In a recent article, Pedro de Miguel Asensio points to a seeming contradiction at the heart of EU consumer law (see La Ley – Unión Europea, issue 116/2023, soon available here). This contradiction concerns the notion of consumer in the rules of substantive consumer law and in EU Private International Law (PIL). The CJEU has constructed in both areas differently.
The Notion ‘Consumer’ in Substantive EU Law
For substantive consumer law, the Court adopts a very wide notion of the consumer, in principle also covering contracts concluded for a dual private and commercial purpose. Consumer protection is excluded only where the commercial purpose predominates the private one (see e.g. in the context of the Unfair Terms Directive CJEU Case C-570/21 I.S. and K.S. v YYY. S.A., para 53).
The Notion ‘Consumer’ in EU PIL
In the context of PIL, in contrast, the CJEU defines ‘consumer’ much more narrowly. Regarding the special provisions of the Brussels I Regulation for the protection of consumers, it has held that they must be interpreted strictly and, in principle, do not apply in case of dual use (see CJEU Case C-464/01 Gruber v Bay Wa, para 39). It would be otherwise only where the link between the contract and the trade or profession of the person concerned was ‘so slight as to be marginal’ (ibid). One must follow Pedro de Miguel when he submits that this narrow interpretation needs to be extended to the Rome I Regulation as another instrument of EU PIL as well (see Recital 7 Rome I).
Divergences Cause Distortions
As a result of these divergences, a contract may be a consumer contract for the purposes of substantive law and a professional or commercial contract for the purposes of PIL. Pedro de Miguel frets that this may give rise to certain ‘distortions’. For instance, in the Lyoness case (commented here), it was questionable whether terms in a cross-border contract were abusive in the sense of the Unfair Terms Directive. Even if this were the case and EU substantive law applied, one could not be sure that the consumer could vindicate the protections of the Directive in a Member State court. After all, the special protective heads of jurisdiction for consumer actions under the Brussels Ibis Regulation are to be interpreted more narrowly than those of the Unfair Terms Directive (see also for the possibility of a waiver of the consumer status under the Brussels Ibis Regulation the comment by Marion Ho-Dac here).
The Impact of Choice-of-Court Clauses
Pedro de Miguel brings the problem to a head with the hypothetical example of a contract with an unfair term that also contains a choice-of-court clause in favour of a non-Member State court, e.g. a Swiss court. In this case, the Member States’ courts would have to decline jurisdiction if the EU resident had pursued more than a marginal professional or commercial purpose with the contract. This evidently undermines the goals of the Unfair Terms Directive, which most certainly would not be given effect by third country courts where their general PIL rules do not lead to a Member State law. Pedro de Miguel denounces this as a hole in the EU consumer protection rules.
Attempting an Explanation
The seeming incoherence between EU substantive and Private International Law may have quite a simple reason. In its substantive law, the EU is free to take consumer protection to an extreme level, covering also contracts that serve up to 49 % a professional or commercial purpose. However, on the international plane, the EU policy clashes with that of other regions or states that follow a much more restricted concept of the consumer. In light of these divergences, it may be advisable to not fully follow the EU consumer protection policy through in order to avoid quarrels with third country courts over jurisdiction or the non-recognition and/or enforcement of Member State judgments.
Comparison with Convention Law
However, the wider notion of the consumer of EU substantive law is seemingly in line with the Hague Choice-of-Court Convention and the Hague Judgments Convention. Both contain special rules for contracts concluded by a consumer (see Art 2(1)(a) Hague Choice-of-Court Convention and Art 5(2) Hague Judgments Convention), and define the consumer as a person acting ‘primarily’ for personal, household or family purposes. This wording of ‘primarily’ seems to be more in line with the extensive definition of the consumer in EU substantive law than with the restrictive of EU PIL.
However, one must also pay attention to the notion ‘for personal, household or family purposes’, which is in fact much more restrictive than both EU notions. The latter apply whenever a contract is concluded outside a trade or profession, never mind whether it is for personal, household or family or for other purposes, e.g. a speculative investment or saving for retirement. One may thus say that the convention strikes a middle ground between the wide and the narrow consumer notion. Without venturing into an analysis of the compatibility of the Brussels Ibis Regulation’s rules with the Hague Conventions, one can say that the latter do not support an extreme version of consumer protection.
The definition of the ‘consumer’ in EU substantive law differs from that in EU PIL. This may mean that EU citizens and residents do not get the full benefit of the Union’s substantive law when they go abroad. But this may be a price worth paying for international harmony and avoiding quarrels with other states.
— Thanks to Paul Eichmüller for reviewing this post.