Friday, 23 December 2016

Lucky4All pyramid scheme in lotteries - CJEU in Nationale Loterij (C-667/15)

Last week, on December 15th, the CJEU also gave its judgment in a Belgian case Nationale Loterij (C-667/15) that concerned pyramid promotional schemes as unfair commercial practices. The black list in Annex I to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005/29/EC clearly marks in its point 14 as an unfair commercial practice, under any circumstances, 'establishing, operating or promoting a pyramid promotional scheme where a consumer gives consideration for the opportunity to receive compensation that is derived primarily from the introduction of other consumers into the scheme rather than from the sale or consumption of products'.

Nationale Loterij organises public lotteries in Belgium and it filed a complaint against Lucky4All scheme as a prohibited pyramid promotional scheme. Lucky4All allowed lottery players of Nationale Loterij to form groups and play together, thus increasing their winning chances. Ultimately, through eight pyramid levels, 9841 combinations could be played at the same time. Existing members pay an initial contribution of 10 euro and a monthly contribution of 43 euro, allowing to purchase 10 lottery combinations a week. The purchase would be conducted by a representative of the scheme and he would also share the winnings, if any. 50% of the winnings would go to the member who came up with the winning combination, 40% would go to members in higher levels of the scheme (incl. Lucky4All scheme itself) and 10% would be reinvested. The winnings would be capped at 1 million euros. Belgian courts were not sure whether the last condition of the Annex I (also reiterated in previous 4finance judgment of CJEU, C-515/12) was met in this case, namely, whether compensation paid out to existing members of the Lucky4All scheme was primarily or mostly based on financial contributions of new members. This would depend on whether the link between contributions of new members and payment to existing members needed to be direct.

The CJEU is clear that also an indirect link suffices to recognise a pyramid promotional scheme. What is required is that members pay a financial contribution (para 27) and a link between contributions paid by new members and compensation of existing members (para 28). This link, however, does not need to be direct, as the UCPD does not specify such a condition (para 30) and introducing it would lead to easy evasion of this prohibition (para 31). While the assessment of the facts of this case is left to the national court, in para 32 the CJEU suggests that a financial link in this case appears to be 'indirect but certain', as the chances of winning are linked to the introduction of new players to Lucky4All scheme, and when chances of winning increase with the increase of number of players, the scheme introduces a capping of winnings.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Effective judicial protection in unfair terms cases – mixed signals from Luxembourg

Also yesterday the Court of Justice delivered its ruling in case C-119/15 Biuro podróży Partner. The judgment may come as a surprise to some commentators as it markedly deviates from the opinion of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe presented earlier this year (see our previous post here). The Court adopted a more consumer-friendly approach and accepted a national solution, according to which the use of terms equivalent to those included in the register of unfair clauses may lead to an imposition of administrative sanctions, even the term included in the register was declared unlawful in a different factual context. The Court made it clear, however, that effective judicial remedies must be available to traders, on whom the sanctions are imposed.

Underlying dispute and questions referred for a preliminary ruling

Reference for preliminary ruling came from the Court of Appeal in Warsaw, which examined an appeal from the decision of the Polish consumer protection authority (President of UOKiK) imposing a fine of PLN 27 127 (approx. EUR 4 940) on the travel agency Partner. Imposition of sanctions was based on the finding that supplier, in its contracts with consumers, made use of standard provisions equivalent to terms previously declared unlawful by a court and introduced into the public register of unfair terms. The referring court expressed doubts as to the interpretation of Directives 93/13/EEC (Unfair Contract Terms Directive) and 2009/22/EC (Injunctions Directive). It explicitly referred to the Invitel case (C‑472/10), in which the Court held, that its case-law that the effects of a judicial decision declaring unfair terms unlawful may be extended to all consumers having concluded a contract containing the same terms with the same seller or supplier, even if they did not participate in the proceedings brought against that trader. The referring court asked for clarification whether an analogous interpretation can apply to consumers who concluded a contract containing the same terms with a different seller or supplier.

The judgment

According to the Court, in light of Article 6(1) and Article 7 of Directive 93/13/EEC, read in conjunction with Articles 1 and 2 of Directive 2009/22/EC and in the light of Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, the use of standard contract terms with content identical to that of terms which have been declared unlawful by a judicial decision having the force of law and which have been entered in a national register of unlawful standard contract terms can be regarded as an unlawful act also in relation to a seller or supplier which was not a party to the proceedings culminating in the entry in that register.

