Thursday, 15 August 2019

Are contract summary templates transparent? - feedback opportunity

The European Commission asks for feedback on the draft contract summary template, which all consumers must receive from e-communication service providers. Commission aims to make this template 'clear and understandable' and to facilitate comparison of services of different providers, thus transparency is definitely one of the key points that should be considered during the evaluation. Feedback may be submitted until 9 September on this website.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Public call for information on online choice architecture for consumers

The Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has published a call for information on online choice architectures for consumers. The questionnaire may be found on this website, with the deadline for submitting information being set at August 16. The gathered information is to be used in preparation of the 'Guidelines regarding online choice architectures'. Through these guidelines ACM intends to advice traders, which online behavioural persuasive practices could e.g. be assessed as unfair (deceptive or coercive) commercial practices, and which examples of online persuasion could be seen as exemplary.

Friday, 2 August 2019

When the going gets tough - the need for insolvency protection of travel organisers

As today's UK news bring about information about two major holiday providers (Super Break and Late Rooms) going into administration (Super Break and Late Rooms holiday firms go into administration), the scope of consumer protection measures is again at the forefront of many travellers' minds. Already the previous Package Travel Directive (Directive 90/314/EEC) required the Member States to ensure that package travel providers had sufficient insolvency protection, but these rules have been further specified and strengthened in the new Directive 2015/2302 on package travel and linked travel arrangements. The UK has implemented the new Directive in the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018.

At the moment, the European Commission is reviewing whether the Member States have completely and properly implemented provisions of Directive 2015/2302 into their national laws. What happens to travellers who have booked their holidays with Super Break and Late Rooms will be a good example, on which to check how effective the UK protection against the insolvency of the package travel organiser is. However, even if the insolvency protection has been properly arranged many customers of Super Break and Late Rooms are likely to end up dissatisfied. Why? 

Well, first: they may not have concluded a package travel or a linked travel arrangement contract, which means that they would not benefit from insolvency protection.
Travellers who have been inconvenienced and do not have a separate travel insurance (as then it is best to contact the insurance company), should then first check whether their holidays are a package holiday or a linked travel arrangement, as in both cases insolvency protection had to be assured. Generally, this means that the traveller booked at least two different types of travel services (accommodation, travel, vehicle rental, etc.) for the purpose of the same holiday with either the same trader or through a linked booking process. If only accommodation was booked, without travel or vehicle rental, then the question whether a booking of another travel service makes it a package holiday depends on the value and importance of the provision of this additional travel service in the overall context of the package travel contract. 

Second, even if they fall within the scope of protection, their holiday has likely been ruined.
In case of package travel holidays or linked travel arrangements, travellers may at least expect the full refund of the payments they have made for the purchase of the package (but not additional payments that e.g. have been made after the package has already been concluded - e.g. to purchase additional attractions at their destination) and repatriation, in case they were already on holidays. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that they will be able though to enjoy their holidays as the insolvency insurance does not have to ensure the possibility of travellers continuing with their travel plans.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

CJEU in Fashion ID (C-40/17): some consequences of embedding social plugins

Yesterday, the CJEU published its judgment in Fashion ID, a case concerning mainly the notion of "controller" under EU data protection law.

The facts of the case are relatively simple: Fashion ID had placed a "like" button on its website which was connected to Facebook. What Fashion ID's customers may not realise is that - even if they did not use it - the button's presence meant that information concerning them was being transmitted to Facebook. In the proceedings it was uncontested that this information qualified as personal data.

Verbraucherzentrale NRW, a consumer association, brought an injunction against Fashion ID demanding that it abandon such practice. The question whether Fashion ID has any obligations in connection with the data processing - including the duty to inform consumers that their data are being collected and/or require their consent - depends on whether the website is to be considered a data controller.

The referring court doubted whether this is the case since the website operator has no control over the processing of the data transmitted to the plugin provider (para 37).

The Court, in essence, answered that the operator of the website acts as a controller, and is thus responsible for informing the consumer or collecting their consent, insofar as the collection of information and transmission to Facebook is concerned. In particular concerning the collection of the user's consent, the court highlighted that it would not be in line with efficient and timely protection of the subject's rights if the consent would be given only to the second controller, which is involved at a later stage (para 102). Even more strongly, when a customer is not a Facebook user, their data will be processed by the social media operator without them having any direct connection to the latter- which makes the responsibility of the other provider all the greater (para 83).

However, the website operator is not responsible vis à vis the data subjects for any other uses that Facebook itself will make of the data, nor for collecting their consent in that respect (para 102).

While the website has no control on the use of the transmitted data, the purpose of such collection is in part related to the website's benefit as it allows better promotion of its products (para 77-81).

As concerns the collection of data without the subject's consent - ie data that is necessary for the pursuit of a legitimate interest - the court importantly clarified that where both the website and the provider of the social plugin are controllers, they must both be pursuing a legitimate interest for the ground of processing to apply (para 96).

The decision interprets relevant provisions in the "old" Data pProtection directive, which has meanwhile been replaced by the GDPR - but the concepts that it deals with have been kept in the Regulation, so the decision can be transposed to the new rules.

Quite unsurprisingly, the Court rejected Fashion ID's claim that consumer associations would not be entitled to bring any claims under data protection rules - while article 80(2) of the GDPR quite
famously invites MS to set collective enforcement mechanisms, nothing in the previous directive, which only contained general indications on enforcement, can be seen to stand in the way of Member States allowing consumer associations to bring such claims (see in particular paras 57-62).

The Court seems to be aware of the potentially high-profile nature of this case and has accompanied the publication of its decision with a press release

Consequences of sub-optimal re-routing - CJEU in Rusu (C-354/18)

The Court of Justice came out of its summer break yesterday and published a judgment in the case Rusu (C-354/18), further clarifying the application of Regulation No 261/2004 on air passenger rights.

Mr and Mrs Rusu were supposed to fly with Blue Air airlines from Romania to the UK, but they were denied boarding due to a last minute change of an operating aircraft, which resulted in fewer seats and overbooking. They have then been re-routed on another flight, which only took place 5 days later. Blue Air first offered the passengers a free flight ticket as compensation, which offer has been rejected as not fully compensating their loss. Subsequently, they have been offered compensation from Regulation No 261/2004 - 400 Euro each. As the passengers experienced loss that was not covered by this amount of compensation, they filed a claim for further compensation to be paid out to them. This was to cover both material damages - having lost part of their earnings as they were not able to report to work on agreed time - and non-material damages - loss from having experienced a threat of being fired from their job. Blue Air claimed that further compensation should not be awarded to the passengers, as they have agreed to the proposed offer of re-routing, without explicitly emphasising the need to be re-routed on an earlier date, perhaps by another air carrier.

As a reminder, Art. 7(1) Regulation No 261/2004 awards passengers a right to compensation, which has been determined in CJEU's case law and scholarship to compensate passengers for the standardised loss of time (amount of compensation is dependant on the distance of the flight) (para. 30). Additional individual losses may be compensated further based on the provisions of national law, on the basis of Art. 12(1) of this Regulation, which provision also allows national courts to deduct the amount of compensation paid out pursuant to Art. 7(1) from the compensation awarded pursuant to Art. 12(1).

