Monday, 21 November 2016

Addressing financial innovation: the launch of a New Task Force on Financial Technology

Last week the Commission has launched a Task Force on Financial Technology focusing on the FinTech sector (see the press release here). FinTeach refers to new applications, processes, products or business models in the financial services industry such as peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding. The new Task Force brings together the expertise of the Commission staff in several areas including competition and consumer protection, financial and digital services and digital innovation and security. It will assess the state of the sector in the EU and develop strategies for addressing the potential challenges that this sector poses, in line with the Commission's goal to develop a comprehensive strategy on FinTech. The work of this Task Force is potentially very important for protecting consumers of financial services, given that FinTech challenges the 'traditional' consumer protection rules, including for example the definitions of a consumer and a creditor. The task force will engage with stakeholders and present policy recommendations in the first half of 2017. We will be anxiously waiting for this report.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

AG Szpunar: after-sales helplines should be available at the cost of standard calls

Case C-568/15 Zentrale zur Bekämpfung unlauteren Wettbewerbs Frankfurt am Main is a sign that one of the most recent EU legal acts in the field of consumer protection - the Consumer Rights Directive 2011/83/EU (CRD) - is gradually making its way before the Court of Justice. The opinion of Advocate-General Szpunar, delivered on 10 November, has just been published in multiple language versions. Full text of the opinion can be found here

The case concerns the concept of ‘basic rate’ contained in the Consumer Rights Directive. Article 21 CRD obliges Member States to ensure that “where the trader operates a telephone line for the purpose of contacting him by telephone in relation to the contract concluded, the consumer, when contacting the trader is not bound to pay more than the basic rate”. The directive leaves it open, however, which of the following factors is decisive for the application of Article 21: 
  • the charges, which consumers incur when contacting the trader by telephone, i.e. charges should not exceed a certain threshold, in particular the costs of a standard call at normal market prices, or 
  • the profit, which the provision of non-geographic telephone lines generates, i.e. traders should not make profit through the telephone helpline and the overall cost of such calls is irrelevant.
Note that Article 21 only refers to the provision of after-sales telephone lines. A distinction should therefore be made between communication means used for the conclusion of the contract, where the trader is only required to inform the consumer about the costs higher than the basic rate – Article 6(1)(f), and telephone lines used after the contract is concluded, which are of direct relevance to the case at hand. 

Facts of the case 

The defendant, a German company, provided consumers with an after-sales-service telephone line available at a special (non-geographic) number containing the prefix 0180, which is used in Germany for support-oriented services at a single national rate. This rate, however, exceeded the normal market charges for standard calls, i.e. the costs which consumers typically incur, according to their contracts with telecommunications service providers, when they call a standard (geographic) fixed or mobile number. Zentrale zur Bekämpfung unlauteren Wettbewerbs, a consumer association, questioned the legality of this practice and brought an action for an injunction before the German court. The defendant maintained that the German legislation does not prohibit traders from providing helplines at a cost exceeding the cost of standard calls, provided that it is the telecommunications service provider and not the trader who profits from this practice. Literally speaking, such an interpretation was supported by the wording of Paragraph 312a of the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (German Civil Code, BGB), according to which consumers should not pay for anything else than for the mere use of the telecommunications service. BGB does not specify the type of the telecommunications service, though. Following this interpretation, the fact that consumers calling an after-sales telephone line have to pay more to telecom operators, has no bearing on the assessment of the trader's practice. 

AG’s opinion 

AG Szpunar did not share the argument of the defentant and proposed a pro-consumer interpretation of Article 21 CRD. According to the Advocate-General, consumers calling the after-sales telephone line of the trader must not incur charges higher than the normal costs which they would incur for calling a standard (geographic) fixed or mobile number. Who ultimately receives the remuneration payable by the consumer is legally irrelevant. But how did the AG arrive at this conclusion?

Having established that the literal and comparative interpretation of the term ‘basic rate’ does not provide necessary clarification, the Advocate-General turned to the schematic, teleological and historical reasoning. 

