Thursday, 31 May 2018

Are 'effectiveness' and 'effective judicial protection' synonyms? Judgment of the CJEU in Case C-483/16

Today the EU Court of Justice issued its judgment in Case C-483/16 Sziber v ERSTE Bank Hungary. We have reported earlier on the Opinion of Advocate General Wahl in this case, which touches on the relation between the principles of equivalence and effectiveness on the one hand and the right to effective judicial protection, as guaranteed by Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, on the other.

According to the referring court, the problem in this case was that the consumer - Mr. Sziber - had not amended his application as requested; under the new Hungarian legislation (also discussed on this blog here) he should have specified which legal consequences he wished to obtain if the contract were to be found invalid and, in particular, to which repayments he would be entitled to exactly. Because he did not do so, the referring court could not examine the case on the merits. Therefore, it asked the CJEU whether it was compatible with the Charter as well as with Article 7 of Directive 93/13/EEC to require the consumer to provide additional information in civil proceedings.

The CJEU refers to its judgments in Unicaja, Pereničová and Gutiérrez Naranjo to reiterate that consumers have, in principle, the right to restitution of amounts that have been unduly paid on the basis of unfair terms. As regards the procedural rules governing claims falling within the scope of Directive 93/13/EEC, the EU Member States have procedural autonomy, subject to the principle of equivalence and - here it gets interesting - Article 47 of the Charter (Sziber, para 35). The CJEU does not (separately) mention the principle of effectiveness, even though it still did so in Sales Sinués, the judgment it refers to in this respect. Has the 'effectiveness' of the Directive been replaced with 'effective judicial protection', or are they synonyms?

The answer seems to be: not necessarily. In paras 49-53, the CJEU focuses on the question whether there is an infringement of the (individual) right to effective judicial protection and if so, if this can be justified because it is legitimate and proportionate (paras 51-52). This is very similar to the test of Article 52(1) Charter. In principle, the existence of special procedural requirements for consumers does not mean that they do not enjoy effective judicial protection; they can be requested to provide the court with additional information. The purpose of those requirements is to relief the burden on the judicial system due to the great number of cases, which serves the general interest of a proper administration of justice. This may prevail over individual interests. It appears that the procedural rules at issue are not so complicated or severe that they disproportionally affect the consumer's right to effective judicial protection, but it is up to the referring court to determine this.

Moreover, ERSTE Bank and the Hungarian government have emphasised that consumers have the possibility to claim repayment and compensation under the new legislation. The CJEU holds that, if this indeed turns out to be the case, or if consumers have other effective procedural means at their disposal, the effectiveness of the protection intended by the Directive does not preclude the procedural rules at issue (para 54). Here, the focus is on the availability of "adequate and effective means" (Article 7 of the Directive) rather than on justification(s) for a possible infringement of Article 47 of the Charter.

Today's judgment suggests that that 'effectiveness' and 'effective judicial protection' call for different tests, in the context of Directive 93/13/EEC. This could be seen as a confirmation that they entail different perspectives. In the case of Sziber this may not lead to a different outcome, but there are cases where it would arguably have made a difference [*].

Lastly, it should be noted that the CJEU leaves it up to the referring court to decide whether the principle of equivalence has been met (paras 37-48). It also concludes - unsurprisingly - that Directive 93/13/EEC applies in domestic consumer disputes as well, where there is no cross-border element.


[*] See e.g. Anna van Duin, 'Article 47 EUCFR and Civil Courts: The Case of Arbitration Clauses in Consumer Contracts (the Netherlands vs Spain)', Working Paper 5/2018, Jean Monnet Chair of European Private Law, available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3186531. 

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