AG Kokott recently delivered an Opinion in Cofidis II, a French case as well, on a very similar issue. In an action for the enforcement of a credit contract against two consumers, Cofidis had argued that the court could not address of its own motion a possible infringement of the requirements of the Consumer Credit Directive, because it had been raised by the court more than 5 years after the conclusion of the contract and thus, was time-barred. Kokott's Opinion also covers another case, from the Czech Republic, on the question whether the court could be prevented from imposing a 'penalty' - nullity of the credit contract - only if the consumer brought an objection within 3 years. Both cases therefore give rise to the question to what extent national courts must establish and penalise the trader's failure to comply with its obligations under the Consumer Credit Directive ex officio, irrespective of national rules on limitation periods.
Kokott's Opinion is interesting for three reasons. Firstly, she discusses the rationale of ex officio. Secondly, she looks at the (a)symmetry between consumers and traders in their possibilities to bring an action on the basis of long-term contracts, which impacts the (in)compatibility of limitation periods with the principle of effectiveness. And thirdly, she argues that a 'penalty' can be imposed ex officio as a means of defence in an action brought against consumers, which would still be within the subject-matter of the dispute - as long as the right to be heard is observed.
Rationale of ex officio
Kokott starts by referring to the difference between Radlinger and Bankia, also noticed and analysed by Candida Leone in a recent paper on the New Deal for Consumers. Bankia shows that not every obligation arising from EU directives in the field of consumer protection must be examined by national courts ex officio. While the Unfair Contract Terms Directive stipulates the legal consequence of the use of unfair terms - i.e., they are not binding - the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive leaves it to the Member States to establish the necessary means to combat such practices (point 38). The CJEU's case law on the UCTD cannot be automatically extended to the Brussels I regulation either; see Salvoni.
Kokott then continues with listing relevant factors that determine the need for ex officio examination. Firstly, both Czech and French law attach legal consequences to infringement of (the provisions transposing) the Consumer Credit Directive for the benefit of consumers (point 46). This suggests it does not matter that the Directive leaves it to the Member States to lay down penalties (points 44-45). Secondly, it follows from Radlinger that compliance with the Directive must be examined ex officio where necessary (point 48). In this respect, Kokott draws attention to the weak position of consumers in terms of knowledge and bargaining power, and the risk that they will not invoke protective norms due to a lack of awareness. Furthermore, the Directive aims to make creditors accountable and to prevent them from granting loans to consumers who are not creditworthy (point 51). In addition, "a systematic judicial review of compliance (...) contributes to ensuring a level playing field" (point 52; emphasis added).
Asymmetry between consumers and traders
Limitation periods as such are not necessarily incompatible with the principle of effectiveness. However, this is different where they lead to an asymmetry of the possibilities to bring an action, i.e. the trader/creditor can assert its payment claims for longer than the consumer-debtor can assert the invalidity of the contract (point 63). Again, like in the first Cofidis case, the trader may circumvent consumer protection by simply waiting for the time-limit to expire before bringing an action. Credit contracts for consumers typically entail long-term obligations, so limitation periods that begin to run when a contract is entered into are questionable (point 65) - especially when there is generally only cause to carry out an examination of compliance with the Directive in the event of default, likely after expiry of the limitation period of 3 or 5 years. Therefore, consumers are at risk of losing their rights without ever having been aware of them.
In Kokott's view, legal certainty does not require limitation periods that begin to run when a contract is entered into. The creditor itself has caused the risk that consumers claim their rights over relatively long periods of time by breaching its obligations under EU law (point 68).
Lastly, Kokott considers the 'penalty' for the creditor's breach of its obligations, which must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive (point 74). Kokott distinguishes supervisory penalties from 'sanctions' as an effective means to enforce the Directive's requirements, which also serves to protect the individual (point 82). Individual consumers are not specifically aided by general supervisory measures, but they are by e.g. the creditor's loss of entitlement to interest; see Home Credit Slovakia and LCL Le Crédit Lyonnais.
Kokott submits that, whereas national courts cannot apply of their own motion a penalty which amounts to a counterclaim, it can impose such a penalty ex officio "if this merely averts a form of order sought by the applicant" (points 83-84). This does not run counter to 'the principle of party disposition'. We might add that ex officio examination of an infringement clearly falls within the subject-matter of the proceedings if the action is based on (enforcement of) the contract. The step to ex officio imposition of a 'penalty' is not so big, in the light of the Directive's aim to protect consumers. Of course, the right to be heard as guaranteed by Article 47 EUCFR must be observed in this context.