Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Delay to consumer insurance upgrades

On 9 March 2018 the Council has adopted a directive postponing the application date of new rules on consumer insurance products to 1 October 2018, with the deadline for transposition moved to 1 July 2018 (Council delays application of new rules). The new rules are adopted through the Directive 2016/97 on insurance distribution, which originally was supposed to be applicable as of March this year (see our previous post on this directive).

New Report on the Rapid Alert System

On 12th March, the 2017 Report on the Rapid alert system for dangerous food products was published. The first structure for exchange of information between Member States on dangerous products was set up in 2003, and became fully operational in 2004. Its legislative basis is art.10 of the General Product Directive.

The role of the Rapid alert system is to enhance cooperation between national authorities and assist Member States in fulfilling their obligation to ensure that only safe products are placed in the market.
The latest report illuminates the latest trends in product safety. The most notified type of product has been toys with 29%, closely followed by motor vehicles at 20%. The most notified risks are injuries with 28% and chemical with 22%, while injuries are also the category with the most follow-up actions.

The Member States are required to take follow-up action following the alerts, which is set out in the website. Follow-up in this instance refers to feedback received from the countries as to how they treated the alert, with the most common follow-up action being that of finding the product. There is no formal coordination mechanism in the case where national authorities assess a threat differently. Instead the Commission is meant to act as a mediator. Divergent approaches in product safety, such as a product being identified as dangerous in a Member State but not in another, may be better addressed by a formalised system to resolve such disputes. 

Transparency is a key element to the Rapid alert system as the alerts and the subsequent measures taken by the national authorities are set out in the website. This allows consumers to follow developments and be able to find out whether an unsafe product has been found in their country. The Report points out the different parts of the alert website that are designed to be used also by consumers, such as a layman explanation of the alert system as well as the possibility to subscribe to alerts and even personalise them. Yet, what remains unclear is to what extent consumers are aware of and interested in making use of the Rapid alert website, as the Report does not specify that. It would be interesting to see which groups of consumers are more likely to make use of the website and the services offered. Since toys are the most notified products, perhaps parents of young children are more likely to make use of the alerts.

The Report also notes the most important challenges in the field of product safety for the past year. It notes how the Rapid alert system has allowed the exchange of information on fidget spinners which presented a choking hazard to children, so that dangerous products would be removed from the market or stopped at the borders.

Yet the greatest challenge is that presented by the growing popularity of online shopping. The Member States need to devote a large amount of resources in order to monitor online markets. Yet the actions adopted on an EU level are limited to soft law interventions, such as informational campaigns and cooperation with online retailers for them to take voluntary commitments. As the popularity of online shopping is growing and EU consumers are getting further exposed to products from all over the world which may not adhere to EU standards, it may be time to consider new interventions in the field, as well as further strengthening international cooperation.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Arbitration and effective consumer protection: a field of tension

The judgment of the EU Court of Justice (Grand Chamber) of 6 March 2018 in Slovak Republic v Achmea (C-284/16), a case concerning investor-state arbitration under a bilateral investment treaty (BIT), has raised a dust. The CJEU found that arbitration clauses common to almost 200 BITs between EU Member State violate EU law. The judgment is likely to have far-reaching consequences for intra-EU investment arbitration; it has even been called a "death sentence" for autonomous arbitral tribunals.

For consumer lawyers, the CJEU's findings as regards the relation between arbitral tribunals and State courts will be of special interest. A recurring issue in the context of unfair terms control is whether and to what extent judicial review of arbitral awards - in particular the arbitration clause on which they are based - is still required. Mostaza Claro and Asturcom are two well-known cases in this respect. They both pertain to the scope of the national court's power / obligation to assess of its own motion (i.e. ex officio) the unfairness of the arbitration clause, either in annulment proceedings or at the enforcement stage. Judicial review and ex officio control play a key role in the effective protection of consumers under Directive 93/13.

In the Netherlands, the discussion about arbitration in consumer cases has recently resurfaced. The modus operandi of e-Court, an online platform offering digital dispute resolution, appeared to be contrary to EU (consumer) law.[*] First, the independence of e-Court was questionable: its main clients were health insurance companies who brought claims against consumer-debtors on a large scale. Secondly, consumers were not given a realistic choice between arbitration or litigation before a State court. Thirdly, the procedure was so short that consumers hardly had any time to defend themselves. Fourthly, undefended claims were automatically awarded by an algorithm (a 'robo-judge'). This 'robo-judge' did not seem to exercise unfair terms control. Fifthly, judicial review of e-Court's awards turned out to be limited, which could be problematic in light of the case law of the CJEU.