The CJEU indicates explicitly that the loss of earnings by the passengers is a clear example of an individualised loss, which is not covered by the standardised amount of compensation pursuant to Art. 7 Regulation (para. 32-34) and thus can be recovered on the basis of Art 12. It is then up to national courts to determine the individual damage, as well as whether the national requirements for recovering it have been fulfilled (para. 40). Whether the national court decides to deduct from it the amount of compensation paid out pursuant to Art. 7 of the Regulation is left to them to decide on the basis of applicable national or other international law, as well, as Art. 12(1) 2nd sentence provides for such a possibility but not an obligation of deduction (para. 44).

As the operating air carrier raised an issue of the passengers not explicitly emphasising the need to reach their destination as soon as possible, by the best/fastest re-routing possible, the CJEU also considered the scope of air carriers' obligations related to arranging the re-routing on the basis of Art. 8(1) Regulation No 261/2004. The CJEU highlights that this provision places the obligation on the operating air carrier not only to provide the passenger with the choice of reimbursement of their flight tickets or re-routing, but also with all appropriate information to make the choice between these options (para. 53-55). It is, therefore, not expected that the air passengers would actively seek any of the information that the operating air carrier is supposed to provide - e.g. on best re-routing options. As Art. 8(1)(b) of the Regulation requires that the re-routing takes place at the earliest possibility, it is up to the operating air carrier to prove that the proposal made by them to passengers complied with this requirement (para. 61). When putting together a re-routing proposal the air carrier should clearly  consider whether the re-routing proposal would transport passengers under similar conditions and at the earliest possibility based on its own resources, or whether it would require a help of another air carrier, in appropriate circumstances, depending on their available seats (para. 60).

Whilst the Regulation No 261/2004 does not place an obligation on operating air carriers to use services of other air carriers to find best re-routing options for their passengers, the CJEU clarifies that if they choose not to do so, they have to be prepared to pay damages under national law. The scope of these damages and under what conditions they will be awarded will differ amongst the Member States then.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Commission guidance note on Unfair Terms Directive

The European Commission adopted today a guidance note on unfair contract terms. It is intended to ensure that consumer associations and legal practitioners, including judges, will be better equipped to protect EU consumers from unfair contract terms. The guidance note is based on the case law of the EU Court of Justice on Directive 93/13. As a complement to the guidance note, European businesses organisations have drawn up recommendations on how mandatory consumer information as well as terms and conditions can be presented to consumers in a more user-friendly and transparent way.
Both initiatives follow up on the REFIT Fitness Check of EU consumer and marketing law, as announced in the Commission’s Communication on a New Deal for Consumers.


Thursday, 18 July 2019

Connecting fligts come with air passengers rights - CJEU in České aerolinie (C-502/18)

Last Thursday, on July 11th, the CJEU published the judgment in the case České aerolinie (C-502/18) further interpreting provisions of Regulation No 261/2004 on compensation due in case of a delay of one of the connecting flights. Here, the uncertainty arose from the fact that whilst passengers booked flights from Prague (Czech Republic) to Bangkok (Thailand), they had a connection in Abu Dhabi (UAE), and only the flight Prague-Abu Dhabi was performed by the European air carrier (České aerolinie). The flight Abu Dhabi-Bangkok was operated by Etihad Airways (code-share agreement) and it is that second flight, which was delayed (488 minutes). The question was whether České aerolinie remained responsible for paying air passengers compensation in such a case.

The CJEU recalls its previous findings: that connecting flights subject to a single reservation should be seen as a whole for the purposes of Regulation No 261/2004 (para. 16); that delay at the final destination entitles passengers to compensation from Art. 7(1) Regulation No 261/2004 (para. 19); that it is the operating air carrier who has to pay the compensation (para. 20); that as the connecting flights are perceived as a whole unit, the air carrier operating the first of the connecting flights should bear the responsibility for the improper performance of the second one, even if another air carrier operated the latter (paras. 27, 29); that the air carrier who pays out compensation to passengers may seek recourse from third parties pursuant to Art. 13 Regulation No 261/2004 (para. 31).

This judgment reiterates, therefore, previously established rules. However, the clarification provided by it is important for practice: as European air carriers will not be able to escape liability for flight cancellations and delays by hiding behind code-share agreements with other non-European airlines.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Online traders may choose how to communicate with consumers - CJEU in Amazon EU (C-649/17)

On July 10, the CJEU supported AG Pitruzzella's opinion (Online chats...) in the case Amazon EU (C-649/17) that Article 6 of the Consumer Rights Directive does not place on distance selling traders an obligation to set up the means of communication specified in that provision (phone line, fax, e-mail). Such an interpretation could disproportionately burden especially small businesses (para. 48). Instead, this provision just specifies that the means of communication, which a given trader chooses, should facilitate quick and effective contact with consumers (para. 46).

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Who covers for insolvent package tour organisers? States, not air carriers - CJEU in HQ and Others (C-163/18)

Today the CJEU issued a judgment in the case HQ and Others (C-163/18), which we previously discussed as the Aegean Airlines case (Avoiding double claims at all cost...). The CJEU followed the argumentation presented by AG Saugmandsgaard Øe and decided that as long as passengers have a right to claim a reimbursement of their air tickets' costs from a package tour organiser pursuant to the national rules implementing Package Travel Directive, they are prohibited from claiming such costs from an air carrier, as well. Irrespective of whether they are actually able to obtain actual compensation. 

This is a very literal interpretation of Article 8(2) Regulation 261/2004 (para. 31), which aims to prevent double compensation claims from being raised by passengers (para. 34). However, this interpretation does not help consumers in a situation like in the given case, where the package tour organiser is insolvent and the consumer is left without a recourse. The CJEU indicates that where the package tour organiser did not ensure sufficient insolvency protection pursuant to Article 7 Package Travel Directive, this provision has been improperly implemented and applied in a given Member State (paras. 41-42) and the passenger may claim his damages from the Member State under State liability rules (para. 43). The burden is placed, therefore, on passengers to continue with their search for justice.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

CJEU in Kirschstein: the scope of UCPD is broad, but not infinite

Earlier today the Court of Justice delivered its judgment in a very interesting case C-393/17 Kirschstein. As reported in our earlier post on the opinion of Advocate-General, the case concerned the application of the Unfair Commercial Practices and the Services Directives in the sector of higher education. In the judgment issued today the Court agreed with the Advocate-General that the national requirement, according to which only accredited higher education establishments may award certain degrees, does not contradict the analysed directives. The part of Court's reasoning on the UCPD, however, clearly deviates from the arguments of AG Bobek. 

Facts of the case

The defendants were running a higher education institution which organised study programmes, upon the completion of which master's degrees were awarded, despite the lack of an accreditation. The Public Prosecution Service considered this practice to be in breach of Belgian law and initiated legal proceedings. The defendants argued that national legislation criminalising the act of conferring ‘master’s’ degrees, without having obtained the authorisation required for that purpose, was contrary to Directives 2005/29 and 2006/123.

Unfair Commercial Practices Directive

The questions referred by the national court are framed very generally and it is not entirely clear which part of the UCPD is considered to potentially preclude the contested national rules. The most likely argument seems to relate to the UCPD's black list. Indeed, from Plus Warenhandelsgesellschaft onwards, the Court of Justice has consistently found that national prohibitions, which pursue the objectives relating to consumer protection and are not included in the Annex I to the Directive, do not comply with the UCPD.  