However, it is essential that the seller or supplier is provided with an effective judicial remedy against the decision which finds that contested terms are equivalent. In particular, the following two elements should be subject to a review:

a) the question whether, in the light of all relevant circumstances particular to each case, those terms are materially identical, having regard in particular to their harmful effects for consumers,
b) the amount of the fine imposed.


The judgement is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, it elaborates on the role of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the context of unfair contract terms. This time the Court explicitly referred to the Charter (paras. 23-27), although it had refrained from doing so in other important cases like Aziz (C-415/11). The Court also made it clear that not only consumers, but also the sellers and suppliers enjoy the fundamental right to effective judicial remedy which must be respected.

Secondly, the judgment sheds some light on the role of unfair contract terms registers, which can be adopted by Member States. The Court did not delve into the debate about the erga omnes effect of judgments, but appeared to have taken it for granted that lists of unfair terms may also be based on court rulings (para. 36), thus differing quite fundamentally from the Advocate-General's opinion (paras. 54-56 of the opinion). Instead of questioning the legitmacy of such registers, the Court focused on the way in which they work in practice and emphasised that not only the formation, but also management of such registers must comply with EU law. In particular, registers should remain transparent and up-to-date. Possible consequences of noncompliance with these requirements have not been specified, though. In case of a serious mishandling of unfair terms registers, initiation of infringement proceedings could perhaps be envisaged. It is worth mentioning that with respect to the abovementioned parameters, the Polish register – with more than 6500 often overlapping entries – left much to be desired. However, as we have already reported, legal framework in Poland has meanwhile undergone a substantial reform and no longer provides for an erga omnes effect of judgements entered into the register. Interestingly, the lack of transparency was mentioned as one of the reasons for the reform.

In the analysed case particular importance was attached to the trader’s possibility to challenge the decision. Emphasis was placed on two elements: assessment of the conduct itself (material equivalence) and the amount of the fine. In this respect the Court aligns, to a certain extent, with the Advocate General, who also stressed the need to analyse contractual terms in a broader context and to allow traders to present factual arguments. Nevertheless, the Court's understanding of the Polish system of judicial review differs rather significantly from the Advocate-General's view (see paras. 42-43 of the judgment and para. 65 of the opinion).

Notwithstanding these discrepancies, it seems justified to say that a system in which administrative sanctions are imposed based on the register of unfair clauses is only acceptable if the reviewing court is competent (obliged?) to analyse the case on the merits. In the Polish judicial practice several reviewing courts have expressed the view that conducting such an assessment should not be their task, as there is a separate procedure adopted specifically for this purpose. In the light of CJEU judgment, such an argument may be contested. According to the Court, assessment of material equivalence undertaken by the reviewing court is sufficient from the point of view of effective judicial protection. At the same time, the Court does not preclude the existence of stronger procedural guarantees for traders. In particular, it does not address the issue whether an alternative solution, in which every contractual term needs to be first assessed by the court in a dedicated procedure and only afterwards the trader can be subject to administrative sanctions, would undermine the effectiveness of EU consumer law.

The assessment of the second element – the amount of fines – has similarly been left to national courts. In this respect, however, the judgment is less controversial as it clearly refers to the well-established principle of proportionality (paras. 44-46).

Concluding remarks

The judgment in Biuro podróży Partner may be regarded as a development of Invitel jurisprudence. The Court seems to have accepted that a judicial ruling recognising particular contract terms as unfair may also produce, at least indirectly, legal effects vis-à-vis other sellers and suppliers. Nevertheless, this was not the main angle of the Court's analysis. While the CJEU acknowledged that administrative proceedings against different traders may be based on registers on unfair clauses, it did not attach much importance to the fact that the register in the case at hand was composed of clauses which had previously been declared unfair by courts in different individual cases. Emphasis was rather placed on the need to provide both consumers and traders with effective judicial remedies in light of Article 47 of the Charter. The Court provided some guidance as to the interpretation of this principle, although this can hardly be regarded as clear and comprehensive. The judgment also sheds some light on requirements concerning the management of unfair term registers, which should remain transparent and up-to-date. Furthermore, it clarifies that even if the administrative sanction is based on equivalence of contract terms, judicial review should seek to establish whether the terms are indeed materially – and not only formally – identical and sanctions are proportional. The question of what should be done if the earlier court had simply erred in its finding was not explored.

