Top EU Court Offers Reminder That Cash Is King

Two German men were fined for late payment of their public broadcaster fee after being told they could not pay in cash.

The Klappergasse in Frankfurt’s pub district of Alt-Sachsenhausen is deserted in Frankfurt, Germany, on Nov. 2, 2020. (Arne Dedert/dpa via AP)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — EU public authorities must accept cash as payment but can refuse coins and notes for reasons of public interest, the union’s high court ruled on Tuesday. 

The Court of Justice of the European Union announced the decision in a case where two men were denied the opportunity to pay a German public broadcaster in cash and then fined for late payment.

“The limitations on payments in notes and coins denominated in euro may, in practice, be justified just as much on grounds of public policy relating to security or the fight against crime as by the public interest in ensuring the efficient organization of payments in society,” the Luxembourg-based court wrote. 

German households are required to pay a monthly fee to their public broadcasting corporation for services. In 2015, Johannes Dietrich and Norbert Häring attempted to pay the official broadcaster for the state of Hesse in cash. Hessischer Rundfunk refused to accept the payment, instead demanding they pay by a bank transfer. 

Both men refused and were each fined 60.50 euros ($71) in late-payment charges. They challenged the fine, arguing there is an “unconditional and unrestricted obligation to accept euro banknotes” on commercial entities in the 27-member political and economic union. 

“Every debtor is guaranteed to have the possibility, as a general rule, of discharging a payment obligation in cash,” the court held. But, it continued, that doesn’t oblige cash to be accepted under every circumstance.

“It is indeed in the public interest that monetary debts to public authorities may be honored in a way that does not involve those authorities in unreasonable expense which would prevent them from providing services cost-effectively,” the Luxembourg-based court wrote. 

Hessischer Rundfunk told the court that it has around 46 million license fee payers in Germany and requiring a cashless payment is “intended to ensure the effective recovery of the license fee and to avoid substantial additional costs.”

Introduced in 1999, the euro is the official currency of the so-called eurozone, which is made up of 19 countries as well as all EU institutions and a number of other countries with close ties to the EU, such as Vatican City. 

Tuesday’s decision followed a nonbinding opinion by a court magistrate last year that said, while the euro is the sole legal tender for members of the eurozone, countries can legislate how euros are used.

The 15-judge panel left it to the German court to determine if the state-owned enterprise, in this case, had a justifiable reason for its refusal. 

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