LUXEMBOURG (CN) — A Polish professor can legally represent the University of Wrocław in a dispute over grant money despite teaching there, the European Union’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
The European Court of Justice’s rules of procedure don’t require lawyers to be totally separate from the parties they are representing, the Luxembourg-based court held.
In 2017, the European General Court, the lower court of the Court of Justice, rejected an application from the University of Wrocław to hear a dispute between the university and the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. The General Court found that the lawyer representing the university, who was also part of the university teaching staff, didn’t qualify as an independent legal adviser.
Governing statutes for the Court of Justice state, “Agents, advisers and lawyers shall, when they appear before the Court, enjoy the rights and immunities necessary to the independent exercise of their duties, under conditions laid down in the Rules of Procedure.”
The General Court concluded the lawyer was beholden by the teaching contract and thus wasn’t sufficiently independent.
The Polish university had received grant money from the Research Executive Agency, an EU organization that encourages research and innovation. Under the conditions of the grant, the researcher who received the funds was forbidden from receiving other income relating to this work.
When it was discovered the researcher was being paid by other sources, the Research Executive Agency revoked the arrangement and requested repayment of the funds. The university ultimately returned the 100,000 euro ($110,000) grant and paid a 5,800 euro ($6,400) fine.
The University of Wrocław, together with the Polish governor, then complained to the General Court that the termination of the grant was unfair and it wanted the grant money to be returned to the university. The court declined to take the case, citing the lack of an independent lawyer, a decision which Poland and the University of Wrocław appealed.
The Court of Justice sided with the university and its home country on Tuesday.
“The lawyer’s duty of independence is to be understood not as the lack of any connection whatsoever between the lawyer and his or her client, but the lack of connections which have a manifestly detrimental effect on his or her capacity to carry out the task of defending his or her client while acting in that client’s interests to the greatest possible extent,” the ruling states.
The requirement for independence pertains to lawyers who have a financial interest in the party they represent or have high-level administrative functions there, the court found. This is to ensure that the lawyer is acting in the best interest of their client, not in their own interest. The Court of Justice found that the employment contract for teaching didn’t prevent the professor from rigorously representing the university.
Tuesday’s ruling did not determine if the Research Executive Agency will have to return the grant money. The Court of Justice ordered the case to be returned to the General Court for consideration of that issue.