Hague principles on Choice of law in international commercial contracts. A quick and dirty comparison with Rome I.
I have delayed reporting on the Hague Principles on choice of law in international commercial contract for exam reasons. The principles (and accompanying commentary) have not taken the form of a classic Hague convention, rather, it is hoped that they inspire practice. Bottom-up harmonisation, in other words. For the EU, the Rome I Regulation evidently already harmonises choice of law hence the principles must not be followed where Rome I applies. However in particular given the principles’ ambition to be applied by arbitral tribunals, they may have some effect in the EU, too.
I asked my students to compare the Principles with the Rome I Regulation. Such quick and dirty scan, without wishing to be complete, reveals the following: (I take a bullet-point approach such one might follow in an exam setting. = refers to similarities; ≠ to differences
- ≠ The Hague principles concern choice of law principles only. Rome I covers applicable law in the wider sense (it also determines applicable law if no choice of law has been made).
- ≠: The Principles apply to courts and arbitral tribunals. General consensus is that arbitral panels subject to the laws of an EU Member State as the lex curia are not bound by Rome I.
- ≠The Hague principles only apply B2B, not B2C. They deal with international ‘commercial’ contracts only. Famously Rome I includes and indeed pampers B2C contracts.
- Purely domestic contracts are covered by Rome I, with choice of law being corrected to a considerable degree. ≠ Hague principles: these do not cover purely domestic contracts because they are not ‘international’.
- = party autonomy and depecage are supported in both.
- = universal character: Parties may choose any law, they or the contract need not have any material link with that law.
- ≠ rules of law. Rome I probably allows choice of State law only (its recitals are inconclusive, as is its legislative history). Hague Principles: allows parties to opt for non-State law.
- Tacit choice of law is effectively dealt with the same in both.
- Scope of the chosen law: while more or less similar, one obvious ≠ is that the Hague Principles cover culpa in contrahendo. In the EU, this is subject to the Rome II Regulation.
- Article 11 of the Hague Principles allow for a wider remit for courts and tribunals to apply overriding mandatory law that is not that of the forum.
- Article 9(2): formal validity of the contract may be established by many a law that might have a bearing on it. Favor negoti, in other words: as in Rome I.
A fun exercise, all in all. I for one am curious how arbitral tribunals will approach the principles.
I have delayed reporting on judgment in Case C-322/14, Jaouad El Majdoub v CarsOnTheWeb.Deutschland GmbH, held 21 May 2015, for exam reasons. I reported earlier on the due diligence required of businesses when establishing choice of court through electronic means. The ECJ has now also had its say, in a case concerning a B2B contract for the purchase of a car. [Choice of court in a B2C context tends to be covered by the consumer contracts title hence is not at stake here. [Mark Young and Philipe Bradley-Schmieg review the relevance of the case for B2C contracts here].
Choice of court allegedly had been made in favour of the courts at Leuven, Belgium, in the vicinity of which the seller’s parent company has its head office. The buyer however sued in Germany, the domicile of the German daughter company (and of the buyer, a car dealer). Buyer claims that the contract at any rate was with the daughter company, not the mother company, and that choice of court had not been validly made. He submits that the webpage containing the general terms and conditions of sale of the defendant in the main proceedings does not open automatically upon registration and upon every individual sale. Instead, a box with the indication ‘click here to open the conditions of delivery and payment in a new window’ must be clicked on (known as ‘click wrapping’).
In essence therefore the question is whether the requirements of Article 23(2) of the Brussels I Regulation (now Article 25(2)) are met only if the window containing those general conditions opens automatically, and upon every sale. That Article was added at the adoption of the Brussels I Regulation, precisely to address the then newish trend of agreeing to choice of court (and indeed choice of law; but that is not covered by Brussels I) through electronic means.
The provisions on forum clauses in the 1968 Brussels Convention, Brussels I and the recast are drafted in a way ‘not to impede commercial practice, yet at the same time to cancel out the effects of clauses in contracts which might go unread’ (Report Jenard) or otherwise ‘unnoticed’ (the ECJ in the core case Colzani). the Report Jenard also notes that in order to ensure legal certainty, the formal requirements applicable to agreements conferring jurisdiction should be expressly prescribed, but that ‘excessive formality which is incompatible with commercial practice‘ should be avoided.