Due to a recent reform of the Polish law on unfair terms, the judgment of the Court will be particularly relevant to a number of pending proceedings, initiated before the reform came into force, which were often stayed in anticipation of the CJEU ruling. In this context, it is crucial that the Court did not reject the consumer-friendly interpretation of the previous Polish scheme in its entirety. As regards the availability of effective judicial protection, the assessment has largely been left to national courts. Limited evaluation performed by the CJEU did not disclose any significant shortcomings of the analysed legal framework, contrary not only to the opinion of the AG, but also the part of Polish jurisprudence and academia. It will thus be very interesting to see the impact of the judgment on the ongoing proceedings.

Spanish 'floor clauses' (cláusulas suelo) - EU Court of Justice steps in: nullity is nullity

Judgment of the EU Court of Justice in Joined Cases C-154/15, C-307/15 and C-308/15 (Gutiérrez Naranjo v. Cajasur Banco, Palacios Martínez v. BBVA and Banco Popular Español v. Irles López)

Yesterday the EU Court of Justice gave its long-awaited judgment in the joined cases from Spain on the infamous 'floor clauses' (cláusulas suelo). It is a real Christmas present to Spanish consumers and house-owners: the CJEU has "overruled" national case law that limits the temporal effects of the declaration of nullity of an unfair term. Nullity is nullity. The impact of this judgment on the Spanish banking sector is huge: banks will have to pay back an estimated amount of 3.000 to 5.000 million euros (source: El País). The judgment has already been called a "formidable varapalo judicial a la banca", a tremendous judicial blow to the banks.

'Floor clauses' in mortgage loan agreements establish a minimum rate below which the variable rate of interest cannot fall. Until the Spanish Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo) found them to be unfair in 2013 due to a lack of transparency, they were widespread. The biggest question for Spanish consumers after yesterday's judgment, which has been widely covered in Spanish media, is: how much money do we get back?

The reason why they ask this question, is the Supreme Court's decision to limit the temporal effects of its judgment to after the date of its publication, 9 May 2013, both in respect of collective actions for an injunction and individual actions by consumers claiming repayment. Only the amounts overpaid on the basis of 'floor clauses' after that date had to be paid back. One of the considerations of the Supreme Court was that retroactive (i.e. restitutory) effect of the invalidity of the clauses at issue would give rise to serious economic repercussions. Lower courts in Spain, however, doubted whether the Supreme Court's approach was compatible with Directive 93/13/EEC on unfair terms in consumer contracts. Last July, we reported on this blog that it was permissible in the opinion of the Advocate General. The CJEU has now decided otherwise, which means that Spanish consumers can also claim repayment of the amounts overpaid to the banks on the basis of 'floor clauses' during the period before 9 May 2013, from the beginning of their contract.

For the readers of this blog, the judgment may not be entirely unexpected. The CJEU refers extensively to its previous case law about the interpretation of "not binding on the consumer" under Article 6(1) of Directive 93/13. It reiterates that it is for the national court "purely and simply" to exclude the application of an unfair term (para. 57). The national court may not revise the content of unfair terms, "lest it contribute to eliminating the dissuasive effect of the straightforward non-application with regard to the consumer of those unfair terms" (para. 60). The determination of unfairness "must, in principle, have the consequence of restoring the consumer to the legal and factual situation that he would have been in if that term had not existed" (para. 61). Thus, the national court must impose the repayment of amounts that prove not to be due, which entails "a corresponding restitutory effect" (para. 62). The absence of such restitutory effect would call into question the dissuasive effect that Articles 6(1) and 7(1) of Directive 93/13 are designed to attach to a finding of unfairness.

The CJEU then proceeds to consider that national (case) law may not alter the scope and, therefore, the substance of the protection guaranteed to consumers by the Directive. The Supreme Court was entitled to hold that its judgment did not affect situations in which a judgment with the force of res judicata had been given. While it is compatible with EU law to lay down reasonable time-limits for bringing proceedings, only the CJEU can decide upon a temporal limitation of the effects of a rule of EU law. National (case) law may not aversely affect the substance of the right that consumers acquire under that rule. The temporal limitation made by the Supreme Court is tantamount to depriving any consumer having concluded a mortgage loan contract before 9 May 2013 containing a 'floor clause' of the right to obtain repayment in full of the overpaid amounts. The CJEU concludes that national case law, such as that following from the Supreme Court's judgment of 9 May 2013, ensures only limited protection for consumers. Such protection is incomplete and insufficient and does not constitute either an adequate or an effective means of preventing the continued use of 'floor clauses'.