The Court, however, did not even get to that stage and focused on the UCPD scope. It recalled the definition of a commercial practice, covering any act, omission, course of conduct or representation, commercial communication including advertising and marketing, by a trader, directly connected with the promotion, sale or supply of a product (including services) to consumers (Article 2(d)). However, unlike Advocate-General, who focused on the question whether the provision of higher education qualifies as a service or not, the Court directed its attention towards the aspects of service provision, which fall within the scope of the UCPD. More specifically, according to the Court, a distinction must be made between commercial practices which are closely linked to a commercial transaction involving a product (promotion and sale or supply) and the product (service) itself (para. 42). As a result, a national rule which aims to determine which operators are authorised to provide a service in a commercial transaction, without directly regulating the practices which that operator may subsequently implement to promote or "dispose of the sales of that service", does not qualify as a commercial practice within the meaning of Directive 2005/29 (para. 45). By "disposing of the sales of services" the Court appears to mean "putting into practice the marketing of a service" (following the Dutch version), i.e. the act of supplying the service as such. From this it follows that the UCPD does not apply to national legislation at issue in the main proceedings.

Services Directive

The second part of the judgment, one involving the interpretation of Services Directive, appears to be more aligned with the Advocate-General's opinion (even though again no references are made to the opinion). Similarly to the AG, the Court found that educational services in question can be regarded as neither non-economic services of general interest (Article 2(2)(a)), nor activities which are connected with the exercise of official authority (Article 2(2)(i)), and thus cannot be excluded en bloc from the scope of Directive 2006/123. It then went on to assess whether the authorisation scheme established by national law was compatible with requirements set out in Articles 9 and 10 of Services Directive. According to the Court the analysed framework did not seem to have a discriminatory nature, was justified by an overriding reason relating to the public interest (ensuring a high level of higher education and protecting the recipients of services) and pursued that objective with appropriate means, thus complied with Article 9 of the Directive. As regards Article 10, the Court established that the preliminary reference did not contain sufficient information about the conditions of the authorisation scheme and left the relevant assessment to the national court. 

Concluding thought

Case C-393/17 Kirschstein shows that services in higher education sector are not, by their very nature, excluded from the scope of either UCPD, or Services Directive. However, the judgment delivered today also underlines that not all national rules restricting the provisions of services must be analysed under UCPD. When it comes to the conditions imposed on the service as such - here: determination of the operators authorised to provide such a service - it is Services Directive that provides the relevant benchmark, not the UCPD. In making that distinction the Court put a limit to the overly expansive interpretation of the consequences of the UCPD's black list and brought the focus of the discussion back where it belongs.

Recent developments in online content moderation

The discussion about the role of platform operators in content moderation is perhaps as old as online intermediaries themselves. Since the very beginning it involved a delicate balance between conflicting considerations: eg how to protect the freedom of expression, the freedom to conduct a business and the right to an effective remedy while ensuring that intellectual property and personality rights are safeguarded and harmful content does not thrive. The solution established by Articles 14 and 15 of the E-Commerce Directive has continuously been put into test (for the latest installment in the CJEU case law series, see C-18/18 Glawischnig-Piesczek). The approach of choice of the outgoing European Commission has been to keep the legal framework intact for the time being, while pursuing a set of non-legislative initiatives such as recommendations and codes of conduct (eg on hate speech and online disinformation). 

Screenshot of Facebook website
This did not hinder national stakeholders from taking further action. In particular, in 2017 the German lawmaker came up with a new law - the so-called Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, NetzDG), which imposed a legal obligation on the operators of social media platforms to take down illegal content within the set time limits and report the number of complaints. The act came into force in January 2018 and it has just shown its teeth for the first time: with a 2 million euro fine imposed on Facebook. Interestingly, the decision of the Federal Office of Justice (Bundesamt für Justiz) does not concern the failure of the platform operator to remove illegal content, but rather its alleged non-compliance with transparency duties. According to the German enforcer, the option for making a complaint under NetzDG was harder to find on Facebook than an option for complaining that a post violated the platform’s "community standards". Time will tell whether the decision holds in the appeal proceedings.

Meanwhile, allegations against insufficient blocking and reporting are not the only problems faced by the online platforms these days. Two ongoing legal proceedings in Poland offer an illustrative counterexample. In 2016 a case was brought against Facebook by the president of an association Reduta Dobrego Imienia (Polish League against Defamation) against an alleged overblocking of right-wing content. More recently, Facebook was yet again sued by a Polish NGO whose content was blocked by the platform operator, this time from the opposite side of the social-political spectrum. The dispute in SIN v. Facebook concerns the blocking of a site providing reliable information about the use of psychoactive substances, following a harm reduction strategy. The cases are still pending, the big news so far is the in both cases Polish courts recognized their jurisdiction on the basis of Article 7(2) Regulation 1215/2012.

Monday, 1 July 2019

When CJEU case law travels from Spain to Slovenia: C-407/18 Addiko Bank

What happens when a Slovenian court asks the EU Court of Justice a question to which the answer should already clearly follow from previous case law on Directive 93/13? Then the Advocate General might not give an Opinion, but in Case C-407/18 Kuhar v Addiko Bank the Court provides a concise overview of its case law pertaining to, in particular, Spain and Poland, and explains what this means for Slovenia. Thus, the Court seems to understand what the referring court was looking for: back-up for its interpretation of Slovenian procedural law.

To readers of this blog, the case will look familiar: it reminds us of e.g. Banesto, Aziz, Profi Credit Polska and PKO Bank Polski. The CJEU also refers to Banco Popular Español, ERSTE Bank Hungary and Finanmadrid. What these cases have in common with Addiko Bank, is that they all concern the (limited) role of the court in expedited debt-collection procedures, i.e. mortgage enforcement or order-for-payment proceedings. The court only performs a formalities check and cannot assess the merits of the claim. It is the debtor who must initiate a contentious debate by challenging the claim or opposing the enforcement, and it is the (consumer-)debtor who must apply for a declaration of nullity of allegedly unfair contract terms and/or the loan agreement. The court cannot review unfair terms ex officio, and the enforcement is not automatically suspended. As the CJEU recalls, there is a real risk that consumers are unaware of their rights, especially if they do not receive legal aid and lack the financial means for legal representation. In Slovenia, an additional problem is that (consumer-)debtors must provide security for the payment of the debt when they apply for suspension of the enforcement. For a summary of the restrictive procedural conditions at issue, see para 50 of the judgment.

In paras 53-63, the CJEU elaborates why the constellation of procedural rules runs counter to the effectiveness of the Unfair Contract Terms Directive. The link with the Directive is that the mortgage loan agreement at hand appeared to contain an unfair foreign currency clause. In the enforcement proceedings, however, the emphasis was on the debtors' duty to meet their payment obligations rather than the question whether the enforcement was based on unfair terms. Whilst notaries can have a "preventive" role in respect of unfair terms in mortgage loan agreements and notarial deeds, the right of consumers to effective judicial protection must be observed by giving them the opportunity to exercise their rights under reasonable procedural conditions, in particular in respect to time-limits and costs. The mere existence of a means of recourse is not sufficient, as the Slovenian rules at issue show. If there is no ex officio control of unfair terms in the enforcement proceedings, and unfair terms control only takes place at a later stage, consumers will only be protected ex post. Financial compensation will not prevent the loss of their family home.

