Friday, 9 March 2018

Arbitration and effective consumer protection: a field of tension

The judgment of the EU Court of Justice (Grand Chamber) of 6 March 2018 in Slovak Republic v Achmea (C-284/16), a case concerning investor-state arbitration under a bilateral investment treaty (BIT), has raised a dust. The CJEU found that arbitration clauses common to almost 200 BITs between EU Member State violate EU law. The judgment is likely to have far-reaching consequences for intra-EU investment arbitration; it has even been called a "death sentence" for autonomous arbitral tribunals.

For consumer lawyers, the CJEU's findings as regards the relation between arbitral tribunals and State courts will be of special interest. A recurring issue in the context of unfair terms control is whether and to what extent judicial review of arbitral awards - in particular the arbitration clause on which they are based - is still required. Mostaza Claro and Asturcom are two well-known cases in this respect. They both pertain to the scope of the national court's power / obligation to assess of its own motion (i.e. ex officio) the unfairness of the arbitration clause, either in annulment proceedings or at the enforcement stage. Judicial review and ex officio control play a key role in the effective protection of consumers under Directive 93/13.

In the Netherlands, the discussion about arbitration in consumer cases has recently resurfaced. The modus operandi of e-Court, an online platform offering digital dispute resolution, appeared to be contrary to EU (consumer) law.[*] First, the independence of e-Court was questionable: its main clients were health insurance companies who brought claims against consumer-debtors on a large scale. Secondly, consumers were not given a realistic choice between arbitration or litigation before a State court. Thirdly, the procedure was so short that consumers hardly had any time to defend themselves. Fourthly, undefended claims were automatically awarded by an algorithm (a 'robo-judge'). This 'robo-judge' did not seem to exercise unfair terms control. Fifthly, judicial review of e-Court's awards turned out to be limited, which could be problematic in light of the case law of the CJEU.

The example of e-Court shows tension between the 'efficiency' of alternative (out-of-court) dispute settlement and the effective (judicial) protection of consumers. In Achmea, the CJEU emphasised the importance of State courts in ensuring the full application of EU law and the judicial protection of the EU rights (and freedoms) of individuals. Insofar as an arbitral tribunal may be called on to interpret or to apply EU law, while it is not a court or tribunal of a Member State and thus not part of the judicial system, its awards must be subject to judicial review in order to ensure that questions of EU law which the tribunal may have to address can be submitted to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. The CJEU also recalled that requirements of efficient arbitration proceedings may justify the judicial review of arbitral awards being limited in scope, provided that the fundamental provisions of EU law can be examined in the course of that review. The right to an effective remedy before a court of law (Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), which includes the right of access to court, is such a provision.

Achmea may not be a "death sentence" for commercial arbitration in general, but as far as the application of EU law is concerned State courts - and, through preliminary references, the CJEU - have the final say. This could have implications for the assessment of arbitration clauses in consumer contracts as well.

[*] For our Dutch readers, click here for more background information. A debate about the 'robo-judge' of e-Court is organised at the University of Amsterdam on 22 March 2018 (programme in Dutch). 

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