Oxford University v Oxford Nanoimaging. On unfair trading terms in retained EU consumer law, the Brussels regime and substantive consumer law.

In Oxford University Innovation Ltd v Oxford Nanoimaging Ltd [2022] EWHC 3200 (Pat) Daniel Alexander KC in a lengthy judgment eventually held for the University in a dispute on the validity of the University’s contractual terms claiming intellectual property over research students’ work. The case is of interest to the blog in that it contrasts the consumer provisions in the ‘Brussels (conflict of laws) regime’ with those of substantive consumer law.

[8] The thrust of ONI’s case is that Oxford’s approach to allocation of the commercial fruits of research is unfair to DPhil students and, more particularly, unfair to Mr Jing, the young researcher, in the circumstances of the case. More specifically it is said that Oxford’s policies are unfairly weighted in favour of the University and senior academics, who may have contributed less to the detail of the work than more junior researchers or inventors.

Applicability or impact of consumer protection legislation on terms relating to intellectual property rights of students is core to the case. The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999/2083 – UTCCR are derived from the European Directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts 93/13, the ‘Unfair Consumers Terms Directive’ UCTD, which is retained EU law and the CJEU authority on same is retained EU case law [240] . They only apply to contracts between a “consumer” and a “seller or supplier”. Was Mr Jing such a ‘consumer’?

UK courts regularly made recourse to Brussels  Convention and later Brussels Ia cases in the absence of much CJEU UCTD authority. The judge correctly holds [242] that one must be cautious with such approach pro inspiratio, as indeed I have also pointed out on this blog before, and discusses ia CJEU Benincasa, Gruber, Schrems, Milivojevic, albeit not CJEU Reliantco, and the UK cases of Standard Bank v Apostolakis, AMT Futures v Marzillier and Ang v Reliantco. In the discussion on whether the Brussels case-law has an impact on the UCTD, he refers ia to Weco Projects. [288] he points out that when later CJEU authority did interpret the term ‘consumer’ in the UCTD directly (eg Karel de Grote), it made fairly little reference to Brussels authority. [306] he decides the UCTD approach to ‘consumer’ is ‘more expansive’ and ‘not as strictly’ as under the Brussels regime and [310] rejects Oxford’s submission that it is necessarily the right approach to this case under the UCTD to adopt the framework of analysis of dual-purpose contracts of the Brussels Convention/Regulation case law. This also includes [320] a different approach to the burden of proof.

[410] the final conclusion is that a ‘DPhil student is normally entitled to be treated as a consumer under the UCTD and that it does not matter for this purpose whether the student is undertaking that educational qualification with a view to her career, profession and/or professional advancement’  and [425] that ‘Oxford has not shown that Mr Jing’s circumstances were such that it would be wrong to treat him as a consumer in entering into the DPhil Contract he did.’ However eventually [639] the terms were not judged to be ‘unfair’.

Many of the issues raised are new and one imagine permission to appeal may have been sought.

Geert.

EU private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, 2.231 ff.

Soleymani v Nifty. The Court of Appeal does not convince on Brussels Ia’s arbitration exception (as applied to consumers) yet does lift a stay to allow scope of consumer rights under English law to be litigated in the UK.

Soleymani v Nifty Gateway LLC [2022] EWCA Civ 1297 is the appeal against [2022] EWHC 773 (Comm) which I reviewed here. That post will give readers the necessary background. The Court of Appeal partially overturned. The judge had issued a stay of English proceedings under s9 Arbitration Act 1996, effectively allowing a US arbitrator to decide the validity of the arbitration agreement. That stay has now been lifted and E&W proceedings on that issue will go ahead.

Of note is that the discussion takes place under retained EU law, with the relevant provisions in ia s15b of the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982 (as amended) mirroring the consumer section of Brussels Ia and Directive 93/13 on unfair terms in consumer contracts, as amended.

A first ground of appeal concerned the core of the Brussels Ia issue: whether the Court had jurisdiction under s. 15B CJJA because the exception for arbitration under Article 1(2)(d) of the Recast Regulation did not apply to the Arbitration Claim. In other words whether the exclusion for arbitration is engaged when a consumer, ordinarily protected by the forum actoris provisions in A17 ff BIa, calls upon that protection to seize a UK court.

The first instance judge held that the principal focus and subject matter of Mr Soleymani’s claim is whether he is legally obliged to arbitrate, hence engaging the arbitration exception. The Court of Appeal agrees for largely the same reasons as the judge, and with Popplewell J [89] indicating no change in his views following CJEU Prestige. The CA’s own finding in [2021] EWCA Civ 1589 The Prestige is recalled:  “the question is whether a principal focus of the proceedings is arbitration, the essential subject matter of the claim concerns arbitration, or the relief sought can be said to be ancillary to the arbitration process, these being alternative ways of expressing the same idea”.

The Court of Appeal’s focus seems to be on avoiding abuse by the consumer, who could circumvent the arbitration exception by bringing his claim within the scope of BIa hence characterising it as a claim to enforce his consumer rights.

