The Ineradicable Special Consumer Conflicts Rule
This post is not about Article 6 Rome I, but about Article 6 of the Unfair Terms Directive (UTD). Paragraph 2 of this provision invalidates any choice of law of a non-EU Member State that would result in the consumer losing the protection afforded by the UTD, provided there is a ‘close connection with the territory of the Member States’.
There have been similar conflict-of-laws provisions hidden in secondary EU legislation outside the Rome I Regulation. They have however been increasingly eliminated from EU law, leading Felix Wilke to speak about their ‘silent death’. Not so Article 6(2) UTD, which has neither died nor been amended since the Directive’s adoption in 1993.
A Question of Substantive Scope
What is the precise scope and operation of this provision? This issue became relevant in a recent decision by the CJEU in the Lyoness case (8 June 2023, Case C-455/21). A Romanian resident had entered over the internet into a membership contract with a Swiss company, providing him with certain benefits such as refunds when shopping with companies associated to the scheme. The contract was not connected to his profession as a mechanical engineer.
In the end, the contract turned out to be not so favourable after all. The Romanian resident therefore brought an action in a court in his home country, seeking a declaration that some of its terms are ‘unfair’ within the meaning of the Romanian law transposing the UTD. The Romanian court referred a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU concerning the substantive scope of the Directive, in particular the notion of the ‘consumer’.
Everywhere You Go, Always Take Consumer Protection With You?
Before answering the question referred, the CJEU discusses as a ‘preliminary point’ whether the case falls within the geographical scope of the Directive (paras 37–45). This was not self-evident because the membership contract contained a choice of Swiss law. Yet the CJEU overcomes these doubts by referring to Article 6(2) UTD (and also to Article 6(2) Rome I, which however does not play any role in the rest of the decision) (para 39).
Then, the CJEU derives a most remarkable conclusion from Article 6(2) UTD: where a contractual clause designates the law of a third country as applicable and the consumer has his or her habitual residence in a Member State, the national court must apply the provisions transposing the UTD into the legal order of that Member State (para 45). Taken literally, this would mean that the provision on unfair terms of their country of residence protects EU consumers everywhere. It would cover them like a shield they carry, even when they become ‘active consumers’ and go to a third country to acquire products and services there.
Making Sense of It All
Evidently, this goes too far. The CJEU neglects that Article 6(2) UTD is conditioned on ‘a close connection with the territory of the Member States’. This may be a slip of the hand. Yet this condition is itself problematic because its formulated very vaguely, especially in comparison to the much more precise criteria provided later by the Rome I Regulation.
The rather obvious solution to this problem would be to interpret this connection in line with Article 6 Rome I, especially its para 1 and 4(a). The CJEU and the European Commission, however, think otherwise. They suggest Article 6(2) UTD would grant consumers extra protection because the conditions of its application would be broader than that of Article 6 Rome I or its forerunner, Article 5 of the Rome Convention (see CJEU, Commission v Spain, Case C-70/03, para 33; European Commission, Guidance on the Interpretation and Application of the UTD, para 1.2.5). But just how broad is this protection?
Member States have identified additional cases in which unfair terms control could apply beyond those mentioned in the Rome I Regulation, e.g. where the contract was concluded on their territory (see Article L231-1 French Code de la consommation), or where the contract concerns domestic immovable property (Article 78(4) Italian Codice del consumo; Article 3 Spanish Ley 7/1998, de 13 de abril, sobre condiciones generales de la contratación). Some Member States require a comparison with the law that would be applicable in the absence of a choice of law (§ 13a Austrian Konsumentenschutzgesetz), while still others presume a close connection would exist in the cases mentioned in Article 6 Rome I, yet leave open the application to other cases (see Article 46b German EGBGB).
This situation is messy. EU consumers will not be protected in the same way, but depending on the court in which they sue. This creates divergences in the level of consumer protection, opens up opportunities for forum shopping, and makes the applicable law unforeseeable.
A specific conflict-of-laws rule in the UTD is unnecessary. The main protective purpose of Article 6(2) UTD was achieved by introducing the EU-wide uniform Article 6(2) Rome I. A further protection may even do more harm than good because it makes the international scope of the UTD dependent on Member States’ implementation. The gain in consumer protection is negligible when weighed against the legal uncertainty caused. Article 6(2) UTD has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished. In the meantime, it should be interpreted in line with the criteria laid down for the international application of EU consumer law in Article 6 Rome I to avoid divergences between national laws as far as possible.
One more general remark: mandatory rules on the scope as well as overriding mandatory rules in special EU acts risk undermining the uniformity of conflicts rules and the foreseeability of the applicable law. A further important drawback of such rules is that they only protect EU-residents and not those of third states, which fuels ‘EU unilateralism’ and breaks with the universalism of EU PIL. If the conflict rules are insufficient, the way to go is to amend them and not to add unilateral conflicts provisions hidden in substantive rules.
— Many thanks to Emeric Prévost, Felix Wilke, Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld, Felix Krysa and Paul Eichmüller for helpful comments.