The example of e-Court shows tension between the 'efficiency' of alternative (out-of-court) dispute settlement and the effective (judicial) protection of consumers. In Achmea, the CJEU emphasised the importance of State courts in ensuring the full application of EU law and the judicial protection of the EU rights (and freedoms) of individuals. Insofar as an arbitral tribunal may be called on to interpret or to apply EU law, while it is not a court or tribunal of a Member State and thus not part of the judicial system, its awards must be subject to judicial review in order to ensure that questions of EU law which the tribunal may have to address can be submitted to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. The CJEU also recalled that requirements of efficient arbitration proceedings may justify the judicial review of arbitral awards being limited in scope, provided that the fundamental provisions of EU law can be examined in the course of that review. The right to an effective remedy before a court of law (Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights), which includes the right of access to court, is such a provision.

Achmea may not be a "death sentence" for commercial arbitration in general, but as far as the application of EU law is concerned State courts - and, through preliminary references, the CJEU - have the final say. This could have implications for the assessment of arbitration clauses in consumer contracts as well.

[*] For our Dutch readers, click here for more background information. A debate about the 'robo-judge' of e-Court is organised at the University of Amsterdam on 22 March 2018 (programme in Dutch). 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Reminder: 'Consumer Law in the Data Economy' conference

A quick reminder: if you are thinking of attending the conference 'Consumer Law in the Data Economy' on 13 April in Amsterdam, there are only a few places left, so please do register through this website.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Facebook and Twitter continue to defy EU consumer protection rules

With the increasing popularity of often American-based social media companies in Europe, consumer organisations and consumer authorities started paying more attention to their compliance with European consumer protection rules. BEUC, motivated by complaints and reports from national consumer organisations, conducted a study in 2014 on the compliance of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox (see the article by M. Loos and J. Luzak, Wanted a bigger stick...), which showed that many of the then-used standard terms and conditions could be questioned as to their fairness. In March 2017 a dialogue took place between social media companies and European legislator, in which the Commission asked for certain changes to be introduced to terms and conditions of these companies, to make them more compliant with EU law (see our previous post on Commission provides a bigger stick...).

Whilst certain T&Cs have been adjusted, eg. consumers are no longer asked to waive their mandatory EU consumer rights (which waiver would not have been valid anyways, but could mislead consumers into thinking that they had lost these rights, like the right of withdrawal) or they can file a claim with a court of their domicile rather than in California (again, term that would not be upheld), the changes are still deemed insufficient (Social media companies need to do more to fully comply with EU consumer rules). The European Commission specifically identifies only partial compliance by Facebook and Twitter with the need to properly inform consumers about content removal or contract termination, and how they regulate their liability. For the full table with compliance assessment see here.

This enforcement action has already lasted a long time, considering that online T&Cs can be changed with a click of a few keys, don't need to be reprinted, etc. There is, therefore, no excuse for social media companies as to the need to prepare these changes administratively. The Commission has been patient, but, perhaps, it is time to stop being lenient and providing these companies with additional opportunities for remedial action and instead to start issuing some incentivizing penalties, instead.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

International conference: The Responsible Consumer in the Digital Age - International and Nordic Perspectives on Consumer Financial Protection

The conference is an exciting opportunity for everyone interested in consumer financial protection. It aims to provide a forum where leading academics and practitioners, researchers, and enforcement officials from multiple jurisdictions join to present and discuss the most recent trends and challenges related to consumer financial protection in the digital age, as they stem from the latest normative developments and court cases. Discussions take place within the following panels:

  • consumer financial protection in digital space

  • consumer debtor protection- debt relief mechanisms and abusive debt collection practices

  • consumer financial protection in the mortgage sector

  • consumer financial protection enforcement

  • consumer protection on financial markets

  • consumer financial protection and liability issues: trends, challenges, solutions.

For more information click here. The conference will take place at the Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen on Thursday 31 May - Friday 1 June 2018.
Paper proposals should be submitted with a suggested title, author’s name and affiliation, an abstract not exceeding 500 words and the intended panel by email to Dr. Catalin Gabriel Stanescu ( by 25 February 2018.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

EP votes on the geo-blocking regulation

After a political agreement on the proposed regulation prohibiting unjustified geo-blocking had been reached in November last year, there was a general expectation that new rules will formally be adopted in early 2018. The first step was made today by the European Parliament, which approved the proposal in a plenary vote.

