Tilman v Unilever. A preliminary reference on flag-wrap B2B choice of court under Lugano.

A puzzling title perhaps I agree but let me explain. Thank you Matthias Storme for alerting me to the May 2021 preliminary reference by the Belgian Supreme Court, a reference now known at the CJEU as Case C-358/21 Tilman SA (of Belgium) v Unilever Supply Chain Company AG (of Switserland). Elucidation is asked of Article 23 of the Lugano 2007 Convention, the choice of court provision in the Convention.

The question referred, reads

Are the requirements under Article 23(1)(a) and (2) of [Lugano 2007], satisfied where a clause conferring jurisdiction is contained in general terms and conditions to which a contract concluded in writing refers by providing the hypertext link to a website, access to which allows those general terms and conditions to be viewed, downloaded and printed, without the party against whom that clause is enforced having been asked to accept those general terms and conditions by ticking a box on that website?

Article 23 Lugano 2007 is identical (mutatis mutandis: the only difference being that A23 Lugano refers to ‘States to the Convention’ instead of ‘Member States’) to the former Article 23 of the Brussels I Regulation, Regulation 44/2001.  A23 Lugano 2007 reads in relevant part

    1. If the parties, one or more of whom is domiciled in a State bound by this Convention, have agreed that a court or the courts of a State bound by this Convention are to have jurisdiction to settle any disputes which have arisen or which may arise in connection with a particular legal relationship, that court or those courts shall have jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction shall be exclusive unless the parties have agreed otherwise. Such an agreement conferring jurisdiction shall be either: (a) in writing or evidenced in writing; or (b) in a form which accords with practices which the parties have established between themselves; or (c) in international trade or commerce, in a form which accords with a usage of which the parties are or ought to have been aware and which in such trade or commerce is widely known to, and regularly observed by, parties to contracts of the type involved in the particular trade or commerce concerned.
    2. Any communication by electronic means which provides a durable record of the agreement shall be equivalent to ‘writing’.

The case at issue therefore does not question so-called ‘click-wrap’ consent to general terms and conditions – GTCs. These require the contracting partner to tick the relevant box which then ‘wraps up’ the agreement, including choice of court (and law). They were the subject of CJEU El Majdoub v CarsOnTheWeb. In that judgment, the CJEU held that in a B2B context, where the GTCs that have to be ticked can be saved and printed, they can be a ‘durable’ record of consent. (Not: consent itself: that is subject to a separate analysis, under the relevant lex causae, see below).

Rather, the title of this post calls the issue one of ‘flag-wrap’: one of the parties’ (Unilever’s) GTCs  are contained on a website, and their existence is ‘flagged’ in the written main contract. Does that suffice to bind the parties as to the GTC’s choice of court (in favour of the English courts; note the courts were seized pre-Brexit; the UK’s Lugano troubles are not engaged)?

The provisions on forum clauses 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’ (Jenard Report), or otherwise ‘unnoticed’ (CJEU Colzani). The Brussels Convention and now the Regulation show great support for choice of court agreements and aim not to be as overly formalistic as the conditions imposed upon them.

Importantly, valid choice of court does require both a clearly and precisely demonstrated consent to be bound by choice of court and one or another Article 25-sanctioned form of expression of that consent. In Colzani the CJEU held [7]:

the requirements set out in Article [25] governing the validity of clauses conferring jurisdiction must be strictly construed. By making such validity subject to the existence of an ‘agreement’ between the parties, Article [25] imposed upon 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. The purpose of the formal requirements imposed by Article [25] is to ensure that the consensus between the parties is in fact established.

CJEU authority of Colzani and Coreck Maritime impose on the court the duty of examining ‘whether the clause conferring jurisdiction upon it was in fact the subject of a consensus between the parties’ and this had to be ‘clearly and precisely demonstrated’.

In practice, many courts conflate the check for consent with the check for expression of that consent and even the CJEU is not always clear in distinguishing it. In particular, absence of proof of any of the three possible avenues for expression of consent, included in Article 25(1) a, b or c, or then taken as an absence of consent, full stop. In Colzani, the CJEU held

[T]he mere fact that a clause conferring jurisdiction is printed among the general conditions of one of the parties on the reverse of a contract drawn up on the commercial paper of that party does not of itself satisfy the requirements of Article 17, since no guarantee is thereby given that the other party has really consented to the clause waiving the normal rules of jurisdiction. Where a clause conferring jurisdiction is included among the general conditions of sale of one of the parties, printed on the back of a contract, the requirement of a writing under the first paragraph of Article 17 of the Convention is fulfilled only if the contract signed by both parties contains an express reference to those general conditions.

The CJEU here, wrongly, seems to suggest lack of compliance with the expression of consent indicates a lack of that consent full stop.

Importantly, the CJEU in its rulings on what was then Article 23 and its Brussels Convention predecessor keeps utterly silent on national conditions relating to the actual formation or existence of consent. This, as regular readers of the blog will know, is at least for cases covered by Brussels Ia, subject to the lex fori prorogati, with renvoi, an issue which both national courts and the CJEU struggle with.

How then should the CJEU respond to the question (I asked my conflict of laws students at Leuven this question in a first exam on 18 June)?

Firstly, the Court should (and will) remind us of the Jenard /Colzani core instruction: the need to ensure consent is established, without being overly formalistic. Different from the context of the protected categories, there is no ‘weaker category’ to protect here.

Secondly,  there needs to be durability of the record of consent. That seems to be guaranteed here via the technicalities of the Unilever platform (downloadable GTCs) and in line with aforementioned CJEU Al Majdoub (the June students were not given technical details but should still flag durability).

Thirdly, despite the formal A23  requirement most probably being met, the consent requirement to me seems far from certain. In a click and wrap context ― lest there be issues of agency, duress, consumer protection laws etc. (in a context where the consumer title’s conditions are not met) which need to be held under the law applicable to consent ― the box ticking solidifies establishment of consent. In a mere flag and wrap context, that to me seems far less certain. If the reference were to a url where GTCs are properly and collectively displayed (if need be, updated with clear reference to chronology; see housekeeping), consent by an ordinary careful business (the proverbial (business)man on the Clapham omnibus). Yet if such as here, the link communicated in the formal contract refers to a platform where the  GTCs are not the first thing the contracting party sees, rather, where it is expected that that contracting party registers and /or downclicks, search and retrieve etc., that consent to me seems far less certainly established. [Again my students were not given the details on the platform which the reference includes, they did however have to signal the issue of consent).

Finally, under BIa, the lex fori prorogati, incl renvoi, would determine the above considerations of consent. Here, therefore, English law including its conflict of laws rules on choice of court. However seeing as the case is not subject to Brussels Ia, but rather to Lugano, the lex causae for consent will be an issue for the courts seized (here, the Belgian courts) to determine. Under the Belgian rules, this means application of Rome I (Rome I excludes choice of court agreements however Belgium’s private international law Act makes Rome I applicable even to carved-out contractual arrangements).

An interesting reference.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 2.2.10.

 

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