Recent developments in European Consumer Law: Of unfair terms, novation agreements and other not so magical creatures
as the spring advances (not really, for those of us in continental Europe, but we keep faith), we should catch up with some case-law developments from the past weeks.
Hereby, thus, a quick overview of a somewhat convoluted case decided by the CJEU on 29 April – IW v Bank BPH SA. After Dziubak, it is no surprise that more cases would be pouring in from Poland on the subject of credit in Swiss francs.
In the case under discussion, the referring court was of the opinion that the consumers had been sufficiently informed about the risks associated with the mortgage contract, so that the main indexation interest was not unfair; however, within this mechanism, the bank had included an indication that the final cost to the consumer would incorporate a resale margin for the bank which was not further elaborated upon in the contractual documents. This left the bank unconstrained in determining such margin and the consumer unaware of what factors may affect the bank’s determination.
The blank resale margin clause was later amended by means of an agreement between the parties which, according to the Court, established a sufficiently clear mechanism – thus “fixing” the term.
While the consumers did not agree with the referring court’s assessment of the main indexation terms, ultimately the questions for the CJEU all concerned the situation with regard to the resale margin mechanisms.
The first question concerned the effect of the agreement amending the resale margin clause on the unfairness assessment: must a court exert unfair terms control in spite of the agreement? According to the Court, in substance, the agreement prevails when the consumers have signed it in full awareness of the fact that they were waving their rights to unfair terms control. Otherwise, the Court is supposed to assess the term and, where it finds it unfair, establish that the consumers are entitled to be put in the same position where they would have been without the agreement.
The second and third questions concerned the admissibility of a finding that only the resale margin term should be invalidated, while leaving the rest of the indexation mechanism in place. Would such approach go against the CJEU-sanctioned prohibition of court revision of unfair terms? The Court does not give a final answer to this question, but instructs the national court to establish whether the resale margin determination can be considered as a “contractual obligation distinguished from he other contractual terms, capable of being the subject of an individual examination of its unfairness” [para 71]. The removal should not, on the other hand, remove an unfair element within a term, altering “the substance” of such term [para 80]. This is an interesting question in fact: on the one hand, it is obvious that the combination of indexation and resale margin was, taken together, the mechanism through which the cost of credit was fixed. On the other hand, the clause determining the bank’s resale margin could very well be separately set at zero, without – as the referring court observes, creating a gap. This sounds, at first appraisal, like a question that would be best addressed in legislation. While the referring court mentioned the existence of legislation dealing with the unfair term in the MS, this legislation, which was passed after the contract was entered into, is in essence irrelevant to the dispute according to the CJEU.
The fourth question is more straightforward and concerns the consequences of finding that the resale margin term was unfair: when should the contract be invalidated? According to established case-law by the CJEU, whether a contract should be held in place after a finding of unfairness depends on whether, under national law, it is capable of continuing to function – based on an objective assessment and thus not on the subjective position of one of the parties . The referring court wondered whether the contract’s invalidation had a sanctioning character and to what extent the consumer’s preference played a role, to which the court replied by summarising its case-law to the effect that the judge must first determine the consequences of unfairness on the contract and then, when relevant, allow the consumer to decide whether they prefer invalidation of the contract or maintaining the unfair term.
The fifth and final question went into the referring court’s role with respect to the consumer’s choice between invalidation and preservation of the unfair term: should the court actively inform the consumer about their options and the implication of their choices, or could this function be entrusted to the consumer’s legal representation when they have one? The CJEU’s answer in this respect is very clear: since it is upon the court to make sure that the consumer’s rights in the procedure are respected, and in particular that their decision in respect of the outcome of unfair terms control is the result of “free and informed consent”, the court must also inform the consumer about their choices .
Nothing in this decision comes particularly as a surprise. The more difficult points, ultimately, go back to the referring court who needs to decide whether the consumer has in fact waived the term’s invalidity via the novation agreement and, if not, must assess whether the resale margin mechanism can be severed from the overall indexation mechanism (and, if not, must decide on the future of the contract). Unlike in Dziubak, it is not obvious in this case that the consumers would gain from the contract’s overall invalidation, which could or could not add to the case’s complexity. Curious what the Polish colleagues in the blog team may have to say on this case!