To protect consumers against unfair terms, Article 6(1) Unfair Contract Terms Directive (UCTD) makes unfair terms inapplicable. For example: the contract includes an unfair penalty clause for early termination? The consumer does not have to pay anything for early termination. Kásler and Káslerné Rábai carved an exception to this rule: national judges can substitute unfair terms when not doing so would have excessively negative consequences for the consumer.
In Dziubak, the Court of Justice of the European Union (hereinafter, “the Court”) was asked to develop this exception further. In a recent publication in the European Review of Contract Law, I explain that the Court – with all due respect – got it fundamentally wrong. This blogpost summarizes the main mistakes in this decision.
What is ultimately at stake in Dziubak is nothing less than the level of protection enjoyed by consumers under EU law and the institutional autonomy of Member States. The Court restricted both legal values with surprisingly poor reasoning. Two of the questions asked by the national judge deserve particular attention. First, to what extent Article 6(1) allows the judge to change “the form of the legal relationship”. Second, whether one could rely on “national provisions not of supplementary law but of a general nature”.
In essence, the answers to these two questions are fundamentally wrong because they: 1) misquote both the directive and a relevant precedent; 2) rely on party autonomy in an asymmetric relation; 3) fail to consider basic EU law principles such as sincere cooperation and effectiveness, but also the institutional autonomy that directives grant to the Member States; 4) finally, the Court ignores the pertinent submission of the professional about the content of national law. Let us consider these points in turn.
1) The Court misquotes the UCTD in holding that the only provisions of national law that can be presumed to be fair are those that “have been subject to a specific assessment by the legislature”. Actually, the relevant provision and recital of the UCTD mention the “provisions or principles of international conventions” as well as the “provisions of the Member States which directly or indirectly determine the terms of consumer contracts”. Do you have a specific assessment by the legislature of a principle of international conventions or of provisions that indirectly determine the terms of contracts? Not necessarily, if at all.
Moreover, the Court cites Dunai to hold that the specific term under consideration in Dziubak belongs to the main subject matter of the contract. The problem is that Andriciuc had explained exactly why this is not the case! Long story short, the Court quoted the wrong paragraph of Andriciuc (43 instead of 40) in past decisions. This error led to an obvious mistake in Dziubak.
2) EU consumer law is premised on the existence of an imbalance in the relationship between consumers and professionals. The asymmetrical character of the relationship justifies suspicion over the fairness of the exchange. It is thus perplexing that both the Advocate General and the Court show preoccupation for an “intervention capable of altering the balance of interests sought by the parties and excessively encroaching on contractual autonomy”.
3) On multiple occasions, the Court has invoked the need to ensure the effectiveness of consumer rights to limit the institutional autonomy of Member States. The most famous example of this trend is the ex officio doctrine – the duty of judges to review of their own motion contract terms. This move is accompanied with suspicion by some commentators, as it touches upon the procedural autonomy of Member States. It is thus perplexing that, without carefully identified grounds in EU law, the Court stepped over the institutional autonomy of Member States enshrined in directives – the choice of how to best allocate the power to protect the rights granted by directives in the national legal system.
4) Finally, the professional had pointed out that there was a provision of national law that is clear enough to be applicable even under the strict parameters given by the Court. This is the case since the provision relied upon in Kásler and Káslerné Rábai to fill the gap was obviously vaguer than the one mentioned by the professional in the present case.
For the reasons sketched here and the additional ones that you can read in the European Review of Contract Law, Dziubak is a fundamentally wrong decision and it belongs to the dustbin of history.