(CN) – An Irish court should be allowed to protect one of its citizens from a judgment abroad of which the man did not receive prior notice, a magistrate with Europe’s highest court determined Thursday.
The case before the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice stems from a work assignment that landed Galway-born Eammonn Donnellan behind bars abroad.
In July 2002, Donnellan had traveled to Greece on orders from his employer, TLT International in County Westmeath, to collect 23 pallets of olive oil.
As the 23-year-old was making his way back to Ireland, however, Greek customs authorities inspected his lorry and discovered numerous undeclared packages of cigarettes hidden among the olive oil pallets.
Donnellan was convicted two days later of smuggling, but an appeals court in Patras quashed the conviction in October and ordered Donnellan’s immediate release.
The Greek customs office meanwhile imposed a fine of $1.2 million on Donnellan six and a half years later for the smuggling offense.
Thursday’s ruling notes that the Greek embassy in Ireland made a perfunctory attempt to notify Donnellan of the fine: sending an “invitation” by registered post that only used Donnellan’s name and his town in the address field.
Though the letter invited Donnellan to inspect documents from the Greek Ministry of Finance, it did not say that these documents concerned a fine.
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.
Lacking any proof about whether it ever notified Donnellan of the fine, the Greek government has pointed only to its publication of a July 15, 2009, notice in the Official Journal of Greece.
Donnellan meanwhile calls it undisputed that he was never notified of the claim until Nov. 14, 2012, when the Irish Revenue Commissioners sent him a letter about recovering the fine, now at $1.85 million.
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 closed in October 2009.
In 2014, Donnellan turned to the High Court of Ireland to fight the fine. This court meanwhile invited the European Court of Justice to weigh in on whether a European directive on mutual assistance for the recovery of claims prevents it from determining whether Donnellan was treated fairly.
Advocate General Evgeni Tanchev recommended advancement Thursday of Donnellan’s case in Ireland.
Tanchev noted that the dearth of information Greece provided Donnellan “was exacerbated by the acute lapse of time between the facts giving rise the disputed claim, which occurred in July 2002, and notification by the applicant authority of the 2009 assessment act, in English, in November of 2013.”
“Put simply, these factors combined meant that the plaintiff was not able to identify the subject matter of the claim and the cause of action against him,” the ruling states.
Tanchev added that Donnellan “cannot be criticized for entering into correspondence with the requested authority, by recourse to Irish solicitors, between 28 November 2012 and 14 May 2014, with a view to finding out more.”
“Nor can the plaintiff be criticized for securing legal advice from a Greek lawyer on 19 November 2015 to find out whether or not any challenge to the 2009 Assessment act was out of time under Greek law,” the ruling also says. “Moreover, the advice of 19 November 2015 created a justified apprehension, or misapprehension, that the time limit for challenging the 2009 Assessment act had expired.”
Tanchev’s opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice, which will take the recommendation into consideration as it begins deliberations on the case.