The CJEU rejects the argument brought forward by, among others, the Spanish government that the question of the effects of the finding of unfairness as regards 'floor clauses' does not fall within the scope of Directive 93/13, because that finding would afford a higher level of consumer protection than guaranteed by the Directive. The review of the substantive unfairness of a clause relating to the main subject-matter of the contract, where the consumer did not have the necessary information on the conditions and consequences of that contract before entering into it, falls within the scope of the Directive.

The CJEU brushes aside the Supreme Court's considerations in one fell swoop. It does not matter whether the 'floor clauses' were in themselves lawful, that their use had long been tolerated on the market, that the banks had complied with the regulatory requirements for information, or that there could be serious economic repercussions. The judgment was a bombshell: "Ahora mismo sale gratis disparar contra la banca" ("Right now, the banks have been made fair game"; source ABC). It is perceived as yet another setback for the Spanish banking sector. A string of preliminary references to the CJEU, starting with the well-known Aziz case, has strengthened the judicial protection of consumers against unfair contract terms. Still, yesterday's judgment comes as a surprising end to a long-running battle between Spanish consumers and the banks, supported by the government. It remains to be seen how the European judgment will be implemented at the national level; most banks do not seem eager to accept an obligation to automatically repay all their clients.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Camera, Camera, on the Wall...

The latest issues of INsights #18 contains a short article by Joasia Luzak 'Camera, Camera, on the Wall...' which introduces to the general public a previous joint publication by P. Lewinski, J. Trzaskowski and J. Luzak 'Face and Emotion Recognition on Commercial Property under EU Data Protection Law' published in Psychology & Marketing, vol. 33, issue 9, pp. 729-746. If you are interested in issues of privacy and how new technologies may challenge it, it's worth it to give it a read.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Rescheduling credit NOT free of charge if payment for credit recovery agency added - CJEU in VfK (C-127/15)

In July we've mentioned an opinion of AG Sharpston in Verein für Konsumenteninformation case (C-127/15), which concerned debt collection agencies and a possibility of them being recognised as credit intermediaries (Debt collection agencies as ... - in this post we present the facts of the case in details). Today the CJEU issued a judgment in this case.

The CJEU shared AG Sharpston's opinion that the credit rescheduling agreement concluded between consumers and Inko, acting as a credit collection agency on behalf of the lender, could not be recognised as a 'free of charge' agreement, if it obliged consumers to repay the total amount of the credit and to pay interests and costs that were not agreed on in the initial contract. The concept of a 'credit agreement' is broad and covers also agreements on rescheduling of repayments of existing debts (para 30), incl. when these are concluded by credit intermediaries acting on behalf of the lender (para 32). Since in the given case, consumers would be obliged to pay first Inko's costs, and then remaining capital due and interest, they had a new obligation placed on them, which was not agreed in the initial contract - to pay the costs of a credit recovery agency (para 38-39). Therefore, the credit rescheduling agreement could not be seen as concluded free of charge.

While the CJEU further agrees that debt collection agency, such as Inko, should be perceived as a 'credit intermediary' (under Art. 3(f) of the Consumer Credit Directive), it doesn't, however, share the view of AG Sharpston that this would place any pre-contractual information obligations on the agency. While credit intermediaries have a duty to inform, this obligation does not stretch to 'credit intermediaries in an ancillary capacity' pursuant to Art. 7 of the Consumer Credit Directive, and this category encompasses such persons who are not credit intermediaries as their main purpose of trade, business or profession (para 47). If the referring court then determines that Inko only acted as a credit intermediary in an ancillary capacity, they would not be found negligent in not providing pre-contractual information to consumers. However, in this case the lender would need to ensure that such information reaches consumers (para 52).

The last part of the judgment is somewhat disappointing, considering that when debt collection agencies contact consumers they won't have an obligation to provide pre-contractual credit information, as long as they would maintain debt collection as only part of their trade. Banks (lenders) might not always be immediately aware that such a contact has occurred, which might hinder their performance of duty to inform.