The new rules define three specific situations in which a different treatment of customers (consumers and businesses as end-users) from different Member States is considered unjustified and is therefore prohibited. These include:
  • The sale of goods without a request to deliver them to a territory in which the trader does not operate (the customer orders a product and collects it at the trader's premises or organises delivery himself);
  • The provision of (some) electronically supplied services, such as cloud, data warehousing, website hosting;
  • The provision of services which are received by the customer in the country where the trader operates (e.g. hotel accommodation, car rental).
In the abovementioned circumstances customers across the EU should be able not only to access online interfaces directed to customers from other Member States and compare a wider range of offers, but also finalise transactions on conditions offered in those territories.

Contentious issues

An element which caused controversy from the very beginning related to the interface of the geo-blocking proposal with the provisions of private international law. In particular, concerns were raised that traders who decided to serve a consumer from another Member State, in compliance with new rules, would be considered to "direct their activities" to the country of that consumer, within the meaning of Article 6 of  Rome I and Article 17 of Brussels I regulation (recast). The text adopted today includes additional wording which aims to mitigate this risk (recital 13).

An even more controversial topic referred to the material scope of the proposal, especially the treatment of electronically supplied services providing access to copyright-protected content. Should, for example, Belgian customers be allowed to buy their Netflix or Spotify subscription for the price offered in the Polish market? This raised concerns not only about price arbitrage, but, more importantly, about the impact of such a solution on the territorial licensing schemes. And these points of criticism were even stronger than in the previous discussions on cross-border portability.

At this point it is worth recalling that audio-visual services were kept out of the scope of the Commission's proposal from the very beginning, even if, at the internal level, this choice was not entirely unanimous. The decision was explained by the need to establish consistency between the scope of the new measure and Article 20 of the Services Directive. Besides, the issue of digitally distributed AV content was to be addressed by the copyright package. 

Limitations of the scope of the act adopted today do not stop here, however. No dramatic change of the status quo is also expected with respect to services providing access to other copyright-protected content such as music (e.g. streaming services), literary works (e.g. e-books) or video games. Services of this kind have technically been kept within the remit of the act (thus falling under the provisions on automatic re-routing or payment methods), but have been excluded from its core access provision (Article 4). 

Concluding thought

The compromise reached in November and, consequently, the final draft must come as a relief to the creative industry. What is left for those hoping for a border-free access to copyrighted works - at least to the extent allowed by existing licensing arrangements - is a "review clause" requiring the Commission to assess, after two years, if the scope of the act should be extended. Until this happens, one can be advised to rather focus on the impact of the geo-blocking regulation - as it currently stands - on the e-commerce market (e.g. Rome&Brussels I litigation, developments in package delivery) as well as the on-going copyright reform, particularly the proposal on online transmissions.

The proposed geo-blocking regulation is now awaiting a vote in the Council and is expected to come into force later this year.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Time to let go of the services/goods distinction? - CJEU in X (C-360/15 & C-31/16)

In an interesting judgment (X, joined cases C-360/15 and C-31/16) the CJEU has decided to broaden the scope of application of the Services Directive (Directive 2006/123), by encompassing within its scope activities of retail trade in goods, such as shoes and clothing. Traditionally, the sale of goods and the provision of services have been kept separate (hence also different legislative measures are applicable to these two types of commercial activities), even though modern transactions often combine elements of both provision of services and sale of goods. In the internal market of the EU there are also two separate freedoms guaranteeing traders their fundamental rights separately in the area of provision of services and movement of goods. 

Whilst this case is not a consumer law case, it could potentially have implications for the understanding of the provision of services to consumers, as well. The Court interprets in this judgment the definition of a 'service' contained in article 4(1) of the Directive, which states that a service is 'any self-employed economic activity, normally provided for remuneration'. This definition of the service applies under the TFEU providing for the freedom of provision of services as well as under this Directive. Its general notion of economic activity provided for remuneration is easily applicable to retail trade in goods, esp. as the Court points out due to the recital 33, which mentions services provided both to businesses and to consumers, such as distributive trades (paras 89 and 91). Whilst most of the Court's comments clearly refer to a possibility of an autonomous interpretation of 'services', just for the purposes of this Directive, paragraph 95 of the judgment makes a more general statement:

"Any such analysis would, moreover, cause particular difficulties with regard to the retail trade in goods, given that that trade nowadays encompasses not only the legal act of sale/purchase but also an increasing range of activities or services that are closely inter-related and that are intended to induce a consumer to conclude that sale/purchase with one economic operator rather than another, to provide advice and assistance to the consumer at the time of that sale/purchase or to provide after-sales services, which may vary considerably according to the trader concerned."