I continue to find the alternative more convincing: that the consumer section could be easily circumvented, particularly by non-EU based traders and /or in the event of arbitration outside the EU, simply by inserting an ADR clause in the contract, depriving the consumer of the forum actoris. Claimant’s counsel’s nine reasons [51] in my view have convincing appeal, and not Popplewell J’s suggestion [93] ff that in practice the consumer would be protected anyways, either by the ability to sue in the UK and have the ADR clause declared void under consumer protection law, or by the ability to have any foreign award declared unenforceable under the New York Convention’s ordre public exception. The very case at hand show the real difficulties (and costs) the consumer will be put through if and when the business party to the transaction decides to pursue the arbitration proceedings abroad.

The second ground of appeal was dismissed for it relied on s. 15D(1) being construed as invalidating the arbitration clause, which the Court had already held it did not, however ground 3 was accepted, for reasons formulated by Birss LJ.

Mr Soleymani’s claim consisted of claims for three distinct declarations: (i) a declaration that the arbitration clause was unfair and not binding, (ii) a declaration that the governing law clause was unfair and not binding, and (iii) a declaration that the contract formed in the auction was illegal under the Gambling Act 2005.

The jurisdiction issues under Grounds 1 and 2 of the appeal relate only to the first of these three, the arbitration clause claim. The judge as discussed decided that the Arbitration Claim was within the arbitration exception which now forms part of the CJJA (and had its origin in the Brussels Convention and the later Recast Regulation), and the appeal from that decision was dismissed.

The judge however also decided that the other two claims, that is the Governing Law Claim and the Gambling Act Claim were not clearly within the arbitration exception, yet she stayed the E&W proceedings to give way to the arbitration in New York. Therefore these claims were at least capable of falling within the jurisdiction gateway provided for in s15B(2)(b) CJJA 1982.  Ground 3 argued that the first instance judge erred in staying these proceedings under section 9 of the arbitration Act without determining the fairness question or directing a trial before the English Court on the issues raised by that objection.

That ground was upheld for three reasons [151] ff which all go towards limits to Kompetenz Kompetenz in consumer (and other?) cases.

Firstly, the public importance of decisions vindicating (or not) consumers’ rights. The case Mr Soleymani is seeking to make has implications for  consumers in general in this jurisdiction and it is important that they are considered and ruled upon in public in a court. Therefore it was held the s9(4) issues should be decided at a trial and not left to be decided in the arbitral tribunal.

Further [152] the consumer protection rights under UK law involve domestic concepts which UK court are far better placed to adjudicate upon than a New York arbitrator. Even if it were certain that the New York Tribunal would apply UK law (a late proffered undertaking to do so was made and discussed [155] ff), it engages principles which are the subject matter of our domestic jurisprudence, not simply some general notion of fairness.

Thirdly whether the arbitration agreement does in fact operate unfairly on Mr Soleymani is not suited to summary determination. “If the invalidity argument is good, the very reasons which make it good, namely that it places an unfair burden on Mr Soleymani, weigh against allowing the tribunal to decide the issue under its Kompetenz-Kompetenz jurisdiction. The Judge’s finding that there would be nothing unfair about leaving it to the arbitrator to decide that issue is inconsistent with her recognition that there was a triable issue whether this was an unfair arbitration agreement.”

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 2.2.3.2, and 2.2.9.2.

PWC Landwell v LY. The French SC on the EU consumer rights Directive and arbitration agreements.

Many thanks Alain Devers for alerting us back in October to the French Supreme Court’s judgment in PWC Landwell v LY, on agreements to arbitrate and the consumer rights Directive 93/13. Apologies for late posting.

The Supreme Court held [20 ff] that the contract between a client, domicoled at France, and PWC Landwell’s Spanish offices (Landwell used to be the trading name of the law firm side of this multidisciplinary practice), fell within the consumer title of Brussels IA. The Court of Appeal’s judgment had clearly run through the CJEU-sanctioned ‘directed at’ test and found it satisfied in the case at issue (the Landwell website boasting international coverage of its services as well as international contact numbers as strong indicators).

The SC also held that the requirement to turn to arbitration was incompatible with the Consumer Rights Directive 93/13, in particular its A6 which per CJEU C‑147/16 Karel de Grote — Hogeschool Katholieke Hogeschool Antwerpen confirmed in C-51/17 OTP Bank et OTP Faktoring is of ordre public character. The SC agreed with the CA that the clause, despite the client having been in the presence of a bank employee when the contract was put to her, was not properly negotiated and qualifies as a clause abusif.

Geert.

EU Private International Law 3rd ed 2021, para 2.277.

 

NMBS v Mbutuku Kanyeba et al. A very relaxed CJEU on the notion of ‘contract’ (in EU transport law).

To scholars of private international law, the CJEU judgment last week in Joined cases C-349/18 to C-351/18 NMBS v Mbutuku Kanyeba et al might seem like ending us up in a parallel universe, where unlike in conflicts land, core concepts of private law are understood without much ado.