The Court does not only provide a synthesis of its case law on effective judicial protection in the context of the UCTD; it also discusses Slovenian procedural law in detail. Apparently, the Spanish and Polish cases (still) do not give enough guidance as to what level of procedural protection is required in light of the Directive. What happens in Spain, stays in Spain, and is not 'translated' to other jurisdictions - certainly not Slovenia, and as Padraic Kenna has pointed out, not in Ireland either. The CJEU has repeatedly urged national courts to apply their national laws in such a way as to ensure the full effect of the Directive (reiterated in paras 65-66 of the judgment), but Addiko Bank demonstrates this may not happen without CJEU back-up. The CJEU's case law must 'travel' from Spain and Poland to Slovenia first. Hopefully, the judgment will signal once again that effective judicial protection requires a genuine opportunity for consumers to exercise their rights, not a mere formality; and that the CJEU's case law on unfair terms control (ex officio) in mortgage enforcement proceedings transcends specific EU Member States.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Runaway closure as an extraordinary circumstance - CJEU in Moens (C-159/18)

Today the CJEU followed opinion of AG Tanchev (Crying over spilled fuel...) in the case Moens (C-159/18) and decided that if there is a fuel spilled on a runway, which leads the airport to close that runway, preventing flights from take off and landing, then the impacted air carriers may invoke the defence of extraordinary circumstances from Art. 5(3) Regulation 261/2004. Provided, of course, that the fuel spillage did not originate from the aircraft of the given air carrier, as only then the reason for closing of the runway will be unrelated to their business activity and beyond of their control (para. 13). Moreover, as it is the airport's management, who is responsible for the closure of the runway and the removal of the spilled fuel, the operating air carrier is not obliged to take any reasonable steps to remove the obstacle to their flight taking place. To the contrary, they are obliged to accept the decision of the airport's management and await re-opening of the runway or opening of an alternative runway for them (para. 28). With this judgment, following on the previous Germanwings case (Loose screws of Regulation No 261/2004...), the CJEU broadens the scope of the list of extraordinary circumstances allowing air carriers to forego payment of compensation for flight delays and cancellations.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The scope of non-standardized information provision under Directive 2008/48/EC- CJEU judgment in C-58/18 Schyns

A couple of days ago the CJEU delivered its judgment in case C-58/18 Michel Schyns v Banifius Banque SA. Luckily, the CJEU proceeded to decide on the merits of the case in spite of the vagueness of the application (see our report on AG Kokott's opinion in this case here).

The facts of the case
To remind ourselves, this case concerns the interpretation of Directive 2008/48/EC on Consumer Credit. In 2012 Mr Schyns concluded a contract with Home Vision for the installation of a photo-voltaic system (i.e. a solar power system) for the price of 40 002 euros. A couple of days later, Mr Schyns concluded a loan contract with the predecessor of Banifius Banque SA for 40 002 euros repayable in the next ten years in monthly instalments of 472,72 euros. The loan was issued to Mr Schyns who subsequently transferred it to Home Vision. The photo-voltaic system was never installed, and Home Vision subsequently declared bankruptcy. In 2016 (after paying the instalments for over 4 years) Mr Schyns commenced an action against the bank for setting the contract aside and terminating future performance.

The legal issues
This case raised interesting issues on the compatibility of Belgian law with Art. 5(6) of the Directive:
1) Are the rules requiring creditors to select a credit product suitable to the needs and the financial situation of the consumer incompatible with the above provision?
2) Are the rule requiring creditors to refuse to lend to consumers that cannot afford the loan contrary to the said provision?

The scope of 'adequate explanations' in Art. 5(6) of the Directive
The CJEU followed AG Kokott's opinion and answered the first question negatively. It is therefore not contrary to Art. 5(6) of the Directive for national laws to require creditors to recommend the most suitable loan taking into consideration the purpose of the loan and the consumer's financial situation at the time when the contract is concluded.
Given that the Directive does not provide for this obligation, and being a full harmonization instrument, one might question whether Member States may go beyond what is provided in the provision. The CJEU is of the opinion that they can, because the last sentence of Art. 5(6) of the Directive provides that Member States may adapt the manner in which and the extent to which 'adequate explanations' are given (para. 29). According to the CJEU, adapting the manner and extent of adequate explanations can extend the creditor's obligation  to select the most suitable loan. The CJEU also supported its reasoning by reference to Recital 27 and Art. 5(1) according to which consumers may need additional help in selecting the right credit products for their financial needs and wants (para.30), and creditors, as professional lenders are best placed to provide this help to consumers (para. 33).
The CJEU reiterated that, on the one hand, consumers need pre-contractual information to make informed decisions; on the other hand, this pre-contractual information might need to be supplemented with more personalized information for making a fully informed decision (para. 34). However, the CJEU also emphasized that despite of the obligation of the creditor to inform consumers and even to select the right credit product consumers stay ultimately responsible for the choices they are making (para. 34).

Refusing to lend under the Directive
The second question answered by the CJEU tackled the extent to which the selection of the right credit product can reach to. What should creditors do if in selecting the suitable credit product they considers that consumers cannot afford any loan?  Here too, the CJEU agreed with AG Kokott's opinion that it is not incompatible with the Directive for national laws to provide for an obligation to refuse to lend in a situation where creditors cannot be confident that consumers can dully fulfill their contractual obligations, i.e. pay the loan installments as they fall due (para. 49). Although the Directive does not directly provide for this obligation, this interpretation is compatible with  Art. 8(1) of the Directive on responsible lending and creditworthiness assessment and with the broader EU consumer policy reflected in Art. 18(5) of Directive 2014/17/EU that directly provides for an obligation to refuse to lend (para. 46).

Our evaluation
This is an important judgment that aim to clarify the scope of Art. 5(6) of the Directive. It does extend the scope of the provision, and clarifies that adequate explanations can go beyond mere explanations of standard information provided within the Directive; that creditors may also be obliged to select or recommend the suitable loan for consumers (taking into consideration the consumers financial situation at the time when the contract is being concluded and the purpose of the loan). It remains however unclear whether this means an obligation of the creditor to provide financial advice? AG Kokott seems to have thought that it does, however, the court does not make any specific reference to financial advise. Financial advise being an independently regulated activity raises the doubt that it falls within the scope of the Directive. It requires licensed financial advisers (and not every bank clerk dealing with loans will comply with this requirement) and the advisers should take at least some responsibility for the advise they have provided. Given the final reservation of the CJEU that consumers bear the ultimate responsibility for the taken loan leads me to think that adequate explanations do not extend as far as the provision of financial advise. This remains an interesting question though that will need clarification in the future. We may also think whether the question of responsibility is adequately addressed by the CJEU. If creditors are obliged to select the right or suitable loan for the consumer, should they not take the responsibility for it then?

The second aspect of the judgment is also an important development in clarifying the scope of the Directive. Given the full harmonization nature of the Directive and its silence on the creditors obligation following a creditworthiness assessment, the CJEU's contribution to consumer protection by specially enabling Member States to provide the sanction of refusal to lend is an important one. Probably following Directive 2014/17/EC, the CJEU highlighted that the bank should refuse to lend any time it estimates consumers are unable to fulfill their payment obligations as they fall due, arguably aiming to observe the goals of sustainable lending.

Friday, 14 June 2019

ECJ in Orange Polska: Signing a contract in the presence of a courier is not an aggressive practice

On 12th June the CJEU issued its judgement on the Orange Polska case (C‑628/17) on the meaning of the aggressive practices provisions in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. This blog previously reported on the AG opinion on the case. The facts of the case will be summarised here, but they are analysed in greater detail in that post. 

The referring court asked whether the practice in question, where in order to conclude a telecommunication contract the consumer has to make the final decision in the presence of the courier employee who is handing him the contract terms, should be considered an aggressive practice with the use of undue influence, according to art. 8 and 9 UCPD.

