This post was authored by François Mailhé, who is Professor of Private Law at the University of Picardie Jules Verne.
At last !
It has been more than 10 years since the French Cour de cassation decided to declare war on asymmetric forum selection clauses in the Banque de Rothschild case (Cass. fr. civ. 1, 26 September 2012, No. 11-26.022). In the span of those 10 years, no less than 7 judgments were rendered by the Cour de cassation itself. And if it found its rationale in 2015 (Cass. fr. civ. 1, 25 March 2015, No. 13-27.264, ICH), almost each new judgment tested and tried a different angle, a different legal basis. At last, two weeks ago, the Cour de cassation chose the path of wisdom and referred a prejudicial question to the European Court of Justice (Cass. fr. civ. 1, 13 April 2023, No. 22-12.965)!
Once upon a Time: The Brussels Convention
Let’s remember the surprise most felt at reading the Banque de Rothschild decision in 2012. Even if some French court of appeal decisions in maritime cases had already excluded the clause as “potestative” in the 1990s, paragraph 3 of Article 17 of the Brussels Convention seemed to set them aside as a marginal and wrong stream of cases.
Why “potestative”? Because those clauses characteristically consist of two limbs : one, restrictive, pointing in general to only one court and which binds one party, another, liberal, offering the other party a much vaster choice of forum.
The Brussels convention used to hold a specific rule on such clauses, implicitly accepting such imbalance (Article 17, §3 : “If an agreement conferring jurisdiction was concluded for the benefit of only one of the parties, that party shall retain the right to bring proceedings in any other court which has jurisdiction by virtue of this Convention”), but its existence and the reasons of its disappearance from the texts (uselessness, as it seems…) was progressively forgotten by French courts, who became suspicious of such clauses.
From Potestative to Imbalance
This suspicion grew at the same time as the generalization of the “significant imbalance” test. Starting in consumer law, it later appeared in French business law (today at L. 442-6, I, 2° of the French Commercial Code) and last as a general norm of contractual law for standard form contracts (art. 1171 of the Civil Code). The same concern for imbalance in asymmetric forum selection clauses was clear when the Banque de Rothschild decision set one aside as “potestative” (i.e. to the sole power of one of the parties, a much criticized legal ground) but also later, when the ICH case changed the standard from potestativity to foreseeability, as the Cour expressly refer to imbalance as the justification for this new standard.
It would be a long reading if this post was to detail all the different phrasings, legal grounds and sometimes even contradictory decisions that the Cour de cassation employed to keep its case-law. One may only refer, in English, to the excellent work of Brooke Marshall, published last month, to study the whole case law in depth. Just to give a hint as to its subtlety (or confusion, depending on the point of view), a clause stating that “the bank is nevertheless entitled to bring an action against the borrower before any other competent court” was set aside for unforeseeability (the ICH case), while a clause that “reserved for Apple the possibility of bringing an action, at its choice, before the Irish courts, the courts of the place where eBizcuss has its registered office or the courts of the countries in which Apple suffered damage” was validated (Cass. 1re civ, 7 October 2015, No. 14-16.898, eBizcuss).
However, the solution still raised many difficulties. The first is, and will perhaps remain for a long time, its inadequacy to the problem. In the terms of the case law, the “potestative” character first, the “imbalance” second, betrays the fact that the solution aimed primarily at restoring a certain fairness to the clauses, a fairness defended by the Brussels texts for employees, insureds and consumers, but absent for SMEs and other non-consumers, who are often without sufficient jurisdictional protection in the face of these clauses. On this point, one can only hope for a reform of the texts, but this does not yet seem to be part of the debate (see the Study to support the preparation of a report on the application of Regulation (EU) No 1215/2012).
What Legal Basis?
The second difficulty is of source: where to find the normative support of this solution? The Cour has used several bases, some of which are taken from European case law, but none of which is very solid (see e.g. Cass. 1re civ., 3 October 2018, No. 17-21.309. I discussed that in Lexisnexis’ JCP G 2018, 1300: among other things, in my opinion, the ECJ never really required selected forums to be foreseeable as a condition of their validity).
This difficulty has been deepened by Brussels I bis regulation, introducing a specific rule for such clauses substantial validity: “unless the agreement is null and void as to its substantive validity under the law of that Member State” as stated by Article 25.
A new question arose : was this French case-law the national proposition of a European uniform solution, interpreting Article 25, or could it be a French solution, by extension of the scope of this referral to the national law of the chosen court (provided French courts are chosen)?
And, as a problem never comes alone, the asymmetric nature of the clause made the application of the second limb of the question even more complex : in case asymmetry was a substantive problem to be dealt with by the national law of the chosen court, which court must be taken into account?
Those two questions are asked, at last, by the Cour de cassation in this 13 April decision. A third one completes the package: whether the enforceability of such asymmetric clause (more specifically one which allows one of the parties to choose any objectively competent court) is an issue to be governed by a uniform European rule.
The Questions Referred
From this very debatable French case-law were therefore born three interesting questions.
First, the ECJ will have to interpret the scope of the substantial validity rule : what is to be governed by uniform European rules, and what may be delegated to national laws?
Second, in case the ECJ decides for a uniform rule, what is to be the future of asymmetric clauses? Will the Court draw from the old versions of the Brussels convention? Will it be sensitive to problems of imbalance beyond consumer-professional relationships?
Last, in case the ECJ decides for the inclusion in the scope of Article 25 conflict rule, how to apply this conflict rule, relying on the chosen court, when the clause actually points at several chosen courts or, worse, an undetermined number of courts?
Three very interesting and important questions were asked. Now it is up to the ECJ to pick up the glove. Let’s hope (perhaps with moderate expectations though) that its answer fits the challenge.