Additional surcharges were claimed against claimants for having travelled by train without a transport ticket. For either Regulation 1371/2007 on rail passengers’ rights and obligations and Directive 93/13 on unfair terms in consumer contracts, the existence of a ‘contract’ is a clear prerequisite for the application at all of these rules. The AG had opined that the EU rules at issue did not define ‘contract’ and therefore had to defer to the applicable national laws.

The CJEU however has much less hesitation, noting at 36 that ‘the word ‘contract’ is generally understood to designate an agreement by consensus intended to produce legal effects. Secondly, in the context of the field covered by that regulation and in the light of the wording of that provision, that effect consists principally in the obligation imposed on the rail undertaking to provide to the passenger one or more transport services and the obligation imposed on the passenger to pay the price of that transport, unless the service is provided free of charge’.

The Court gives no further explanation. How a ‘contract’ in this context can be ‘generally understood’ as being what the Court says it is (with all the uncertainty relating e.g. to ‘consensus’ and to the reciprocity element it seems to imply) must be a surprise to all those current and past studying ‘contract’ in the conflict of laws. Of course, in the EU rules at issue there is no delineation with ‘tort’ to consider, and the Court in the further paras seems to hint at adopting a flexible interpretation so as to protect passengers (without a contract, they have no rights), the matter of factly approach to the definition must be surprising.

Geert.

 

A quick note on Pitruzzella AG in NMBS v Mbutuku Kanyeba et al.

Just a quick note for completeness’ sake on Pitruzzella AG’s Opinion in Joined cases C-349/18 to C-351/18 NMBS v Mbutuku Kanyeba et al. It engages consumer protection law, not conflict of laws. To decide whether there is a ‘contract’ between public transport providers and (alleged) fare dodgers, the AG has no choice but to refer to national law:

La directive 93/13/CEE ne réglemente pas les conditions de formation des contrats et le régime relatif aux clauses abusives qu’elle contient est en principe applicable exclusivement aux relations juridiques d’origine contractuelle, qui doivent être qualifiées par le juge national sur le fondement du droit national.

Readers of the blog will appreciate the echoes of Tessili v Dunlop and Handte /Kalfelis, Feniks etc. discussions.

Geert.

 

Happy Flights v Ryanair. Belgian Supreme Court (only) confirms proper lex causae for validity of choice of court under Article 25 Brussels Ia.

Thank you alumna and appreciated co-author Jutta Gangsted for flagging Charles Price’s (former learned colleague of mine at Dibb Lupton Alsop) and Sébastien Popijn’s alert on the Belgian Supreme Court’s ruling of 8 February last in C.18.0354.N Happy Flights v Ryanair. Happy Flights are a Belgium-based online claim agency to which disgruntled passengers may assign claims for compensation under Regulation 261/2004.

At issue is the validity of Ryanair’s choice of court in its general terms and conditions, referring consumers to Irish courts. The Brussels Commercial court on 30 May 2018 seemingly first of all did not assess whether the agency may be considered a ‘consumer’ within the terms of Irish consumer protection law (itself an implementation of Directive 93/13), having been assigned the consumers’ claims. The May 2018 decision itself is unreported <enters his usual rant about the lack of proper reporting of Belgian case-law>.

The Supreme Court (at 2, line 47) notes this lack of assessment by the lower court. It does not however complete the analysis sticking religiously to its role to interpret the law only, not the facts. Per CJEU Schrems mutatis mutandis I would suggest an affirmative answer (the agency having been assigned the consumers’ rights).

Do note that the use of the word ‘consumer’ in this context must not confuse: the consumer title of Brussels Ia itself does not apply unless the contract is one of combined travel and accommodation (or other services); the Regulation excludes contracts for travel only, from the scope of application of the consumer title.

The Brussels Commercial court subsequently and again from what one can infer from the Supreme Court’s ruling, discussed the validity of choice of court under Article 25 Brussels Ia, reviewing its formal conditions (formation of consent) yet judging the material validity under the lex fori, Belgian law, not the lex fori prorogati, Irish law. This is a clear violation of A25 juncto recital 20 Brussels Ia. The Supreme Court suggests that the relevant Irish implementation of the unfair consumer terms Directive 93/13 does imply invalidity of the clause (again: if the claim is held to fall under the consumer title, this analysis will become superfluous).

Note that the SC omits recital 20’s renvoi instruction, keeping entirely schtum about it: clearly misapplying the Regulation.

The Court’s judgment unlike the understandably enthusiastic briefing by Happy Flight’s counsel does not quite yet mean that Ryanair’s terms and conditions on this issue have been invalidated. However it is likely they will be upon further assessment on the merits – with hopefully the Court of Appeal not omitting Brussels Ia’s renvoi instruction. As I note above first up there will be the issue of assignment rather than the issue of A25.

For your interest, I gave a Twitter tutorial on a related issue (consumer law, lex causae, compulsory referral to arbitration) recently.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.9, Heading 2.2.9.4.

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