(CN) – Ireland received the blessing of the European Court of Justice on Thursday to ignore Greece’s demand for help collecting a fine of $1.2 million from a Galway man.
Echoing the advice of its advocate general last month, the Luxembourg-based court’s Second Chamber determined that Ireland’s public policy about the right to an effective judicial remedy trumps the principle of mutual trust between EU member states.
In the underlying case, Eammonn Donnellan did not learn that Greece sought to collect money off him until a full decade after he had trouble with authorities there.
Donnellan was 23 in 2002 when his employer at the time, TLT International in County Westmeath, instructed him to go to Greece to collect 23 pallets of olive oil.
During an inspection of Donnellan’s lorry at the Port of Patras, however, Greek customs authorities discovered 171,800 packages of contraband cigarettes hidden among the olive oil pallets.
Donnellan was convicted two days later of smuggling and spent three months in prison before he was acquitted on appeal. Six and a half years later meanwhile, the Greek customs office determined that Donnellan should pay a $1.2 million fine for the smuggling offense.
In addition to publishing the fine in the Official Journal of the Hellenic Republic, the Greek embassy attempted to send Donnellan a letter in Ireland. Though the letter was sent by registered mail, it used only his town, Ballyhaunis, in the address field.
The letter also made no mention of a fine; it merely invited Donnellan to inspect and sign important documents that concerned him at the Greek Ministry of Finance.
Donnellan claims he never received said invitation, meanwhile, and even Greece’s records note that the attempted of service this assessment by the embassy was unsuccessful.
Another three years passed before Greece reached out to the Irish Revenue Commissioners, which in turn sent Donnellan a letter about recovering the fine, now at $1.85 million. Still it was not until 2013 that Donnellan received and confirmed reception of the 2009 assessment and a translation of it into English.
Because Greece considered that the journal publication amounted to service in July 2009, the government there contended that Donnellan’s window to appeal the fine had closed in October 2009.
Donnellan turned to the High Court of Ireland to fight the fine. Though the court was inclined to rule for Donnellan, it sought input from the European Court of Justice about whether such a ruling would conflict with EU law.
The court ruled Thursday that Ireland need not help Greece in this matter.
“It follows from the foregoing that an exceptional situation such as that at issue in the main proceedings in the present case, in which an authority of a Member State requests an authority of another Member State to recover a claim relating to a fine of which the person concerned was unaware, may legitimately lead to a refusal of assistance with the recovery by that latter authority,” the ruling states. “The assistance provided for in Directive 2010/24 is, as is indicated by the title and various recitals of that directive, described as ‘mutual’, which implies, in particular, that it is for the applicant authority to create, before it makes a request for recovery, the conditions under which the requested authority will be able to grant its assistance in a meaningful manner and in conformity with the fundamental principles of EU law.”
Ireland is perfectly within its rights, the ruling continues, to “refus[e] to enforce a request for recovery concerning a claim relating to a fine imposed in another member state, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, on the ground that the decision imposing that fine was not properly notified to the person concerned before the request for recovery was made to that authority pursuant to that directive.”