Schematic interpretation: Article 6(1)(f) and Article 21 

An essential part of the Advocate-General's analysis referred to the general scheme, purpose and regulatory context of the directive, and in particular the relationship between Article 6(1)(f) and Article 21 CRD. AG Szpunar noted that pursuant to Article 6(1)(f), interpreted a contrario, the trader is not required to inform consumer about the costs of the means of direct communication unless they exceed the basic rate. He further agreed with the observation of the European Commission that if the charges incurred by consumers were irrelevant to the interpretation of the concept ‘basic rate’, consumers would also be unable to estimate the costs arising from the use of the telecommunications service at a pre-contractual stage. Such an interpretation of Article 6(1)(f) would clearly undermine the rationale of this provision. In the context of Article 6(1)(f) the term 'basic rate' should therefore be understood as the costs of a normal standard (geographic) fixed or mobile telephone call. According to the AG, for reasons of systemic coherence as well as further arguments stated below, the same should apply to the interpretation of Article 21. 

Teleological interpretation: full harmonisation and a high level of consumer protection 

Having pointed to the full harmonisation approach adopted the CRD, along with its aim to achieve a high level of consumer protection, AG Szpunar turned his attention to the teleological analysis of Article 21. He noted that the existance of special telephone lines, with call rates higher than normal market rates, may prompt consumers to avoid telephone contact with the trader for fear of incurring excessive costs. This, in turn, could discourage consumers not only from discussing the details of their purchase, but also from asserting their contractual rights or seeking legal remedies. Article 21 CRD would thus lose its effectiveness if the protection of the consumer from premium call rates depended on whether or not the trader receives part of the charges paid. 

Legislative history 

Advocate-General also paid some attention to the historical evolution of the interpreted provision. He referred to the amendments proposed by the European Parliament and, assertedly, accepted by co-legislators as well as to the DG Justice Guidance Document. Based on this analysis, the AG concluded that the aim of EU legislature was to protect consumers from additional or excessive communication costs. An interpretation to the effect that the concept of ‘basic rate’ covers all costs of the telecommunications service, irrespective of the amount of these costs, would contradict these objectives. 

Final remark 

Attention of the reader should finally be drawn to the following statement in the AG's opinion: "it is clear from the general scheme of the directive that there is an irrebuttable presumption that the telephone assistance service is included in the parties’ expectations and therefore in the price already paid by the consumer. The use of a premium rate number would amount to making the consumer pay additional costs for the same service" (para 37). This argument appears rather tenuous. Reference to the price already paid by the consumer implies the internalisation of costs by the trader and could, in fact, support the contested German interpretation, according to which the (lack of) profit made by trader remains of relevance to the assessment. Overall, however, the pro-consumer interpretation of Article 21 CRD presented by Advocate-General Szpunar is well justified on other grounds and as such should be welcomed. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Complex pricing in TV and other adverts - CJEU in Canal Digital Danmark (C-611/14)

Clearing up our backlog, on 26 October 2016 the CJEU issued a judgement on the interpretation of Art. 6 and 7 of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive in the case Canal Digital Danmark (C-611/14).

Canal Digital provides television services to consumers in Denmark, offering them various TV packages. In many of its advertisements in 2009 promoting various TV subscriptions it could have confused consumers as to the real price for its services, considering that it separately showed the monthly price (made more visible by e.g. the use of a bigger font) and the additional six-month 'card service' charge and the full commitment period price (for one year). The last two prices were showed in smaller font, often in white against a light background, at the bottom of the advert, with consumer attention likely being drawn to the monthly price.