The first sentence of Article 25(1) discusses the parties ‘agreement’ as to choice of court. (It leaves a large array of national law issues untouched, such as consideration, mandate, 3rd party effect. etc. On some of those issues, see also Refcomp). The remainder of Article 25(1) concerns the possible formats in which agreement is testified. Article 25(2) (and 23(2) before it) accompanies Article 25(1) a’s option of having the agreement put down ‘in writing’.
In line with the requirement not to be excessively formalistic, the ECJ essentially requires that parties be duly diligent when agreeing to choice of court. If click-wrapping makes it possible to print and save the text of those terms and conditions before the conclusion of the contract, then it can be considered a communication by electronic means which provides a durable record of the agreement.
Note that the Court does not hold on whether the agreement is actually reached between the parties: only that click-wrap may provide a durable record of such agreement, where it exists. (One could imagine choice of court having been protested, for instance, or other issues of national law having an impact on the actual existence of the agreement. and one can certainly imaigne a continuing discussion on what contract was concluded between what parties in the case at issue].
Fahnenbrock: ‘Civil and commercial’ viz bearers of Greek bonds. ECJ puts forward ‘direct and immediate effect’.
Within the context of the service of documents Regulation (1393/2007) but with no less relevance for the Jurisdiction Regulation, the Court held last week on the qualification of an action by (German) holders of Greek bonds, against the Greek State, for the involuntary shave they took on those bonds. I reviewed Bot AG’s Opinion here. He had suggested that in the case at issue, the Greek State, with its retroactive insertion of the collective action clause in the underlying contract, exercised acta uire imperii with direct intervention in the contract itself. Not an abstract, general regime (such as a change in overall tax) which only has an impact on said contract at arm’s length.
The ECJ disagreed. Its finding may be distinguishable, in that it emphasises (at 40 and 44 in particular) that for the service of documents Regulation, things need to move fast indeed and hence interpretation even of core concepts of the Regulation needs to proceed swiftly: ‘in order to determine whether Regulation No 1393/2007 is applicable, it suffices that the court hearing the case concludes that it is not manifest that the action brought before it falls outside the scope definition of civil and commercial matters.‘ (at 49) However in the remainder of the judgment it does refer to precedent in particular under the Brussels I Regulation, hence presumably making current interpretation de rigueur for European civil procedure generally.
As noted in my earlier review, Bot AG opined that the Greek State’s intervention in the contracts was direct and not at a distance from the contract. The Court on the other hand essentially emphasised (at 57) that even though the Greek State, with its retroactive insertion of the collective action clause in the underlying contract, enabled the subsequent vote by the majority of the bondholders (to the dismay of the outvoted applicants), it was the vote, which led directly and immediately to changes to the financial conditions of the securities in question and therefore caused the damage alleged by the applicants – not the Act which enabled it. Not acta iure imperii therefore and hence European civil procedure is applicable.
I need to ponder this a bit further however at first sight the ‘direct and immediate’ effect test brings back soar memories of the ‘primarily aimed at’ test in WTO law, which took some time for the Appellate body to shake off. A bit of a leap, I know, but the trade lawyers among you will know what I mean. Applicants in the case at issue may be left arguing that identifying the Greek State’s intervention as the cause of the change in law, is no application of the butterfly effect (an extremely remote event which is being blamed for downstream effects) but rather an elephant in the Greek bond market room.
‘Direct and immediate effect’ may become an important consideration in the ECJ’s application of ‘civil and commercial’ in EU civil procedure law.
I have delayed reporting on this initiative for exam reasons. The Belgian Parliament is currently debating a private members’ proposal for statute to address so-called ‘vulture funds’. These funds are described by the financial dictionary as ‘A fund that buys distressed debt of commercial companies or sovereign nations at a cheap price and then often sues them for the entire value of the debt. The resemblance to vultures is because these funds profit from the debt of failing companies or poor nations.‘
The text of the proposal (in Dutch and French) is available here. Vulture funds litigation is generally called immoral in the proposal. Reference is made to a number of high-profile recent judgments where vulture funds have been given approval by various courts worldwide, to seek redress against assets held by the sovereign nations concerned, or indeed their creditors. Particularly sore is the enforcement sought against funds destined for development aid.
