By a judgment of 18 November 2020 in the case Ryanair v DelayFix, the CJEU has ruled that an assignee is not bound to a jurisdiction clause in the contract from which the assigned claim arose. While the ruling concerned the compensation claim of a passenger for a cancelled flight, it is cast in very general terms. It will therefore have far-reaching repercussions for all other cases of assignment of individual claims.
DelayFix, formerly Passenger Right, is a collection agency for the defence of air passenger rights. It started legal proceedings against Ryanair in Warsaw on the basis of compensation rights assigned to it by a Polish passenger after a cancelled flight. Ryanair contested the Warsaw court’s jurisdiction, relying on a choice-of-forum clause in its general terms and conditions in favour of Irish courts.
In the course of the proceedings, the Regional Court Warsaw submitted to the CJEU the question whether the jurisdiction clause is binding under Art 25 of the Brussels I bis Regulation or whether it is invalid under the Unfair Terms Directive.
The CJEU split the question in two different issues: (1) Is the collection agency bound by the jurisdiction clause contained in the airline’s standard terms under the Brussels I bis Regulation? (2) Is the jurisdiction clause in the airline’s standard terms unfair within the meaning of the Unfair Terms Directive?
Third-party Effects of Jurisdiction Clauses
With regard to the first question, the CJEU issued a resounding “NO”. It stated at para 46 that
a jurisdiction clause incorporated in the contract of carriage between a passenger and that airline cannot, in principle, be enforced by the latter against a collection agency to which the passenger has assigned the claim.
An exception would exist only where the collection agency is the successor to all the initial contracting party’s rights and obligations (para 47). A case in point is the take-over of a contract, which is however not to be confounded with an ordinary assignment. The CJEU left it for the referring court to determine whether this exception applied in the present case.
The holding was to some extent predictable from earlier case law, see in particular the CJEU judgment in CDC Hydrogen Peroxide or in Refcomp. In these cases, the CJEU had stressed the relative effect of jurisdiction clauses and the freedom to agree on the competent court. The court had ruled that a third party who did not agree to the jurisdiction clause was bound to the latter only if it had succeeded to the original contracting party’s rights and obligations.
Nevertheless, the CJEU case law had identified several situations in which a third party is bound as a legal successor to a jurisdiction clause to which it had not agreed. It was ruled that such a binding effect would exist where a jurisdiction clause is included in the articles of association of a company (see the CJEU judgment in Powell Duffryn), in the prospectus of a bond (see the CJEU judgment in Profit Investment) or in a bill of lading (see e.g. the CJEU judgments in Russ and Coreck).
The literature had assumed that a legal succession would also exist in the event of an assignment and that the jurisdiction clause would therefore also extend to an assignee of a claim (see e.g. Magnus in Magnus and Mankowski (eds) ECPIL Art. 25 Brussels Ibis Regulation para 161; Stadler in Musielak and Voit (eds) ZPO Art. 25 Brussels Ibis Regulation para 4a). The CJEU now takes the opposite position: The assignee of a claim is not bound to a jurisdiction clause in the contract from which or in the context of which the claim arises.
Negative Effects for Agreements on the Jurisdiction of EU Member State Courts
The ramifications of this ruling are significant. For the first time, the CJEU has held that an assignee is not bound by a choice-of-forum agreement between the assignor and the debtor. As a result, the binding effect of jurisdiction clauses will be weakened. It suffices for a creditor to assign a claim to avoid an unpleasant jurisdiction clause in a contract. This behaviour cannot be excluded by a contractual prohibition of assignment because the latter is not always allowed. The ruling thus opens up manifold possibilities to circumvent jurisdiction agreements.
In this context, it must be remembered that the CJEU judgment covers only agreements on the jurisdiction of a Member State court. Jurisdiction agreements in favour of courts of third countries, such as the UK or Switzerland, will be governed by national law, which often considers the assignee to be bound. Arbitration clauses, which are considered binding on the assignee under most national laws, will also remain untouched. In sum, the CJEU has done a great disservice to EU Member State courts. It has given an incentive to choose third state courts and arbitral tribunals in their stead.
Unfairness of Jurisdiction Clauses
With regard to the second question, the CJEU referred to the national court to assess whether the jurisdiction clause in favour of Irish courts was unfair to the Polish passenger. This is understandable given that the Directive needs national transposition and national courts are competent apply the transposing legislation.
There are nevertheless two important takeaways from the CJEU’s judgment with regard to the assessment of unfairness.
First, the Court of Justice did not consider DelayFix – a business enterprise – as being precluded from invoking the unfairness of the clause under the Unfair Terms Directive, although the latter only covers contracts with consumers. The CJEU stresses that the scope of the Directive does not depend on the identity of the parties to the dispute but on the capacity of the parties to the agreement (para 53). Hence the validity of the clause must also be assessed in a subsequent proceeding between two businesses.
Second, the CJEU did not see the consumer protection provisions of the Brussels Ibis Regulation as an obstacle to a finding that the clause were unfair. One could have considered the protection under the Unfair Terms Directive superfluous given that the consumer is anyway protected by the jurisdiction of the courts at its domicile under Art 17 et seq. of the Brussels Ibis Regulation. That is however not the position of the CJEU. Instead, it asks the national court to assess the invalidity of the jurisdiction clause in an abstract manner, independently of the Brussels Ibis Regulation.
As a result, the Unfair Terms Directive may potentially apply to jurisdiction clause in a business-to-business relation. The protection afforded by the CJEU to the assignee seems unwarranted in light of the purpose of unfair terms control, which is targeted to consumers. The second part of the ruling will further weaken the binding force of jurisdiction clauses in B2B relations.