This comment reflects very well the difficulties that nowadays exist in separating the sale of goods activities from the provision of services, which could justify finally abolishing this distinction and e.g. setting one timeframe for calculating the right of withdrawal or one set of remedies for non-performance, regardless the type of transaction. We can see such overarching provisions in the proposal for a directive for the supply of digital content, but not in the provisions of the new proposal for a directive for the sale of goods (originally, online and other distance sale of goods). Which still states that in case of a mixed contract for the sale of goods and provision of services, the directive should apply only to the part of the contract related to the sale of goods. Is it not the time to let go of the services/goods distinction?

Monday, 29 January 2018

Report on the procedural protection of consumers

The European Commission has published a long-awaited report (see our previous blog posts herehere and here) on the impact of national civil procedure on the protection of consumers under EU law; click here for the press release and the full report. The report has been prepared by a consortium of European universities led by the MPI Luxembourg for Procedural Law. The study, which is based on national reports from the EU Member States as well as an online questionnaire and interviews, evaluates whether and to what extent national procedural laws and practices ensure the effective procedural protection of European consumers. The report clearly illustrates that "procedural law matters" [scroll down for more].

As the report points out (p. 28), the application and enforcement of (substantive) EU consumer law largely takes places at the national level. However, there is no equal or level playing field across the EU, and national courts are facing difficulties in understanding and implementing the case law of the CJEU concerning procedural consumer protection. The main uncertainties and divergences pertain to the concept of a 'consumer' (e.g. how to recognise a 'consumer dispute', especially in case of default), the approach to judicial activism and ex officio control (in 'ordinary' proceedings, appeal, payment order and enforcement proceedings), jurisdiction and arbitration issues (cf. the Brussel Ibis Regulation) and the interfaces between individual and collective actions. 

The report consists of an executive summary, followed by five Chapters: (1) the general structure of procedural consumer protection (different systems and mechanisms for enforcement), (2) access to justice (costs, legal aid and knowledge), (3) consumer actions before national courts ('party disposition' vs. an active court, ex officio application of EU consumer law, different types of procedures), (4) actions for collective redress (injunctive vs. compensatory relief, staying of claims, binding effect), and (5) alternative dispute resolution (scope, voluntary or mandatory nature, judicial review). Each chapter provides a summary of the status quo, identified problems and, finally, proposals, improvements and recommendations. In addition, the Annex contains selected data from the national reports. 

The report finds that (p. 29) it "might be advisable to consider providing for minimum standards of consumer protection in civil proceedings in order to improve consumers’ access to justice and increase legal certainty and transparency in these proceedings" [emphasis added]. It also "appears advisable to clarify and strengthen the role of consumer protection associations when filing individual or collective claims". See in this respect the report on collective redress mechanisms, published simultaneously. 

The Commission has already announced a 'New Deal for Consumers', to further strengthen ways of enforcement and redress for consumers. 

Friday, 26 January 2018

Max Schrems is a consumer - with respect to his own claims, Court says

Yesterday, on 25 January, the judgment in the second high profile case concerning the battle of Max Schrems against Facebook was delivered by the Court of Justice. The ruling does not come as a big surprise to those familiar with the earlier opinion of Advocate-General Bobek (for a broader overview of the dispute itself and the AG's opinion see our earlier post here). Indeed, the Court decided to follow the midway approach proposed to it by the AG. According to the Court, a claimant does not lose the status of a 'consumer' for purposes of establishing jurisdiction of the court seised, as a result of his engagement in activities such as book publishing, lecturing, operating websites, fundraising and collecting claims of numerous consumers. However, the jurisdictional privilege arising out of Article 16(1) Regulation No 44/2001 (Brussels I; currently Article 18(1) Regulation No 1215/2012) does not extend to collective redress.

Question 1: Is Schrems himself a consumer?

The Court began its analysis by recalling the general rule of actor sequitur forum rei, upon which the Brussels I regime is based, and the consequent requirement to interpret the rules which derogate from it strictly. This applies to Article 16(1) which allows consumers to bring proceedings against their contractual counter-party in the courts for the place where they are domiciled. 

It then reaffirmed its established line of reasoning, according to which:
  • in the interpretation of the term 'consumer' for purposes of Brussels I regulation reference must be made to the position of the person concerned in a particular contract, having regard to the nature and objective of that contract and not to the subjective situation of the person concerned (para. 29);
  • only contracts concluded outside and independently of any trade or professional activity or purpose, solely for the purpose of satisfying an individual's own needs in terms of private consumption, are, in principle, covered by the special rules aimed to protect the consumer as a weaker party (paras. 30-31).