The proposal essentially defines ‘vulture funds’ and then suggests that recognition and enforcement of relevant judgments or arbitral awards, regardless of the law applicable to the underlying relationship with the government concerned, is considered to be contrary to Belgian ordre public international, hence unenforceable. The proposal as it stands now adds (probably superfluously) that relevant EU (read: the Brussels I recast Regulation) and international (read especially: the 1958 New York Convention) law takes priority.
The part of the proposal that is bound to attract attention is the attempt at defining the ‘vulture’ in vulture funds. Frits Bolkestein for instance (former EU Commissioner) has remarked that buying up ‘bad debt’ need not always be morally reprehensible (I would suggest it is not that part of the fund’ activities which has attracted the Belgian Parliament’s attention). The enforcement /recognition part of the proposal is interesting because it applies ordre public in a categorical manner, rather than in the ad hoc application which both EU law and residual Belgian conflicts law (the Belgian Private International Law Act) ordinarily call for. For residual Belgian law, this is probably Parliament’s prerogative. However for EU law (and the New York convention), a general apprehension against vulture funds may not qualify as a proper exercise of the ordre public exception. Courts at the least may wish formally to disregard the act when the judgment /award concerned is covered by Brussels I cq. New York; however they can point to the sentiment expressed in the Act, to support incompatibility with Belgian ordre public when tested against an individual case.
The drafters are aware that this initiative may be a drop in the ocean. Reference is made to other, national initiatives (France, UK, US) which may point to an emerging pattern of anti-vulture funds sentiment. Indeed the realities of forum shopping mean that vulture funds action will migrate away from the Belgian legal order. On the other hand, Belgium’s safe harbour may also mean that relevant assets will seek refuge there. All of course, presuming the initiative will actually be adopted by Parliament.
Geert. Disclosure: I advised the MPs concerned on the technical aspects of the recognition and enforcement leg of the proposal. [My advice may or may not have been followed ].
I have reported elsewhere (In Dutch – I am hoping for some time at some point to write something similar in English; see in particular para 23) on the fact that the conjunctive ‘or’ has been dropped in all language versions of Article 19 of the Brussels I recast:
The provisions of this Section may be departed from only by an agreement:
- which is entered into after the dispute has arisen;
- which allows the consumer to bring proceedings in courts other than those indicated in this Section; or
- which is entered into by the consumer and the other party to the contract, both of whom are at the time of conclusion of the contract domiciled or habitually resident in the same Member State, and which confers jurisdiction on the courts of that Member State, provided that such an agreement is not contrary to the law of that Member State.
This contrast with the similar proviso on choice of court in employment contracts, Article 23:
The provisions of this Section may be departed from only by an agreement:
- which is entered into after the dispute has arisen; or
- which allows the employee to bring proceedings in courts other than those indicated in this Section.
I have suggested, with others, that much as I do not understand why the conjunctive has been dropped, its deletion, combined with its being kept in Article 23, means that for consumer contracts, choice of court pre the dispute are now simply impossible under the Regulation, while being maintained for employment contracts. I was also puzzled as to why such an important change was not discussed at all in the run-up to the recast.
A little bird at the European Commission (one high up the conflicts tree) now tells me that what has happened in reality, is quite different. Reportedly the ‘juristes-linguistes’ took it upon them to correct an apparent linguistic mistake in the previous version of the Regulation (indeed one going back to the Brussels Convention): there ought not to be a conjunctive when listing more than one, non-cumulative alternative. That would also explain the difference with Article 23, where there are only 2 alternatives.
This clears up the legislative intent. It does not to me, at least, clear up the linguistic confusion. We may have been grammatically wrong under the previous format (I cannot judge the correctness of that in all these language versions). However at least we were legally certain. Being fully respectful of grammatical correctness myself (punctuation jokes never fail to amuse me), I am not sure which one to prefer in this instance.
Anchor defendants in follow-up competition law cases. The ECJ confirms AG’s view on joinders. Sticks to Article 5(3 /7(1). Locus damni for purely economic loss = registered office.
In Case C-352/13 CDC, in which the ECJ held last week, at issue is among others the use of Article 6(1) of the Brussels I-Regulation (8(1) in the recast) when the claim against the anchor defendant has been settled before the trial is well and truly underway.