The Court draws attention to the fact that the context of each individual case needs to be taken into account for determining the existence of a practice that uses harassment, coercion or undue influence (paras 30-31). This case-by-case factual analysis seems to be necessary only for aggressive practices, rather than all kinds of unfair practices.

The Court goes on to clarify that only undue influence is relevant in this particular case (para 32). However, the wording of articles 8 and 9 UCPD doe snot appear to demand identifying whether a practice is aggressive due to the use of harassment, coercion or undue influence.Making reference to point 45 of the AG Opinion the Court pointed out that undue influence is not necessarily impermissible influence but influence which, without prejudice to its lawfulness, actively entails, through the application of a certain degree of pressure, the forced conditioning of the consumer’s will.

Tne Court stated that the fact that the consumer was asked to sign a contract in the presence of a courier without having been sent the contract beforehand, but having had the chance to access it online, cannot be considered an aggressive practice (para 40) on its own.In assessing whether the consumer actually had a chance to receive information prior to the courier's visit, the quality of information plays an important role. The mode of communication is key as the information provided on a trader's website may be superior to that included in a phone conversation (para 42). Still, while more detailed information may be available on line, one could argue that over the phone, consumers may be able to focus on the the questions more relevant for them.

The Court is taking a restrictive view on what can amount to an aggressive practice, as it is pointed out that even if a consumer did not have the chance to access the information beforehand, that is not enough to classify it as an aggressive practice (para 43). Instead, the key criterion is the conduct of the trader. It is stated that conduct, such as the one in the case in question where the courier asks the consumer to take his final transactional decision without having time to study, at his convenience, the documents delivered to him by that courier, cannot constitute an aggressive commercial practice (para 45).

What is needed is something additional to the conduct above that would make the consumer feel uncomfortable and confuse his thinking in relation to the transactional decision at hand. Some examples of what might be considered aggressive includes:'the announcement that any delay in signing the contract or amendment would mean that the subsequent conclusion thereof would be possible only under less favourable conditions, or the fact that the consumer would risk having to pay contractual penalties or, in the event of the contract being amended, would risk the trader suspending the service'(para 48).

Another example was that of the courier informing the consumer that, if he refuses to sign or delays in signing the contract or amendment that has been delivered to him, he could receive an unfavourable assessment from his employer could also fall within that same category; an example similar to point 30 of Annex I of the UCPD, where a trader informs the consumer that if he does not buy the product, his job or livelihood will be in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, the opinion of the AG was not followed in this case and the Court was not daring enough in its interpretation of the aggressive practices provisions, as it was in Wind Tre, even though it was often cited in the judgement. Contrary to the AG opinion, the judgement does not engage at all with the average consumer standard. The judgement fails to provide a comprehensive mechanism for interpreting the provisions or indeed promote our understanding of what kind of pressure is the consumer expected to withstand. Instead, it repeats the phrasing of art.8 on making the consumer take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise. 

With this judgement the concept of aggressive practices is interpreted in a restrictive manner, in an effort to balance consumer protection with commercial realities, thus failing to make use of the potential of the provisions.


Tuesday, 11 June 2019

On stowaway protection - AG Pitruzzella in Kanyeba (C-349/18 to C-351/18)

AG Pitruzzella published his opinion today in an usual referral asking for the interpretation of the provisions of the Unfair Contract Terms Directive as applicable to stowaways (travellers without a valid ticket). The odd-egg character of the Belgian case Kanyeba (joint cases C-349/18 to 351/18) concerns a possibility of there not being a consumer contract and the question of whether the UCTD could apply in administrative, non-contractual disputes.

There is a debate in Belgian law as to the character of the legal relationship between passengers who have not purchased a ticket for their journey and public transport providers. Some scholars argue that even if a traveller does not purchase a ticket, they enter into a contractual relationship with transport providers by walking into the 'travelers-only' zones (adhesion contracts). If this interpretation is followed, then when a stowaway is found and charged the price of the ticket plus any accompanying surcharges (increasing drastically if the ticket is not purchased at the moment of the ticket control), it would be possible to consider, e.g. whether the surcharges are based on fair terms and conditions, pursuant to the UCTD. Other scholars claim that it is a contractual relationship only when the traveller purchased a valid ticket for their journey. They recognise that in other cases a stowaway would not have had an opportunity to accept terms and conditions of the transport, and that the relationship would need to have been regulated by law rather than by contract. Interestingly, in the opinion the attention is drawn to the fact that in Belgian law the unfairness test may also be applied to either type of the legal relationship (para. 28). Regardless the answer as to the nature of the relationship between a stowaway and a transport provider, the UCTD might still apply in Belgium then.

AG Pitruzzella leaves it to national laws, and national courts, to determine the character of the legal relationship between stowaways and transport providers (paras. 40, 43). If the national law does not determine the matter, it is for the national court to establish. In the referred cases, it was clear that passengers had no intention of being bound by the transport contract, as they did not consent to its core conditions: the price (paras. 52-53). This should preclude the relationship as being determined as contractual, although AG Pitruzzella leaves the space for national courts to still do so (paras. 54-58). If the relationship is non-contractual, the UCTD normally would not apply (para. 60). This does not preclude Belgian law from extending the application of the UCTD to all relationships between consumers and traders, also non-contractual ones (para. 62).

We may find specific tips in the opinion of AG Pitruzzella on how to assess the unfairness of surcharges in such circumstances. Namely, as the unfairness test should consider all circumstances surrounding the conclusion of an agreement (or alternatively of the legal relationship between the parties), it seems crucial for national courts to balance private and public interests in stowaway cases. After all, surcharges are supposed to discourage illegal behaviour of a travel without a valid ticket and to protect traders' interests in easier enforcement of travel prices (paras. 63-64). If passengers consider such surcharges as being of a significant detriment to them and distorting the contractual balance, they could have protected themselves against them by a timely ticket purchase.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Intransparency of transparency case law? CJEU in C-38/17 GT v HS

Last Wednesday the Court of Justice delivered a judgment in case C-38/17 GT v HS. On the face of it, the case seems like just another dispute concerning a credit agreement with potentially intransparent terms, specifically terms defining the applicable exchange rate for the loan denominated in foreign currency. On a closer look, a more peculiar picture emerges: the questions asked by the referring court seem to miss the harmonized EU rules, the Commission argues for inadmissibility, Advocate-General decides not to present a written opinion, and at the end of that messy process the Court issues a judgment which might raise at least several eyebrows (for a context see one of the earlier posts published on this blog Forward to the past...).

Facts of the case

The case involved a consumer who concluded a currency-denominated loan agreement and the precise amount of the loan in foreign currency was established only after the agreement had been concluded. Specifically, at the time of contract conclusion the amount of the loan was established on the basis of the sum required in Hungarian forints, applying the exchange rate in force at the time the funds were released. The relevant rate was communicated to the consumer approximately 1.5 month later. There is nothing in the case as to whether the consumer knew in advance about the way in which the exchange rate was to be calculated. In these roughly sketched circumstances, the referring court was wondering whether an array of EU rules and principles, including Articles 4(2) and 5 Directive 93/13 on unfair terms, can be read as obliging the trader to inform the consumer, in clear and intelligible language, before entering into an agreement, about core contractual terms, as a condition of validity of the agreement. The Court of Justice read the reference made by the national court as inquiring whether Articles 3(1), 4(2) and 6(1) of Directive 93/13 preclude the legislation of a Member State, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of that Member State, under which a loan agreement is not invalid where it is denominated in foreign currency and does not indicate the exchange rate applicable to the loan sum for the purpose of determining the definitive amount of the loan, but at the same time stipulates, in one of its terms, that that rate will be set by the lender in a separate document after the agreement has been concluded. In the process of reformulating the question the Court dropped a reference to Article 5 UCTD, which concerns the transparency of terms formulated in writing and establishes a rule that, in the case of doubts, interpretation most favourable to the consumer shall prevail.

