The judgment by the CJEU in Club la Costa (decision of 14 September 2023, Case C-821/21), has already been analysed from a jurisdictional perspective in a previous post. In the same decision, the court also addresses an important issue regarding the applicable law under the Rome I Regulation.
Remember that a British resident had entered for private purposes into a timeshare contract with a British company (Club La Costa) through the latter’s Spanish branch. This contract concerned tourist accommodation in Spain. Subsequently, the British resident had brought a suit in Spain.
The standard terms of the contract stipulated that it shall be governed by English law. However, Spanish law, as the law of the place of the immovable, was more favourable for the British resident than English law. (In particular, Spanish law requires the contract to be entered into the land registry as well as to specify the accommodation and the precise duration of the time-share, see the parallel decision rendered on a similar contract on the same day in Case C-632/21, JF and NS v Diamond Resorts Europe et al.)
In essence, the Spanish court wanted to know whether it could apply Spanish law to the dispute. For this, it had to overcome the choice of law in the contract as well as the consumer protection provisions, which both pointed to English law. If the choice of law was incompatible with Article 3, and Article 6 Rome I did not apply because it was unfavourable to the consumer, the application of Spanish law might have been justified, e.g. under Article 4(1)(c) Rome I (for a discussion whether this provision governs timeshare contracts, see Case C-632/21, JF and NS v Diamond Resorts Europe et al.).
The Spanish court therefore asked the CJEU (1) whether it would be compatible with Article 3 Rome I to consider a choice-of-law clause in standard terms as valid, (2) whether the business partner could also rely on the consumer protection provision of Article 6 Rome I, and (3) whether it could ignore the law of the consumer’s habitual residence where the law that would normally govern the contract (in the absence of consumer protection) is more favourable to the consumer in the particular case.
The Validity of the Choice of Law in Standard Terms
For the first question, concerning the validity of a choice-of-law clause in a standard contract term, the CJEU could refer to its precedent in VKI v Amazon (Case C-191/15). There, it had held that such a clause is valid only if it does not lead the consumer into error about the continued application of the mandatory rules of the law of its habitual residence.
In the present case, the law of the habitual residence of the consumer was selected in the standard term. Hence, there was no risk of any error of the consumer. The CJEU thus deemed the clause to be valid.
Can Businesses Rely on Consumer Protection and can the Consumer Waive such Protection?
The second and third question were answered together by the CJEU. In this regard, it held that the consumer protection provision of Article 6 Rome I is
not only specific, but also exhaustive, so that the conflict-of-law rules laid down in that article cannot be amended or supplemented by other conflict-of-law rules laid down in that regulation, unless they are expressly referred to in that article” (para 78).
This is an important ruling with potential relevance for many disputes (e.g. it was also applied in the parallel case in Case C-632/21, JF and NS v Diamond Resorts Europe et al.). From a theoretical perspective, this ruling means that the law designated by Article 6 Rome I is an objective conflict-of-laws rule and not merely a unilateral defence by the consumer.
This decision has two consequences.
First, the consumer protection provision can also be relied upon by the business party to the contract. This makes a lot of sense. If it were otherwise, the business would have to wait for the consumer to choose her preferred law before it could assess the legal situation.
Second, the ruling means that the consumer cannot waive the protection of Article 6 Rome I. Indeed, this is just the mirror image of the first consequence, because if the consumer could waive the protection, then it would be impossible for the business to rely on the provision. Therefore, this consequence must be applauded too.
It should be noted, however, that the situation in the law of jurisdiction is different on the latter point. According to the CJEU, the consumer can waive the protection by Article 18(1) Brussels I bis Regulation (see decision in Wurth Automotive, Case C-177/22 and the comment by Marion Ho-Dac). This can be easily explained, though, because already the wording of this provision makes it clear that it benefits exclusively the consumer and that the business cannot rely on this protective head of jurisdiction. It is different with Article 6 Rome I, which determines the law governing consumer contracts objectively, and thus for both parties.
— Thanks to Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld, Felix Krysa and Paul Eichmüller for reviewing this post.