Out-Law News 3 min. read

Irish trial put on hold until EU courts resolve data protection appeal

The High Court in Ireland has given guidance on when it will be appropriate for so-called modular trials to proceed before it in cases where related proceedings are ongoing before the EU courts.

A modular trial is where issues to be determined in a trial before the court are heard and determined at different stages from one another, rather than in a single process.

The High Court was considering whether a modular trial should take place in a dispute between Meta Platforms Ireland Ltd (Meta) and the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC). It ruled that it should not. Instead, the court decided that court proceedings in Ireland in the case should be put on hold until a related matter is resolved by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).

The dispute at the centre of the case is multi-faceted. The Irish proceedings anticipated revolve around a statutory appeal Meta has raised against the DPC over enforcement action taken against the company under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in respect of its WhatsApp service in 2022. Meta has also instituted parallel judicial review proceedings challenging the constitutional validity of the Irish Data Protection Act 2018. The CJEU proceedings concern a legal challenge WhatsApp Ireland Ltd, a subsidiary of Meta, has raised in respect of a binding decision by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) in the enforcement action.

The CJEU proceedings have the potential to lead to an important interpretation of the GDPR concerning the lawful imposition of administrative fines.

In relation to the Irish proceedings, both Meta and the DPC were agreed that some aspects of the case before the High Court would need to be deferred until after the CJEU issues its ruling in the sister proceedings. However, they disagreed over whether some aspects of the case should proceed to be considered by the High Court notwithstanding the ongoing CJEU proceedings.

Specifically, the DPC wanted the issues which are not directly affected by the outcome of the EU proceedings to be considered by the High Court in the interim, arguing that the High Court was obliged under EU law to determine the domestic proceedings expeditiously and that this is best achieved by a modular trial. Meta disagreed, however, arguing that the High Court should adjourn the Irish proceedings until there is an outcome from the CJEU proceedings.

The High Court considered that there should be an adjournment in the Irish proceedings.

According to Orla Hubbard of Pinsent Masons in Dublin, in reaching its decision in this case, the High Court set out the criteria to be considered in determining whether to direct a modular trial. The court stated that modularisation will not be directed unless the court is satisfied that the issues which it is sought to separate out can properly be heard and decided in isolation – and it highlighted that this must be the principal determinant of whether or not to direct a modular trial. If the separation out of the issues would cause prejudice to one of the parties, then modularisation would have to be refused, the court found.

Applying those principles to this case, the High Court highlighted the risk that it could interpret the GDPR in a way that is subsequently at odds with EU case law if the CJEU takes an alternative view on the point in the sister proceedings. It also reflected on the facts that adjournment would not, in this case, give any faster legal effect to the outstanding matters arising from the DPC’s enforcement action – since the remaining actions Meta is to take concern matters both parties agree are subject to the outcome in the sister case before the CJEU.

The High Court further considered that the issues in the domestic proceedings cannot sensibly be separated out as they are inextricably bound together, and it further considered the likelihood that the CJEU will issue its ruling in the sister proceedings in a relatively short period of time. It also considered that a modular trial runs the risk of prolonging the proceedings because of the potential for fragmented appeals to the Court of Appeal and/or preliminary references to the CJEU.

“This decision also shows that the Irish courts will take a pragmatic approach in managing cases involving issues of interpretation of the GDPR and decisions of the DPC, in order to avoid messy and splintered appeals,” Hubbard said.

“The decision also helpfully sets out criteria which a court may use in determining whether it is appropriate to direct a modular trial,” she added.

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