Judgment of the Court

In its judgment the Court follows a sequence of steps: since we are talking about a core term, the first question is whether the relevant term is phrased in plain intelligible language in line with Article 4(2) UCTD. If it is, our job is done, no consequences can be drawn against such a term on the basis of the analysed directive. If it is not, we move to the second step and carry out a substantive assessment on the basis Article 3(1). If unfairness is established, the sanction of invalidity, as a matter of principle, only applies to the term in question. Only if the agreement cannot function without the relevant term it can be deemed invalid in its entirety.

Let us first focus on the assessment whether a term is phrased in "plain intelligible language". The Court first recalls some of it earlier case law highlighting that the transparency requirement cannot be reduced merely to the terms being "formally and grammatically intelligible" (see eg our earlier post on the Court's judgment in Andriciuc). Rather, due to the consumer's weaker position vis-à-vis the trader, the requirement must be understood in a broad sense. In particular, according to the Court, "the contract should indicate transparently and specifically how the mechanism to which the relevant term relates is to function and, where appropriate, the relationship between that mechanism and that provided for by other contractual terms", so that that consumer "is in a position to evaluate, on the basis of clear, intelligible criteria, the economic consequences for him of entering into the contract".

Applied to the case at hand the requirement implies that "the mechanism for calculating the amount lent, expressed in foreign currency, and the exchange rate applicable must be indicated transparently, so that a reasonably well-informed and reasonably observant and circumspect consumer may evaluate, on the basis of clear, intelligible criteria, the economic consequences for him of entering into the agreement, including, in particular, the total cost of the loan" (para. 34). So far so good. Note, however, that the question is to be examined "in the light of all relevant facts" including promotional material and information provided to consumers during negotiations (para. 35). Surely, the contextual background seems important and indeed follows from the earlier case law, but what does it mean exactly in the case like the one at hand? Can information provided during negotiations make an otherwise intransparent term transparent? If so, how does this relate to Article 5 of the UCTD? The Court does not say. 

What may worry consumer advocates even more is the point in time, at which an appropriate level of transparency should be achieved. In particular, as noted by the Court in para. 36: the seller or supplier cannot be expected to have specified all the relevant details at the time the agreement was concluded. Again, it is not clear which "relevant details" can be skipped at the time of entering into a contract. Understandably, the exact exchange rate will often not be known in advance. But what about the way in which the exchange rate is to be calculated? 

Because the assessment is left to the national court, the Court then moves to the second stage, that is whether the relevant term can be considered unfair. In this respect, the focus of the Court remains on the wording of Article 3(1): whether, contrary to the requirement of good faith, a term causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations arising under the contract, to the detriment of the consumer concerned. Also here the Court does not offer much of a clarification, besides noting that the assessment should consider "the nature of the goods or services" as well as, again, "the circumstances attending the conclusion of the agreement ... which could have been known to the seller or supplier at that time the agreement was concluded and ... could affect the future performance of the agreement (paras. 39 and 40). 

Concluding thought

While the reference to the circumstances attending the conclusion of the agreement may, at the end of the day, work in consumer's advantage ("a contractual term which manifests itself only during the performance of the agreement term may give rise to an imbalance between the parties", para. 40), the judgment leaves more questions open than it answers. It is not clear, in particular, whether the Court retracts on its earlier judgment in VKI, where it found that "the unfairness of ... a term may result from a formulation that does not comply with the requirement of being drafted in plain and intelligible language set out in Article 5 of Directive 93/13" (para. 68). Does the resulting imbalance already relate to the consumer's uncertainty about the scope of his obligations? Or should it rather be established by looking at the relevant rights and duties and comparing them on the merits? 

Finally, we should not forget that all the rules we are talking about in here are minimum harmonisation rules. To recall, in Ahorros the Court made it clear that Member States may adopt national legislation which authorises a judicial review as to the unfairness of contractual terms which relate to the definition of the main subject-matter of the contract or to the adequacy of the price and remuneration, on the one hand, as against the services or goods to be supplied in exchange, on the other hand, even in the case where those terms are drafted in plain, intelligible language. The same is true for additional rules concerning bringing terms to consumers' attention (eg German rules on Einbeziehungskontrolle) or the consequences of intransparency (eg intransparency as a self-standing ground for invalidity). Of course, the judgment does not say otherwise - and let us not be fooled that it does. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Return to sender - CJEU in Fülla (C-52/18) on bulky non-conforming goods

We have not yet had a chance to address the CJEU's judgment of 23 May in the case Fülla (C-52/18). As we have mentioned in the comment on the AG Wahl's opinion, Mr Fülla was convinced that a party tent he has ordered on the phone was not in conformity with this order. The trader was disputing this claim, but the main issue of the case was the lack of a proper communication between the parties as to where and on what conditions the goods could be brought into conformity to begin with. Mr Fülla demanded that the tent was brought into conformity at his place of residence and did not offer to return it. The trader expected the goods to be returned, but did not inform of this requirement the consumer nor offered to advance the postage costs for the return of the goods.

As it was mentioned in our previous comment, and following the opinion of AG Wahl, the CJEU also leaves the determination of the place, in which the goods should be brought into conformity, to the discretion of national laws (para. 46). After all, the place has not been specified in the Consumer Sales Directive, except for its provisions requiring that the determination of such a place enabled repair or replacement: free of charge, within a reasonable time and without significant inconvenience to the consumer (para. 32). Therefore, national courts have to take into account these three requirements, as well, in their interpretation of national laws in accordance with EU law (para. 47). The CJEU emphasises that consumers could experience some inconvenience when having to package and deliver goods to a place where they will be brought back into conformity. It just cannot be a significant inconvenience (para. 40). However, due to the character of certain goods (e.g. that are heavy or bulky) a need to send/transport them to a place other than their location with the consumer may automatically constitute a significant inconvenience (para. 43). It is worth to note that the CJEU is not overly concerned with the lack of harmonisation that such a solution would lead to, as the CSD is in any case a minimum harmonisation directive.

When a consumer sends the goods back to a trader, claiming that they are non-conforming, the question arises whether the trader needs to advance the costs of posting the goods back to him. The CJEU considers such an obligation too far-reaching and able to distort the balance of rights and obligations of both parties. The main argument here is that the goods may turn out not to be non-conforming and that advancing such postage costs could also slow down the process of bringing the goods back into conformity (para. 53). Therefore, in general, consumers may only expect that the postage costs will be reimbursed to them after the non-conformity is confirmed by the trader. However, the situation is different if the advance of postage costs would be necessary in order not to prevent the consumer from making use of their rights (para. 55). Therefore, in specific cases where the transport is costly, e.g., traders could be required to advance such costs. We may expect some disputes arising to determine when exactly such a significant inconvenience would arise.

Finally, the CJEU addresses the issue of the hierarchy of remedies. As a consumer may only then terminate the contract due to non-conformity if a trader was first given an opportunity to remedy that non-conformity, the question was whether in a given case this condition was fulfilled. After all, Mr Fülla did not deliver the tent to the trader's place of business. The CJEU answers this in the affirmative. As the consumer notified the trader of the non-conformity and of the fact that the repair/replacement could occur at his home, when the transport of goods was likely to cause a significant inconvenience to consumers, and the trader did not inform the consumer about his requirement for the place at which repair/replacement could occur - the consumer could terminate the contract on the basis of the non-conformity (para. 65).