Mixed purpose and dynamic assessment

The judgment further recalled that in mixed purpose scenarios, i.e. where a person concludes a contract for a purpose which is partly within and partly outside his or her trade or profession, the Gruber test applies. Consequently, a person can only rely on the jurisdictional privilege available to consumers if the link between the contract and that person's trade or profession is so slight as to be marginal and, therefore, has only a negligible role in the context of the supply in respect of which the contract is concluded, considered in its entirety (para. 32).

Having in mind the conclusion reached in Gruber as well as the Court's repeated references to the strict interpretation requirement in the commented judgment, the reasoning presented so far did not appear to bode well for Schrems. Neither did the following passage of the judgment, which introduced an element of novelty to the Court's existing jurisprudence and could be of considerable relevance for the future cases. 

"[I]t is necessary, in particular, to take into account, as far as concerns services of a digital social network which are intended to be used over a long period of time, subsequent changes in the use which is made of those services" (para. 37). Consequently, "a user of such services may, in bringing an action, rely on his status as a consumer only if the predominately non-professional use of those services, for which the applicant initially concluded a contract, has not subsequently become predominately professional" (para. 38).

The Court has thus made clear that the subsequent change of the purpose, for which the services provided under the contract are used, should not be disregarded. This is already a very important take-away. The importance of these follow-on factors is, nevertheless, far from clear. While the Court does not refer to it explicitly, it seems that the time of contract conclusion could still be perceived as the main point of reference, as reasoned by the AG. Based on this premise, one could argue that it is at this stage that the strict Gruber test should be applied. Indeed, the negative formulation "has not subsequently become predominately professional" leaves room for a more consumer-claimant-friendly interpretation at a subsequent stage.

The contract, not the person

As seen from above, with respect to mixed-purpose long-term contracts the judgment leaves several important questions open and its consumer-claimant-friendly reading may be regarded as a stretch. The answer provided by the Court was, nevertheless, favourable to Schrems. The reason seems to lie in the character of his "professional" use of Facebook services. According to the Court, acquiring expertise in the field covered by the services at issue and giving assurances for the purposes of representing the rights and interests of other service recipients cannot lead to the loss of one's consumer status. This is because: 
  • as mentioned before, an assessment of the 'consumer' status is undertaken irrespective of the subjective situation of the person concerned, in particular his or her knowledge and information possessed (para. 39);
  • a contrary interpretation would prevent an effective defence of the rights that consumers enjoy in relation to their contractual partners who are traders or professionals (here especially: the protection of personal data) and would disregard the objective set out in Article 169(1) TFEU of promoting the right of consumers to organise themselves in order to safeguard their interests (para. 40).

Question 2: Can Schrems bring claims of other consumers in his domestic court?

Article 169(1) TFEU, however, did not prove helpful in respect of the second question. Emphasising once again the requirement of strict interpretation, the Court found that the special protection granted to a consumer as a party to the legal proceedings applies only in so far as the claimant or defendant is, in fact, a party to the consumer contract in question (paras. 44-45). A situation of a consumer to whom claims of other consumers were assigned was thus treated analogously to that of a consumer organisation. A different interpretation would, according to the Court, lead to the establishment of a specific forum for consumers to whom claims of other consumers have been assigned, which is nowhere to be found in the Brussels I regulation and which would undermine the predictability of attributing jurisdiction (paras. 46-48).  

Consequently, the jurisdictional privilege set out in Article 16(1) of Regulation No 44/2001 does not apply to the proceedings brought by a consumer for the purpose of asserting the claims assigned to him by other consumers, irrespective of whether the assignors are domiciled in the same Member State, in other Member States or in non-member countries.

Concluding thought

The judgment appears to be a win for consumers who decide bring their civil claims against traders to a court and take their disputes seriously - a result which is hard not to agree with. The ruling is, nevertheless, far from a sweeping consumer victory. Despite a reference to the consistency of EU law in para. 28, the Court maintained the established reading of Gruber for jurisdictional purposes and accepted that consumer status can be lost over time. Last but not least, even if the Court's choice to leave the collective redress dimension up to the European legislator cannot be denied legal grounds, it goes without saying that transnational private enforcement of consumer law remains an issue. One can hope, however, that the experience made in discussions on the GDPR regarding that latter point, along with the recent steps taken by the Commission as a follow-up to its 2013 recommendation on collective redress, will eventually bring something more concrete to reason about.