The High Court has refused recognition / enforcement of a Belgian judgment where the proceedings were validly served under Belgian law but did not come to the attention of the defendants before judgment was entered: Reeve & Others v Plummer  EWHC 4695.
Where it is proving difficult to serve proceedings on a defendant, it may be tempting to seek an order for alternative service or deemed service from the court. While this may solve the immediate problem for the claimant, it can cause delays at the enforcement stage, particularly where the proceedings are undefended and enforcement is required in another country. In those circumstances, the court is likely to consider whether the defendant had a proper opportunity to defend the proceedings.
In the EU context, the court can refuse recognition and enforcement of a judgment in default if the defendant was not served with the proceedings in sufficient time and in such a way as to enable him to arrange for his defence (unless the defendant failed to commence proceedings to challenge the judgment when it was possible for him to do so) (Brussels I Regulation, Article 34(2) or Recast Brussels Regulation, Article 45(1)(b)).
In Reeve, the High Court held that whether a defendant has been able to arrange for his defence is a question of substance, not form, so it is not enough to show that the method of service is in accordance with local law. Careful consideration therefore needs to be given to the manner of service in order to prevent problems arising on enforcement.
In Reeve, following unsuccessful attempts to serve the three defendants with Belgian proceedings, deemed service was effected on the Belgian public prosecutor. This was good service under Belgian law but it was common ground that the proceedings had not come to the actual attention of the three defendants. They therefore did not attend the hearing and judgment was entered against them.
The claimant sought to have the judgment recognised in England pursuant to the Brussels I Regulation. The defendants challenged recognition on the basis that they had not been served with the proceedings in such a way as to enable them to arrange for their defence.
The High Court (Simler J) held that none of the defendants had had an opportunity to arrange for their defence within the meaning of article 34(2).
However, two of the defendants could not rely on article 34(2) as they had failed to take steps to challenge the judgment in Belgium after they had been served with the default judgment. Their attempt to challenge recognition therefore failed.
The decision acts as a reminder that, in considering how to serve proceedings, claimants must keep in mind the natural justice requirements found in many enforcement regimes, including the Brussels Regulation regime.