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Recent research reveals how consumers engage with crypto-assets

The Financial Conduct Authority, the UK's financial regulator/supervisor recently published an interesting report on how consumers behave in relation to crypto-assets: How and why consumers buy cryptoassets. To remind ourselves, crypto-assets are virtual, digital assets used for payment or investment purposes or both. This research fits well into the current EU efforts on regulating fintech services and products. We have reported earlier on the EU Commission's 2018 Action Plan on Fintech within which crypto-assets are of a special concern. More recently we have discussed ESMA's recommendation for a need for tailored regulation for the protection of consumers, buyers of crypto-assets.

The present research is focused on consumer behavior, on how consumers engage with crypto-assets. It is especially interesting to discover the profile of an 'average' fintech customer of crypto-assets and their ability to make informed decisions. The report answers questions such as why did consumers decide to buy crypto-assets, what sources of information they used to make their decisions, and how well in general they understand the market. As expected, this research seems to suggest crypto-assets are bought for investment purposes without fully understanding the risks involved in their decisions. 

The report is an interesting and easy read with plenty of direct testimonies from consumers, and  as such is highly recommended to our readers interested in consumer behavior and/or financial innovation.

In the future, it would be interesting to expand this research onto other areas of fintech services i.e. credit, insurance and payments to get a fuller picture of the fintech market structures and their consumers.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Early birds and credit costs' repayment - AG Hogan in Lexitor (C-383/18)

Last Thursday, on May 23rd, AG Hogan issued his opinion in the Polish case Lexitor (C-383/18) interpreting mainly Article 16 Consumer Credit Directive. Whilst many cases concerning consumer credit contracts are being referred to the CJEU on the basis of the Unfair Contract Terms Directive, this one relied purely on the framework of the CCD. Namely, consumers in this case decided to repay their credit early. Article 16 CCD regulates early repayment of a consumer credit (within the maximum harmonisation character of the directive). Its paragraph 1 obliges credit providers to reduce total credit costs of consumers in such a situation with 'such reduction consisting of the interest and the costs for the remaining duration of the contract'. The doubts in the case pertained to the interpretation of the notion 'remaining duration of the contract' in this provision. When the consumer credits were granted, credit providers charged consumers with a commission for granting these credits, the amount of which was independent from the duration of the contract. 

The question raised was, therefore, whether consumers paying off their credit early are entitled to the repayment of the part of the commission, proportional to the repayment period, or whether that commission, as a cost that does not depend on the duration of the credit agreement, is outside the scope of credit costs that should be reduced in such cases

Polish courts have differed in their interpretation of the repayment obligation resting on credit providers in such cases (para. 19). AG Hogan notes that there are four possible ways to interpret the phrase 'remaining duration of the contract' (see further on these various interpretations in paras 42-46) and argues that the most simple method of calculation of the reduction in credit costs should be applied, as this was demanded by Recital 39 (para. 52). Recital 39 CCD specifically states that 'the calculation method should be easy for creditors to apply'. AG Hogan advises the Court to recommend the Member States to apply one of the two interpretations (as either would be consistent pursuant to him with the objectives of the CCD) (paras 63-67): 
  • 'the total credit cost must be reduced in proportion to the remaining contract period' (para. 43), with the phrase only specifying the method of calculation of the reduction, or
  • 'the reduction to which the consumer would be entitled corresponds to the one-off or recurring payments not yet fallen due when the early repayment was made' (para. 46). 
Consequently, it would not matter for deciding whether a given fee or cost needs to be included in the reduction following an early credit repayment that it was labelled as not depended on the duration of the credit agreement by credit providers. AG Hogan also does not think that the reduction should be equivalent to the 'amount of expenses saved by the credit institution as a result of the early repayment' (para. 68).  Let us see what the CJEU decides in this case.

DSM directives published

Many of us have been waiting for this moment: on May 22 two Digital Single Market directives have been published in the Official Journal: Digital Content Directive (Directive 2019/770) and the new Consumer Sales Directive (Directive 2019/711). 
Time to update our frame of reference.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A consumer's preference for invalidity? AG Pitruzzella on the consequences of unfairness under the UCTD

Last week, AG Pitruzzella submitted an interesting Opinion on unfair terms in case C-260/198 (Dziubak) (the English version of this opinion is not yet available).

This case concerns a foreign currency-indexed loan undertaken by Polish consumers. The consumers claimed that the term establishing the conversion rate was unfair because it essentially allowed the bank to unilaterally determine the conversion rate. The competent Polish court agreed with the claim, raising the problem of what should happen to the contract given that the conversion mechanism determined the main interest rate. Should it be declared invalid?

There are two layers to this question, as correctly observed by the AG: first of all, it is to be ascertained whether the contract really cannot be upheld without the unfair term or a replacement thereof. Whether this was the case in Dziubak is something the referring court, the AG thinks, needs to ascertain in light of its national law. According to Pitruzzella, the Directive requires that this assessment be carried out objectively, ie without reference to the parties' will or preference, but also in light of the applicable national law. In this case, it would depend on Polish law whether the fact that the contract's "type" would change - from a foreign currency-indexed loan to a loan in Polish currency subject to a pretty low - would lead to invalidity of the agreement without the original clause.

Invalidity was the solution preferred by the consumers, while the bank claimed that, rather than invalidating the contract in its entirety, the court should set an exchange rate in accordance with general principles contained in the Polish Civil code, such as preserving the parties' intentions and customs.

In previous case-law, the AG says, the CJEU has repeatedly asserted that in principle unfair terms are never to be replaced, but exceptions can be made when the contract as a whole could become invalid as a result of removing the unfair term and the consumer would be worse off if the contract falls (see para 34 opinion).

The referring court had a number of questions as to the application of these principles to the case at stake: concerning the objective possibility of continuing the contract, is this to be assessed with reference to the moment of adjudicating, or to the moment of concluding the contract? And did the fact that the consumer in this case preferred invalidity over preservation make the "Kásler exception" inapplicable?

To the first question, the AG answers that the assessment must take place with reference to the moment of adjudication. This is, according to the opinion, in line with the Directive's aim to re-establish an effective balance between the parties and in line with the Kàsler requirements.

As concerns the relevance of the consumer's preference for invalidity, according to the AG this is enough to make the Kàsler rule inapplicable - as an exception, the requirements on which it is based must be applied strictly (para 66) and one of them failing no exception to the general rule can be made.

As to the feasibility of the solution preferred by the bank - integrating the contract by means of general rules - the AG takes an interesting approach in his reasoning: he says that the Kásler rule presupposes replacement of the unfair term with terms which enjoy a presumption of fairness under the directive's article 1, ie the somewhat obscure class of "statutory mandatory provisions" that, case-law adds, "apply to the contract when nothing else has been agreed between the parties". From a contract lawyer's perspective, this is essentially a non-sense combination - conflating mandatory and supplementary  (or "default") provisions. However, it is interesting that the AG elaborates on the Leitbild function: replacement, in his view, is only possible when the resulting rules express the legislator's view of what a fair balance of the parties' interests in a specific contract would be. The general principles possibly relevant to this case, however, do not satisfy this requirement. As a consequence, a judge's intervention in the contract according to these principles would represent an excessive interference with contractual autonomy. Such intervention would, furthermore, again go beyond the strict limits set in Kásler, which did not intend to allow for any sort of judicial discretion. (79)

The referring court finally also wants to know whether maintaining the unfair terms in place is an option when this is "objectively" to the consumer's advantage. The CJEU has stated in Pannon that such upholding of the clause is an option when the consumer chooses not to avail themselves of the invalidity - replacing the adjudicating court's assessment for this expression of the consumer's will is, according to the AG, not an option. This is arguably the lease surprising part of the opinion.

