sustained.

Text of Judgment