Last week, a seemingly very technical opinion has been delivered in a case concerning the transparency of a choice-of-law clause included in a fiduciary contract to be concluded by non-professional investors with an investment firm, Verein für Konsumenteninformation (VKI) vs
TVP Treuhand- und Verwaltungsgesellschaft für Publikumsfonds mbH & Co. KG (C-272/18) The case was triggered by an action brought about by VKI, seeking to obtain an injunction prohibiting the defendant to use the choice-of-law clause in the contracts it concludes with non-professional investors.
From the point of view of consumer protection, the case poses two main questions:
- Does the Rome I Regulation, including its rules concerning consumer contracts, apply to contracts of the type at stake?
- If it does, is the choice-of-law clause unfair for failing to comply with transparency requirements and hence misleading the consumers as to their legal position?
As to the first question, the AG concludes that neither of the exclusionary rules possibly relevant to the case leads to attracting the case outside the sphere of application of the Regulation. More in detail, the case does not concern the functioning of a legal person (excluded under art 1.2.e); it also does not concern contractual obligations related to the provision of services exclusively in a country different than the consumer's country of residence. The latter exclusion (art 5.4.b), the AG claims, must be interpreted strictly and autonomously - ie not on the basis of a possibly relevant national rule. Given that some of the services rendered under the contract were to be performed in the consumer's country of residence, this exclusion does not apply according to the AG.
If the Regulation applies, then the choice of law clause is only of limited impact - according to article 6.2. of the Rome Regulation, choice of law in consumer contracts cannot deprive consumers of the protection offered by mandatory rules of law in the country where the consumer has their habitual residence. In so far as a choice of law clause purports to determine exclusively which rules apply to the contract, the Court has declared in its Amazon decision, such clause is misleading and unfair under Directive 93/13 (UCTD). According to AG Øe, the Court's previous finding is applicable to this case and, hence, the clause is unfair.
The Amazon case, one should say, was welcomed by consumer advocates but is also object of criticism - inter alia, by Øe's colleague Hogan -, thus it will be interesting to see how the Court will respond to this question as it may indicate whether it intends to stand by its previous findings or reconsider/restrict them.