I reviewed JÄÄSKINEN AG’s opinion here. The ECJ’s overall approach to Article 6 is not to take into account the subjective intentions of plaintiff, who often identify a suitable anchor defendant even if is not the intended target of their action. Like its AG, the Court does make exception for one particular occasion, namely if it is found that, at the time the proceedings were instituted, the applicant and that defendant had colluded to artificially fulfil, or prolong the fulfilment of, Article 6’s applicability. I had expressed reservation vis-a-vis this suggestion, obviously in vain. In cases such as these, where tort is already clearly established (via the European Commission’s cartel finding), the intention of ECJ and AG seem noble. Collusion to defraud is disciplined by the non-applicability of Article 6. However this arguably serves the interests of the parties guilty of the other type of collusion involved: that of defrauding not procedural predictability, but rather consumers’ interest.
Next, the referring court enquired about the application of Article 5(3)’s special jurisdictional rule in the event of infringement of competition law, where that infringement concerns a complex horizontal agreement, spread over a long period of time, and with varying impact in various markets. The AG had suggested dropping application of Article 5(3) (now 7(1)) altogether, both with respect to locus delicti commissi and locus damni. Here the Court disagreed. Difficult as it may be, it is not to be excluded that locus delicti commissi can be established. At 50: one cannot rule out ‘the identification, in the jurisdiction of the court seised of the matter, of a specific event during which either that cartel was definitively concluded or one agreement in particular was made which was the sole causal event giving rise to the loss allegedly inflicted on a buyer.’
For locus damni, the Court again has no sympathy for either mozaik effect of Article 5(3), or indeed the often great difficulties in establishing locus damni, flagged by the AG. At 52: ‘As for loss consisting in additional costs incurred because of artificially high prices, such as the price of the hydrogen peroxide supplied by the cartel at issue in the main proceedings, that place is identifiable only for each alleged victim taken individually and is located, in general, at that victim’s registered office.‘
Registered office as the locus damni for purely economic loss, lest my memory fails me, has not been as such confirmed by the ECJ before. It is also currently pending in Universal. The Court is in my view a bit radical when it comes to justifying registered office as the Erfolgfort: at 53: ‘That place fully guarantees the efficacious conduct of potential proceedings, given that the assessment of a claim for damages for loss allegedly inflicted upon a specific undertaking as a result of an unlawful cartel, as already found by the Commission in a binding decision, essentially depends on factors specifically relating to the situation of that undertaking. In those circumstances, the courts in whose jurisdiction that undertaking has its registered office are manifestly best suited to adjudicate such a claim.‘
Finally, on the issue of choice of court in the agreements between the victims of the cartel, and those guilty of the cartel, the Court follows the AG’s lead. Such clauses are not generally applicable to liability in tort (the clause would have to refer verbatim to tortious liability). Neither do they in principle bind third parties, lest of course there be subrogration (Refcomp). (The referring national court has given very little detail on the clauses at issue and hence the ECJ notes that it could not reply to all questions referred).
In the end, it is the finding with respect to economic loss for which the judgment may be most remembered.
Arbitral anti-suit injunctions and the Judgments Regulation. Grand Chamber holds they are outside the scope, but not therefore invincible.
The ECJ today has held, in a matter of factly manner (I had suspected the Court would be brief), that the enforcement of arbitral awards falls outside the Brussels I-Regulation, where that enforcement by the court of that State, effectively prohibits the party concerned from taking the case to a court in that very Member State. Rich was the main formula referred to, among the various precedents: ‘reference must be made solely to the subject-matter of the dispute‘ to assess the scope of Brussels I’s arbitral exclusion.
Importantly, West Tankers was distinguished particularly on the basis that in the facts at issue, there was no competing court in another Member State, hence no scope for the principle of mutual trust to be violated. The AG’s review of the impact of the recitals newly added by the Brussels I recast, was not addressed at all by the Court.
The judgment does not solve all outstanding issues, however. Firstly, the Court’s reasoning seems to suggest that where competition with a court in another Member State is at issue, effet utile of the Brussels I Regulation might take the upper hand, as it did in West Tankers. Recognition of the award arguably in such case would amount to anti-suit. Further, the Court (this was a Grand Chamber judgment) points out that the award still has to go through the national court’s standard recognition and enforcement process, outside the framework of Title III of the Regulation, instead governed by national residual law as well as the New York Convention. Both of these (including through ordre public) might still offer quite a remit for the Lithuanian courts to refuse recognition.