The Netherlands has become dangerously involved in the treatment of mass claims, Lisa Rickard from the US Chamber of Commerce recently said to the Dutch financial daily (Het Financieele Dagblad, 28 September 2017) and the Dutch BNR newsradio (broadcast of 28 September 2017). This statement follows the conclusions of two reports published in March and September 2017 by the US Institute for Legal Reforms (ILR), an entity affiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce. Within a few hours, the news spread like wildfire in online Dutch newspapers, see for instance here.
Worryingly enough, the March 2017 report, which assessed collective redress mechanisms in ten Member States, predicted that ‘there are a number of very powerful indicators that all of the same incentives and forces that have led to mass abuse in other jurisdictions are also gathering force in the EU’. Among the jurisdictions surveyed, the Netherlands appeared as a place particularly prone to such abuse. The September 2017 report focuses on consumer attitudes towards collective redress safeguards, and ultimately concludes that 85% of respondents tend to support the introduction of safeguards for the resolution of mass claims.
The publication of the aforementioned reports is timely as the European Commission’s evaluation report on the 2013 Recommendation on Collective Redress is expected this autumn, following the recent call for evidence. Some of the statements in these reports call for a more nuanced view. Indeed, the Dutch approach to the resolution of mass claims might have its drawbacks. It is certainly not exempt from criticisms. However, in a matter of such expedient nature, it is of the utmost importance that both sides are thoroughly addressed and assessed.
For the information of readers that are not familiar with the Dutch system: the Netherlands currently has two mechanisms that have been designed for collective redress specifically. The first one is the collective action for injunctive or declaratory relief. A verdict in such action can provide the basis for an amicable settlement or for individual proceedings to seek monetary compensation. The second mechanism is the much-discussed WCAM settlement (based on the Dutch Collective Settlements Act, see also a previous post linking to papers and a report on the WCAM procedure). In addition, there is a proposal to introduce a collective action for damages (see a previous post on this blog).
Bad apples and the bigger picture
In the past years, few incidents have occurred in Dutch collective redress that may indeed come close to ‘American situations’ that are generally feared in Europe. Unfortunately, some commentators have chosen to mainly highlight such incidents. Notably, the ILR report of March 2017 refers to the notorious case of Stichting Loterijverlies, in which a foundation initiated a collective action on behalf of aggrieved lottery ticket holders against the Dutch State Lottery. The report rightfully mentions that the foundation’s director has been accused of funnelling elsewhere, for personal gain, part of the consumers’ financial contribution to the foundation. However, the report neglects to mention that the foundation had also been litigating for quite some years and that, ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in its favour: the Dutch State Lottery had misled consumers for years. Furthermore, the report fails to mention that some of the foundation’s participants successfully filed a request to replace the foundation’s board. Moreover, despite (or on account of) the complexity of establishing causation and damages, the case has now been amicably settled. As part of the settlement, participants of the foundation have been reimbursed their financial contribution thereto, and all class members were free to participate in the settlement: an extraordinary, one-off lottery draw. Reportedly, 2.5 million individuals have done so.
Obviously, incidents such as the aforementioned case are of no avail to civil justice, and justify concerns about claim vehicles’ activities and motives. However, we should also consider the many positive effects of collective redress mechanisms. Generally, Dutch collective actions and WCAM settlements provide for much-needed effective and efficient dispute resolution in mass harm situations.
Safeguards work: learning from experience
The March report by the ILR warns against the gradual decline of safeguards in the Netherlands, and in the EU more generally. Yet, various safeguards already exist, continue to do so, and generally function well in practice. For instance, the admissibility rules regarding representative organizations (that bring collective actions or are involved in a WCAM settlement) have become more stringent and are applied increasingly strict by courts. As to the current Dutch collective actions, there is proof that its numbers have slowly risen since 1994, but no proof exists that this is necessarily attributable to entrepreneurial parties, let alone that they have increased the number of frivolous claims (Tillema 2017). The proposed collective action for damages further raises the current threshold for representative organizations to obtain standing. The requirements concern the organizations’ governance, financial means, representativeness, experience and expertise, and individuals’ participation in the decision-making process. Indeed, a judgment will have binding effect upon all aggrieved parties who have not opted out, but all actions will be publicly registered, there is a strict scope rule, and individuals can raise objections.
So far, eight WCAM settlement have been declared binding. Undeniably, various parties have entered this market, including US counsels and their sizeable fees. However, in spite of its difficult task, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal seems growingly comfortable in assessing the reasonableness of a collective settlement, including the representative organizations’ remuneration. In Converium, the reasonableness of (contingency) fees was assessed for the first time. In the currently pending eighth WCAM case, the Fortis-settlement, the court has demonstrated its awareness of the risks and of its task to also scrutinize the motives of representative organizations. In its interlocutory judgment, it has ruled that the settlement, in its current state, cannot be declared binding. It is deemed not reasonable due to, inter alia, the sizeable remuneration of the representative organizations and their lack of transparency thereon.
A Dutch ‘manoeuvre’ to become a ‘go-to-point’ for mass claim or an attempt to enhance access to justice for all?
‘The Netherlands and the UK seem to be manoeuvring themselves to become the go-to jurisdictions for collective claims outside the EU’, the March report highlighted. Obviously, this not the first time that other countries express their concerns against the extra-territorial effects of the Dutch legislation, an issue that has been discussed for several years in the context of the WCAM (Van Lith, 2011). The ILR report indeed highlighted that in the Converium case, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal declared the settlement binding where a majority of shareholders were domiciled outside the Netherlands. Yet, the key question here is whether, for reasons linked to equality and efficiency, individuals who have suffered from losses resulting from a same misbehaviour should not be treated in a same manner and in the same proceeding, regardless of their actual location. By asserting global jurisdiction, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal ultimately ensured access to justice and equal treatment for all parties placed in similar situations, and ultimately avoided costly fragmentation of the case for parties and courts. In this regard, it should also be highlighted that the WCAM is a settlement-only mechanism, and – to the benefit of victims of wrongdoings – it is the wrongdoing party and the representatives of the aggrieved parties that jointly choose to address the Amsterdam Court of Appeal considering that the Netherlands has a suitable procedure to declare such settlement binding.
It is evident that collective redress mechanisms have both benefits and drawbacks. More than ever, the challenging, yet indispensable key word here is balance. As Commissioner Jourova recently observed at the release of the ILR September report, ‘the discussion in EU countries is in full swing on how to strike the right balance between access to justice and prevention of abuse’. We hope this short post can contribute to the discussion.