Villalon AG has opined in Case C-190/11 Mühlleitner [Opinion as yet not available in English].
Article 15 of the Brussels I ‘Jurisdiction’ Regulation, offers protective jurisdictional rules for consumers, provided one or two conditions are met. Article 15(1)(c) [statutory law likes its subdivisions) offers the generic criterion for application:
1. In matters relating to a contract concluded by a person, the consumer, for a purpose which can be regarded as being outside his trade or profession, jurisdiction shall be determined by this Section, without prejudice to Article 4 and point 5 of Article 5, if: (…)
(c) in all other cases, the contract has been concluded with a person who pursues commercial or professional activities in the Member State of the consumer’s domicile or, by any means, directs such activities to that Member State or to several States including that Member State, and the contract falls within the scope of such activities.’
In Pammer /Alpenhof, Alpenhof had argued amongst others that that its contract with the consumer is concluded on the spot and not at a distance, as the room keys are handed over and payment is made on the spot, and that accordingly Article 15(1)(c) of Regulation No 44/2001 cannot apply. The Court of Justice had answered this with the very paragraph which has now tempted the Oberster Gerichtshof – Austria, into the preliminary review, para 87:
‘ In that regard, the fact that the keys are handed over to the consumer and that payment is made by him in the Member State in which the trader is established does not prevent that provision from applying if the reservation was made and confirmed at a distance, so that the consumer became contractually bound at a distance.’
This paragraph seemed to suggest ‘at a distance’ as the trigger for the application of Article 15(1)(c) which in turn led to the preliminary question:
Does the application of Article 15(1)(c) [ ] presuppose that the contract between the consumer and the undertaking has been concluded at a distance?
Villalon AG replied on 24 May, making specific reference to the history of Article 15, in particular with reference to the old text, under the Brussels Convention. That old provision seemed to imply that where the consumer’s contracting party had encouraged him to leave his Member State of domicile so as to conclude the contract elsewhere, the consumer could not make recourse to the protective regime. Other changes to the relevant title, too, suggested if anything that Council and Commission’s intention with the new provisions was definitely not to limit their scope of application: had they intended to do so, the AG suggests, the Institutions would have limited Article 15’s scope to contracts concluded at a distance. Court of Justice case-law hints at the same need for a wide approach [in particular, Ilsinger, where the Court of Justice held that the scope of Article 15(1)(c) appears ‘to be no longer being limited to those situations in which the parties have assumed reciprocal obligations.’]
The AG concludes with the suggestion that the reference to ‘distance’ in para 87 of Alpenhof refers to a factual circumstance, rather than a condition for application.
To many the conclusion may seem obvious, and the issue covered by acte clair (meaning the national court could have referred to the arguably obvious meaning of the provision, not to have to refer to the Court of Justice). In particular, the COJ has repeatedly emphasised the relevance of the consumer title in the Jurisdiction Regulation. On the other hand, however, the same Court has been quite anxious to give national courts detailled and specific instructions on the application of tiny details in the Regulation, making application of the acte clair doctrine quite difficult: many things one thought were clear, have been answered by the Court in unexpected ways.
National courts therefore are caught between the proverbial rock and the hard stone. Either they refer profusely, thereby feeding the cycle of micromanagement. Or they make extended use of acte clair, thereby risking unequal application of the Regulation (and potentially European Commission irk). On the issue of Article 15(1)(c) at least, the former would seem to prevail: in Slot, Case C-98/12 (hitherto still pending), the German Bundesgerichtshof has asked essentially the same question.