Contrary to first intuitions, the focus of the case was not transparency (although it does come up later in the judgment). Rather, what the referring court wanted to know was whether a term which provides for payment of amounts which are manifestly disproportionate to the service provided may be unfair. And, in short, the answer of the Court was yes (kind of).
Now, there are several issues to unpack.
First, can a "significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations arising under the contract" (Article 3(1) UCTD) at all be established on the basis of an quantitative economic evaluation, involving a comparison between the total value of the transaction and the costs charged to the consumer? According to the Court, it can.
Such a perspective differs from the focus that the Court normally takes in its UCTD case law. As a typical passage goes: "a significant imbalance can result solely from a sufficiently serious impairment of the legal situation in which the consumer (...) is placed" (para. 45). To establish such an imbalance a comparison needs to be made between the rights and obligations of the consumer under the contract and the relevant rights and obligations under otherwise applicable national rules. However, as the judgment in Provident Polska prominently shows, the reference to "resulting solely" does not mean that there can be no other source of a significant imbalance. Rather, such an imbalance can also be established on the basis of a quantitative economic evaluation (para. 47).
Article 4(2) UCTD
Of course, this does not mean that all contract performances can now be analysed for fairness by comparing the value of the transaction to the costs charged to the consumer. Nevertheless, this follows not from the concept of a "significant imbalance", but rather from the exclusion in Article 4(2) UCTD. Pursuant to this provision
assessment of the unfair nature of the terms shall relate neither to the definition of the main subject matter of the contract nor to the adequacy of the price and remuneration, on the one hand, as against the services or goods supplied in exchange, on the other, in so far as these terms are in plain intelligible language.
The exception from Article 4(2) consists of two parts. The first one relates to the terms defining the "main subject matter of the contract". Not all fees charged by the trader are captured by that notion. For example, commission fees covering remuneration for services connected with the examination, grant or treatment of the loan do not (pata. 51). The second part, however, is more relevant for our context and provides little space for assessing performances in economic terms. As noted by the Court:
terms relating to the consideration due by the consumer to the lender or having an impact on the actual price to be paid to the latter by the consumer thus, in principle, fall within the second category of terms covered by Article 4(2) of Directive 93/13 as regards the question whether the amount of consideration or the price as stipulated in the contract are adequate as compared with the service provided in exchange by the lender (para. 52).
Does it mean that excessive fees can never be assessed for fairness? Not quite. The Court provides for three ways out. The first two are well-known: minimum harmonisation (Article 8 UCTD) and transparency (Article 4(2) UCTD in fine). The third suggests that one cannot speak of assessing the adequacy of the price/remuneration as against the services or goods supplied, if no goods or services are supplied at all. In the words of the Court:
[I]f the unfairness of such a term is alleged before the national court on the basis of the lack of any actual service provided by the lender that could constitute consideration for a commission fee that it provides for, the issue thus raised does not concern the adequacy of the amount of that commission fee as compared with a service provided by the lender, and does not therefore fall within the scope of Article 4(2) of Directive 93/13 (...) (para. 54).
Overall, there are quite some hurdles to finding excessive fees unfair, but it is not impossible. The formulation of the Court's response is rather telling:
[P]rovided that the examination of the possible unfairness of a term relating to the non-interest costs of a loan agreement concluded between a seller or supplier and a consumer is not precluded by Article 4(2) of [the UCTD], read in conjunction with Article 8 thereof, such a term may be held to be unfair as a result of the fact that that term provides for the payment by the consumer of charges or a commission fee in an amount that is manifestly disproportionate to the service provided in exchange.
Partial removal of the clause
Another question concerned payment arrangements. The national court was quite convinced that the term requiring the consumer to pay in cash during the agent's visits at his or her home was unfair. Such a term - the court observed - could only be explained by the possibility it offered the lender to exert emotional pressure on the borrower. However, the court was not quite sure about the consequences it should draw from finding the unfairness.
The court's doubts resulted from the fact that the term formed part of a longer clause, which also defined other payment arrangements, e.g. amounts and dates. The referring court was unsure if it can remove part of the clause containing the unfair term (about paying in cash to the agent), or if it should rather invalidate the whole term. Since the latter would result in the inability to enforce the contract, the question was raised if the entire contract had to be annulled.
The Court of Justice considered it possible to remove part of the clause containing the unfair term and keep the remaining part in force. At first glance, this may seem incompatible with its previous case law. Indeed, the Court repeatedly found that the UCTD precludes a term that has been found to be unfair from being maintained in part, with the elements which make it unfair removed, where that removal would be tantamount to revising the content of that term by altering its substance (para. 89). However, this has to be distinguished from a situation "where the unfair element of a term consists of a contractual obligation distinct from the other requirements and capable of being the subject of an individual examination of its unfairness (...) since the stipulation laying down such an obligation may be regarded as severable from the other requirements under the term concerned" (para. 90).
This seems quite understandable. A clause can consist of several terms and it should not be generally impossible to remove only one of them. In the remainder of the judgment, the Court attempts to help with this assessment by drawing a distinction between "ancillary terms" and "the substance of the terms". In the words of the Court:
it appears that a stipulation determining such specific arrangements for the performance of the consumer’s payment obligation constitutes a contractual obligation distinct from the other stipulations of a single term, as described in the preceding paragraph of the present judgment, and is ancillary to the elements of the contract which define the substance of that term, such as those relating to the determination of the amounts to be paid and the dates on which those payments must be made. Furthermore, the deletion of that stipulation does not appear to be such as to affect the very substance of the term concerned, since the consumer continues to be obliged to perform his or her repayment obligation in accordance with the other conditions laid down in that term by choosing any method of payment from among those which are permissible under national law (para. 93).
The added value of this distinction is yet to be seen. Was it not enough to say, as the Court did previously, that a clause can contain several distinct requirements which can be separately assessed for unfairness and which, therefore, can be invalidated independently of each other? The distinction between the substance of the terms and ancillary terms suggests a hierarchy, but a single clause can also refer to apples and oranges. Overall, the outcome is certainly well-founded, but the case law on the consequences of finding unfairness is not the easiest one to navigate.