Consumer contracts, settlements and choice of court ‘after the dispute has arisen’. The Danish courts in Thomas Higgins v Saxo Bank.

I discussed settlement agreements viz Brussels Ia’s protected categories before, in particular in my review of Yukos v Merinson. Choice of court between consumers and employees one the one hand, and the business and employer on the other, is valid inter alia when the parties ‘enter into’ the (choice of court agreement) ‘after the dispute has arisen’. The assumption is that the consumer will have had an opportunity to consult lawyers and that therefore the inequality of arms has disappeared.

A dispute will have ‘arisen’ for the purposes of these Articles only if two conditions are satisfied: (a) the parties must have disagreed upon a specific point; and (b) legal proceedings in relation to that disagreement must be imminent or contemplated.

Many thanks to Henrik Gisløv who sent me copy of the judgment of the City Court and subsequently the High Court in Thomas Higgins v Saxo Bank. Henrik represented Mr Higgins and I have included Henrik’s English translation of the relevant sections of the High Court’s judgment below – I do not read Danish.

I understand from Henrik that Saxo Bank claimed an amount for “CFD financing charges” of EUR 230,000 accrued in less than one month. Mr Higgins, domiciled at Ireland, disputed the claim, and a settlement agreement was entered into. Mr Higgins had no legal advise when entering the settlement agreement – whether the actual, as opposed to assumed, benefit of legal advice is required for A10 to apply, is not discussed.

In the opinion of Mr Higgins the bank breached the terms of the settlement agreement, and he raised several complaints with the staff of the bank. These complaints went unanswered and Mr Higgins decided to terminate the settlement agreement: ‘Further to my email of Friday March 3rd, I confirm that the live price feeds have not been restored. Accordingly, our Contract is now void. Unless you wish to negotiate terms that address the contractual failings, the only option open to me is to reactivate my original Complaint and refer it for regulatory adjudication.’ This was in March 2017.

The bank then filed a case in the Danish courts, in January 2019 only. It argued  jurisdiction on the basis that a choice of court clause had been part of the  settlement agreement which Mr Higgins had terminated in March 2017. The City Court found first of all that Mr Higgins was a consumer (CJEU Petruchova comes to mind). Secondly, the City Court found that the dispute related to whether or not the terms of the settlement agreement had been breached or not. Therefore that the dispute that is being litigated had only arisen after that settlement agreement had been made and that the choice of court made in the settlement agreement was not a valid agreement after the dispute had arisen. The Eastern High court upon appeal however overturned the decision. Leave to appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected.

Of note in my view is that for there to be valid choice of court within the meaning of A19 BIa, legal proceedings in relation to that disagreement must be imminent or contemplated. From my admittedly half baked, Google translate assisted understanding of the judgments, this condition is not discussed in the judgments (it is clear, from the quote, in English, at the time of Mr Higgins’ cancellation of the agreement, legal proceedings are contemplated at that moment; yet the settlement with the choice of court agreement was formed much earlier). Rather, the High Court unconvincingly focuses on the synergy between the complaints under the original platform agreement and the nature of the subsequent complaints. This could have done with SC insight.

The judgment puts the spotlight on the nature of settlement agreements in the context of protected categories, and the stronger role consumer and employment law might have to play to ensure both the twin goal of settling disputes before they go to court, whilst at the same time not depriving the protected categories of their Regulation-sanctioned protection.

Geert.

EU private international law, 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 2.2.9.2.7, 2.270 ff.

 

____Henrik Gisløv translation of the High Court judgment in relevant part:___

It is undisputed before the High Court that the settlement agreement entered into between Thomas Martin Higgins and Saxo Bank A / S, is a consumer agreement in the sense of the term has applied the Judgment Regulation. Cases against consumers must, according to the Judgment Regulation Article 18, paragraph 2, as a starting point is brought before the courts in the Member State in which the consumer resides.

The main issue in this case is then whether the condition of the judgment Article 19 (1) to derogate from this starting point is met. According to the provision is it decisive whether the settlement agreement, including the agreement’s provision on venue, may be deemed to have been concluded after the dispute has arisen. If the condition is fulfilled, the venue agreement is binding on Thomas Martin Higgins.

It is assumed as undisputed that the settlement agreement of 11 July 2016 was entered into as a result of a disagreement as to whether Thomas Martin Higgins had obligation to pay the fees of 231,320 euros that Saxo Bank A / S had charged for the period from 1 to 29 April 2016.

It appears from clause 1 of the settlement agreement, that Thomas Martin Higgins should withdraw its complaint about the fees that Saxo Bank A / S should separate Thomas Martin Higgins’ two accounts and credit one account with one amount of 115,660 euros, corresponding to half of the fees charged. The other account then had a balance of -87,565.16 euros, which Thomas Martin Higgins undertook to pay to Saxo Bank A / S in 12 instalments.

Thomas Martin Higgins paid six instalments until February 2017, after which he by letter dated 6 March 2017, terminated the settlement agreement.

The question then is whether the lawsuit relates to the dispute that was tried resolved by the settlement agreement, or whether it relates to subsequent matters.

Thomas Martin Higgins has argued that Saxo Bank A / S on several points has breached the settlement agreement and that it is these breaches of agreement that are the background for the present case. He has during his explanation to the city court alone referred to the one concrete example that he during his continued trading on the bank’s platform continued to lose so-called live prices (real-time prices).

On the other hand, it is undisputed that Thomas Martin Higgins under the settlement agreement concluded continued to trade on the platform provided by Saxo Bank A / S available to him. Saxo Bank A / S has in accordance with the settlement agreement written down its fee claim to half, and the settlement agreement does not contain detailed terms for the continued trading on the platform, including on live prices.

In view of this and the fact that the amount of 41,297.28 euros that Saxo Bank A / S has withdrawn subpoena for, constitutes the difference between the amount paid by Thomas Martin Higgins had to pay after the settlement and the instalments paid of 45,412.41 euros plus the deposit on account 176283INET / DK4011490100705836, the High Court finds that the present dispute does not concern one which arose after the conclusion of the settlement agreement [and is a, GAVC] disagreement on the interpretation of the agreement, but that the dispute had already arisen when settlement agreement including the venue agreement, was entered into.

…0Saxo bank A / S can bring the case before the bank’s venue at the Court in Lyngby, …and the High Court therefore accepts Saxo Bank A / S ‘claim that the judgment of the district court be set aside and that the case be remanded for consideration at the Court in Lyngby, as a result.”

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