The environment is on – almost – everybody’s mind. In particular companies committed to sustainable investment are becoming an increasingly relevant economic factor. Accordingly, their business models are now also frequently the subject of court proceedings, raising new legal questions, including those concerning private international law. The CJEU has recently had to decide on such a question.
The Swiss investment firm ShareWood had a clever idea to turn ecological concerns into money: They offered to plant trees in Brazil, harvest them after a couple of years and sell the timber for a profit. Investors were promised ownership of individual trees. They would also rent a piece of land for as long as ‘their’ trees were standing on it. The contracts were expressly submitted to Swiss law.
Soon the relations between the firm and their investors turned sour. Some Austrian residents complained that ShareWood had failed to transfer ownership of the trees to them and sued the firm in Vienna.
The Austrian Supreme Court (Oberster Gerichtshof) considered the law applicable to this dispute. In particular, it was unsure whether the case fell under Article 6(4)(c) of the Rome I Regulation, which makes an exception from the consumer conflicts provisions in the case of “a contract relating to a right in rem in immovable property or a tenancy of immovable property”.
Holding of the CJEU
The CJEU, in a decision dated 10 February 2022, flatly rejects the applicability of Article 6(4)(c) of the Rome I Regulation.
First, the CJEU denies that the contracts concern “a right in rem in immovable property”. Although the investors aimed to acquire property, they targeted the trees and not the immovable property. The Court admits the existence of national provisions under which the tree is considered as being part of the immovable property on which it stands, but wilfully ignores them by applying its famous principle of autonomous interpretation. The Court refers instead to the specific purpose of the contracts, which is to generate income from the sale of the timber. In its view, the trees “must be regarded as being the proceeds of the use of the land on which they are planted” (para 28), and thus not as forming part of the real estate.
Second, the CJEU also denies that the contracts relate to the “tenancy of immovable property” and hence does not fall under the second prong of Article 6(4)(c) of the Rome I Regulation, despite the fact that the investors rented the land on which their tree stands. The Court of Justice revives here some of its case law regarding the exclusive jurisdiction for such tenancy agreements under the old Article 16(1) of the Brussels Convention. Specifically, it cites its decision in Klein, where it had ruled that the application of this provision requires “a sufficiently close link between the contract and the property concerned”. The Court now holds that this link would not exist where the lease is intended “merely to enable the sales and services elements provided for in the contract to be carried out” (para 37).
The result is that the choice of law in the contracts could not overcome the mandatory rules in force at the consumers’ habitual residence (Article 6(2) Rome I Regulation). In the specific case, the chosen Swiss law was thus superseded by the mandatory rules of Austrian law.
The Court of Justice may have oversimplified things a bit. It neglected the fact that the investors pursued a double goal: they wanted not only to make money on the sale of the timber, but also to own the trees while they were growing as a kind of legally protected contribution to the fight against climate change. To ensure this second goal, the contracts stipulated that this ownership would not start after the trees were harvested, but long before. Moreover, the connection with the tenancy of the land was way more straightforward than in Klein, where a membership in a club had been acquired. Here, the land served the purpose of growing a specific tree. There was thus a much stronger connection to a particular piece of land.
Despite these weaknesses, the CJEU judgment may still be defended on the grounds of consumer protection. Indeed, financial profit was a key driver of the whole contractual arrangement and not just a side-issue. In a case like this, the link to the immovable property does not outdo the need for consumer/investor protection. Article 6(4)(c) of the Rome I Regulation should be restricted to those cases that primarily are about rights in immovable property and are not also motivated by a substantial financial purpose. This is the lesson to be learned from ShareWood Switzerland.
If the financial purpose would be dominant, one could think about qualifying the contracts as financial instruments under Art. 6(4)(d) of the Rome I Regulation. Yet this characterisation is difficult given the regulatory definition of this notion (see Annex I C of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID II)). Contracts like the present ones thus fall between the boundaries of Article 6(4)(c) and (d) of the Rome I Regulation, which is good news for consumers because the rules of Article 6(1) and (2) of the Rome I Regulation, favourable to them, will apply.
Many thanks to Amy Held, Felix Krysa and Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld for reviewing this post.