The Brussels Court of Appeal held in A v P on 25 March 2013, on a choice of court agreement included on the internet. Its judgment should be a reminder of the need to take care of the design and formulation of choice of court clauses in standard terms and conditions via the internet. The judgment can be consulted via this issue of Tijdschrift@IPR.be (p.37 ff).
The CA first of all correctly holds that the alleged non-existence of a contract does not affect its duty to review whether the choice of court agreement which is part of the contract, might be valid.
Company P has its registered seat in Poland. Company A in Belgium. P had sent A a quote for delivery of a substantial amount of solar panels. The judgment does not specify how the offer was sent however it was subsequently countersigned by A. Subsequent e-mails specified that the panels had to be delivered in Poland. The quote contained a reference to a weblink which contained P’s standard terms and conditions. No further written or verbal reference had been made by the parties to a choice of court agreement. P’s standard terms and conditions contained choice of court in favour of the courts at Brussels.
The Court of Appeal referred to Colzani in which the ECJ held that ‘IN THE CASE OF A CLAUSE CONFERRING JURISDICTION , WHICH IS INCLUDED AMONG THE GENERAL CONDITIONS OF SALE OF ONE OF THE PARTIES , PRINTED ON THE BACK OF THE CONTRACT , THE REQUIREMENT OF A WRITING UNDER THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF ARTICLE 17 OF THE CONVENTION OF 27 SEPTEMBER 1968 IS ONLY FULFILLED IF THE CONTRACT SIGNED BY THE TWO PARTIES INCLUDES AN EXPRESS REFERENCE TO THOSE GENERAL CONDITIONS .‘ [apologies for the capital letters: this is how ECJ judgments used to be reported].
The Court of Appeal noted that the standard terms and conditions were not included in the quote: rather, only a reference to a website was made. The Court does entertain (but rejects) the possibility of the link being a ‘communication by electronic means’ within the meaning of article 23(2) of the jurisdiction Regulation.
I disagree with the guillotine application of Colzani’s reference to the inclusion of choice of court in the signed document. Surely Colzani can be applied mutatis mutandis to exclusively electronically available STCs. What’s more relevant in my view is the Convention’s (and now the Regulation’s) emphasis simply on making sure that parties have actually agreed to the clause: see Colzani at para 7: ‘BY MAKING SUCH VALIDITY SUBJECT TO THE EXISTENCE OF AN ‘ AGREEMENT ‘ BETWEEN THE PARTIES , ARTICLE 17 IMPOSES ON THE COURT BEFORE WHICH THE MATTER IS BROUGHT THE DUTY OF EXAMINING , FIRST , WHETHER THE CLAUSE CONFERRING JURISDICTION UPON IT WAS IN FACT THE SUBJECT OF A CONSENSUS BETWEEN THE PARTIES , WHICH MUST BE CLEARLY AND PRECISELY DEMONSTRATED .‘
A simple reference to standard terms and conditions in the paper contract signed by the parties, offers no more or less certainty that the party who agrees to the other’s conditions, has actually even read them (indeed as we all know, many never read the small print until it comes to litigation or complaint). What matters more, is that it can be reasonably assumed that they had at least the opportunity to do so. That is no less the case in the event of STCs included on the web.
However, in such case, the party whose STCs are included on the web, needs to ensure that the other party can be reasonably assumed to have consulted them, in the version applicable to the contract at issue. In my view this requires the STCs to be properly displayed on the website, and, in the event of changes in versions, for them to be numbered accordingly (and for that number or date to have been referred to in the undersigned quote, or contract, or electronic order). On this, I do agree with the Court of Appeal: the Court pointed out that the weblinked STCs had not been recorded in durable fashion (see Article 23 of the Jurisdiction Regulation).