Misleading omission and disclosure medium 
The CJEU refers to the requirements of Art. 7(1) and (3) of the UCPD to determine whether a particular information should have been provided to consumers in order not to mislead them. It is, therefore, necessary to consider what method of communication has been used to convey information to consumers, as it could have placed limitations of time and space.  If this is the case, it is necessary to consider whether and what other means trader has used to convey material information to consumers. (par. 35) Art. 7(4) UCPD contains an exhaustive list of material information that has to be provided to consumers when inviting them to purchase, but even if all this information is provided, this does not exclude that this invitation to purchase would be considered as a misleading commercial practices either under art. 6(1) or art. 7(2) UCPD. (par. 71) It seems that the Court suggests that e.g. despite the price being a material information that needs to be provided, it could still be given to consumers in a misleading way if e.g. an important element of this price would not be mentioned or would be confusingly or in an unclear way mentioned, as in this particular case.
In case of TV adverts, consumers  cannot demand the same level of detail as with some other advertisements, and are also given a limited time to assess this information. (par. 60) If not all material information could be provided, commercial information could mention only some of it and the rest could be placed on the website. It is for the national court to ascertain what measures has the trader taken to provide material information to consumers, but it could be considered a misleading omission if the trader splits the price into two elements and only makes one of them visible in marketing materials, if this causes consumers to take transactional decisions, they would not have otherwise taken (par. 64).

Misleading pricing
Could it be consider misleading if the trader chooses a pricing strategy for a subscription that splits the charge into a monthly and six-monthly components, with only the monthly charge being highlighted in marketing, and the six-monthly charge either omitted or inconspicuously presented? Yes, as this would be likely to give average consumers false impression of a favourable price, contributing to consumers taking transactional decisions they otherwise would not have taken, which is for the national court to ascertain (but the CJEU suggests a positive answer to this test referring to the price as a determining factor in the mind of an average consumer - par. 46; esp. if the omitted price component was a significant part of the price - par. 47). The CJEU mentions that offers of TV service providers are often highly structured, both in terms of cost and content - "resulting in a significant asymmetry of information that is likely to confuse consumers." (par.41) Interestingly, for the test of misleading action, contrary to misleading omission, there is no exception made in the UCPD based on the advertisement being made through a limited as to time or space communication medium (par. 42).

If it talks like a seller... - CJEU in Wathelet (C-149/15)

Last week the CJEU also issued a judgement in the Wathelet case (C-149/15) concerning interpretation of the Consumer Sales Directive (CSD) with regard to a sale of a second-hand vehicle in Belgium.

Ms Wathelet has purchased a second-hand vehicle for 4.000 Euro as a consumer from a professional garage and did not obtain any receipt, proof of payment or a sales invoice for this purchase. The garage paid for the roadworthiness test, while Ms Wathelet paid for the registration of the vehicle. The car has promptly broke down, before the consumer received the invoice for the purchase. The garage found that the fault was with the engine and charged Ms Wathelet for 2.000 Euro for its repair. She has refused to pay this repair price, claiming that the garage as the seller of the vehicle was responsible for this fault. At this point, Ms Wathelet was informed that the garage has never owned the car and has sold it on behalf of Ms Donckels, another consumer. Ms Donckels has, however, never received the full purchase price, as the garage withheld 800 Euro to credit repairs that have been conducted on the vehicle. The garage sent then a letter to Ms Wathelet, confirming its capacity as an intermediary, stating that the engine failure is an 'ordinary risk' when buying a second-hand car from another consumer, and attached an invoice for the purchase price of 4.000 Euro on which it was handwritten that Ms Donckels was the seller. The invoice only had the signature of Ms Donckels. The garage refused to return the car until the repair price of 2.000 Euro is paid in full and brought proceedings against Ms Wathelet for payment of this invoice. Ms Wathelet counter-claimed demanding termination of the contract of sale and damages.

The Court of Appeal in Liege, Belgium, finds that there is strong evidence that Ms Wathelet was never informed that it was a private sale and, therefore, asks the CJEU whether the notion of a 'seller' encompasses not only professional traders who transfer ownership of consumer goods to consumers, but also traders acting as intermediaries for private parties, and whether the answer would differ depending on whether they are remunerated for their services and whether the consumer was informed of the fact that the sale was a C2C sale.

