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Direct effect compatibility, and the obligation owed by Member States to transpose Directives and Treaties as binding upon national laws, was a ruling that would soon unearth conflicts of interest. On this occasion, the contention was brought about by aggressive amendment to statute in favour of the UK fishing industry.
Until 1988, those parties involved in domestic commercial fishing were required to register under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894; an Act that allowed overseas companies to operate outside British waters, but still have their fleets registered under UK incorporation. As a means of preventing ‘quota hopping’ (over-fishing), it was enacted by Parliament to include Part II of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and Merchant Shipping (Registration of Fishing Vessels) Regulations 1988, to the effect that all those trading were to re-register under new conditions.
These terms required that in order to qualify for registration, the company must have a minimum of seventy-five percent British ownership, and where ownership fell outside the United Kingdom, there needed to be a seventy-five percent share hold by British citizens. This translated that the appellants, who had been previously registered for over almost twenty years, were now unable to re-register, as the owners were Spanish and therefore exempt from the new legislation.
Having appreciated the United Kingdom’s position as a Member State, and subsequent membership to EU Community law, the firm sought proceedings under the principle that the choice taken to exclude other EU members from registration had displayed an overt refusal to comply with art.177 of the EEC Treaty. Furthermore, it was claimed that where Community rights were held to have ‘direct effect’, it was the onus of the national courts to suspend challenged legislation, with the granting of interim relief where proven necessary.
When heard in the Divisional Courts, the claim was supported and provisions made to allow the unfettered trading of the claimants, until such time that clarification was found in the challenge against the amended Act. However, when appealed by the Secretary of State, Court of Appeal Court set aside the previous finding, while granting leave of appeal to the House of Lords.
In this instance, the House agreed that should the claimants’ fail in their argument, the financial damage would be sufficient enough to cause irretrievable damage to the firm, but that without a preliminary ruling by the European Court of Justice (COJ), it was impossible to determine (i) if the courts were empowered to suspend legislative effect, and (ii) how best to determine what form the interim relief should take.
Upon deliberate consideration by the COJ, it was unanimously agreed that when the objectives of direct effect were designed, they were done so in a way that intended literal application with immediate purpose, and that unless under exceptional circumstances, it was the duty of the national courts to hold the powers of Community law above those of domestic interest, and that when matters required it, they were to construe that any relevance for interim relief would by extension, be both applied and agreed by the Member States themselves.