Whether the Court will follow the conclusions, and the reasoning therein, is not obvious. As usual, we will keep you posted!  

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

AG Hogan in Kiss and CIB Bank (C-621/17)... not making transparency better

The questions on the application and effects of the prohibition of unfair contract terms in consumer credit contracts seem incessant. AG Hogan issued a long opinion today in the Hungarian case Kiss and CIB Bank (C-621/17). Mr Gyula Kiss concluded a credit agreement with three different rates stipulated in it: annual interest rate for the amount of loan set at 5.4%, annual management charges of 2.4% per year, and APRC of 8.47%. Moreover, he had to pay a sum of money as a disbursement commission. In his claims, Mr Kiss argues that the standard terms and conditions, which determine the disbursement commission and the management charges are unfair. He finds them unfair due to the fact that the contract does not list services, for which these amounts are supposed to be paid. He further considers that any bank's costs of processing and management of the loan have already been covered by the interest on the borrowed capital. The bank claims that they were under no obligation to list specific services they provided in exchange for these commissions/charges.

The national court filed this issue mainly under the scope of application and interpretation of the principle of transparency. The main question addressed to the CJEU thus inquires whether provisions of the UCTD, which prescribe transparent disclosures, demand not only to provide consumers with exact charges they would have to pay, method of their calculation and time for payment, but also with a list of specific services that will be provided in return for these charges.

AG Hogan continues in this opinion on his quest (started with the opinion in Lovasne Toth case - see our comment) to diminish the importance for consumer protection of the previous judgments of the CJEU. This time he undermines the position that the CJEU has expressed in RWE Vertrieb and Matei cases (previously, it was VKI v Amazon case). At this point it is important to note that the CJEU has not yet issued its judgment in Lovasne Toth, thus it remains to be seen whether AG Hogan may support his argument in Kiss v CIB Bank case by referring to his previous opinion. What are the main issues?

Divergent interpretation of transparency under Art. 4(2) and Art. 5 UCTD and separation from unfairness test under Art. 3(1) UCTD

Already in his previous opinion, AG Hogan did not seem to think much of the requirement expressed in Art. 5 UCTD to ensure that standard terms and conditions are provided in plain and intelligible language. The fact that he does not see the lack of transparency under this provision as resulting in the unfairness of a non-transparent term could be supported, as such a direct consequence is not provided by the UCTD (although it could be under national laws) (para. 59). However, many scholars discussing this provision have argued for such an application of the rule of contra proferentem, which would be most beneficial for consumer protection. This meant they favoured assigning such a meaning to a contested term, which would lead to the recognition of the term's unfairness, in case it were more beneficial to consumers to have the term removed from a contract. AG Hogan adopts a staunch interpretation approach perceiving the contra proferentem rule as requiring the adoption of a consumer-friendly meaning of the term, prior to any consideration of unfairness under Art. 3(1) UCTD, which would not allow the above interpretation technique to apply (para. 60).

Art. 5 UCTD only represents formal transparency

To make matters worse, AG Hogan confirms his previous conviction that Art. 5 UCTD does not require the principle of transparency to apply in both its formal and substantive character (para. 61). To remind our readers, formal transparency means that the term will be visible, attracts consumers' attention. Substantive transparency requires the term to be understandable, comprehensible to consumers (readers interested in the differences between formal and substantive transparency may read more about this topic in the forthcoming article by J.Luzak and M. Junuzović - check the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law (EuCML) 3/2019 next month!).

"In this context, the requirement for a term to be drafted in plain, intelligible language has to be understood as a general statement aimed at introducing the interpretative rule laid down in Article 5. What matters, therefore, is not how the consumer understands a term, but rather whether the latter is objectively ambiguous." (para. 61)

This obviously leads the AG to conclude that a bank does not need to list their services to make the consumer understand what they are paying for. However, we continue to hope that the CJEU does not support this diminished understanding of Art. 5 UCTD. 

Understanding economic consequences of a credit contract

What is more convincing in the opinion is the AG Hogan's reasoning that to understand the economic consequences of the concluded contract, so for substantive transparency to be complied with, consumers do not need to know exactly which services are covered by which part of the payment (para. 62). It should suffice that consumers know what the total payment is and what services consumers may expect overall. We may find a consumer-friendly application of the transparency test in para. 41, where AG Hogan states that in case different terms in a contract determine different payments, with different methods of calculation, then these terms should be: "grouped together in one place in the contract or, at least, their combined effect needs to be specified. Indeed, the consumer cannot be considered as being in a position to evaluate, on the basis of clear, intelligible criteria, the economic consequences for him which derive from the contract if the price to be paid is stated, for example, partly at the beginning of a very long contract, partly, in the middle and, partly at the end of it.". Moreover, AG Hogan draws attention to the fact that just a mention of the APRC does not signal transparency of the payments in credit contracts, as it is only illustrative (para. 44). Thus just providing consumers with the APRC does not inform them about economic consequences of a credit contract.

Core terms

AG Hogan leaves the assessment whether the clauses on management charges and the disbursement commission are core terms, which could only be tested for unfairness if they are non-transparent, to the discretion of national courts. This would according to him depend on the estimation whether services provided in return for these charges are services primarily provided under the contract (para. 33). This is interesting, as AG Hogan does not see any difficulty in the contract not specifying these services to properly inform consumers, as long as national courts may deduct what these services were (were supposed to be?) (para. 55).

Adequacy of payments - look to UCPD rather than UCTD?

Another controversial statement made by AG Hogan, questions the possibility to engage in unfairness test of adequacy of charges under the UCTD and refers consumers to look into UCPD instead. Consumers may of course only then require unfairness test of the adequacy of price when it was non-transparent, but that is what this case was trying to argue, thus this claim should not be so easily dismissed, in my opinion. AG Hogan draws our attention to the fact that consumers will bear the costs of such management charges either way (whether they will be disclosed separated or hidden within general interest rates) (para. 36) and that banks may structure their payments in a myriad of ways (para. 37). True, but that is one of the reasons why it is important to keep the payment structure transparent and that transparency may be missing, if consumers are not in state to easily compare offers as some banks decided to introduce separate management charges without telling them what these charges are for. Consumers will then not be able to check whether the same services are offered by other banks within other charges. Of course, I agree with AG Hogan that a misleading practices claim may be feasible then (para. 71), but in many national laws it still will not provide consumers with sufficient individual remedies thus availability of remedies under other rules may be useful.

Are credit providers required then to list services for which they charge payments?

Generally, AG Hogan seems to think it is a too far-reaching obligation. He distinguishes Matei case, where the CJEU considered that consumers will only then have understanding of a contract if they are informed why certain terms have been included in it, due to the question in that case whether the charge was provided in exchange of any additional service (para. 47). If it is possible to ascertain that some services are provided in exchange for a given charge, regardless whether the term establishing such a charge specifies these services or they could be inferred from other parts of a contract, the substantive transparency requirement would be fulfilled (see also paras. 49-53).