The CJEU first determines that the notion of the seller should be interpreted autonomously for the purposes of the Consumer Sales Directive, considering its objectives. The notion does not cover intermediaries (par. 33), however, that does not mean that it could not cover traders who act as intermediaries (regardless of whether they are remunerated for their services - see par. 43) but present themselves as professional sellers to consumers, giving consumers false impression that they are concluding a B2C contract (par. 34). The CJEU states that literal interpretation of art. 1(2)(c) of CSD does not prevent such an interpretation, teleological arguments - supporting high level of consumer protection - strengthen it (par. 35-36). It is essential for consumers to know the identity of the seller, and whether it is a professional party, as they will only have remedies for non-conformity of the purchased goods from a professional seller under CSD (par. 37). The consumer should have, therefore, been informed that the owner was a private individual, eliminating information imbalance between the parties. (par. 39-40)

"Therefore, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, in which the consumer can easily be misled in the light of the conditions in which the sale is carried out, it is necessary to afford the latter enhanced protection. Therefore, the seller’s liability, in accordance with Directive 1999/44, must be capable of being imposed on an intermediary who, by addressing the consumer, creates a likelihood of confusion in the mind of the latter, leading him to believe in its capacity as owner of the goods sold." (par. 41)

"...The degree of participation and the amount of effort employed by the intermediary in the sale, the circumstances in which the goods were presented to the consumer and the latter’s behaviour may, in particular, be relevant in that regard in order to determine whether the consumer could have understood that the intermediary was acting on behalf of a private individual." (par. 44)

Monday, 14 November 2016

ECJ in Home Credit Slovakia (C-42/15): MS can impose written form for the conclusion of credit contracts

Last week, the Court of Justice issued its decision in Home Credit Slovakia, C-42/15. We have already covered the AG's opinion on this case, which was largely followed by the Court. For this reason, the comment here is limited to the two most complex questions discussed and decided by the Court.

Background: the Consumer Credit Directive (art 10.1) provides that “credit agreements shall be drawn up on paper or other durable medium”.  It then makes a list of 22 elements of information which should be included in said agreements.
Slovakian law requires credit contracts to be concluded “in writing”, which means that offer and acceptance have to be signed. This contract to be concluded in writing has to include all the elements mentioned by the consumer credit directive.
The facts of the case are largely unremarkable, except for the fact that  we know a few of the elements which the Directive and Slovakian law require to be included in the contract were not specified in the document signed by the parties, but only in the lender’s terms and conditions .
The main questions before the court of justice were:
  •     whether the directive requires all the information to be contained in a single document, ot whether it allows part of that information to be provided in a different document, aka the provider’s standard terms of business;
  •            whether a requirement under national law that all the information be included in one document- or that if part of the information is contained in a separate, unsigned agreement, the contract cannot have full legal effect - is precluded by the directive.

The AG had discussed at length the Slovak translation of the Directive’s text, and had ended up  discussing separately the compatibility of national legislation possibly imposing as well as not imposing the requirement that the information be all included in a single document.
When discussing expressly the possibility that national legislation allows for the information to be split among different documents, the AG went on to explain (para 52 of her Opinion) what conditions would make this acceptable in line of the Directive’s requirements.
The Court does not discuss much whether allowing the information to be split among different documents is in line with the Directive, since “there is nothing in the Directive to indicate that the credit agreements referred to in that provision must be drawn up in a single document” (para 30).

The Advocate General found this potentially more problematic, and included the requirements in her conclusions- there is no trace of the same nuance in the Court’s decision. On the other hand, the Court is more explicit on the fact that the formal requirements for the conclusion of a credit contract are left for the Member States to determine (para 39 ff), and avoids entirely the “single document” issue- which allows them not to make any reference again to the relationship between the standard terms and the text of the agreement. While the Advocate General assumed that the “in writing” obligation and the single document would go hand in hand, the Court is suggesting a different interpretation- namely that national laws could be seen to require that both the main text and the standard terms should be signed by the consumer.