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.


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