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Fifty Shades of (Facebook) Blue – ECJ Renders Decision on Consumer Jurisdiction and Assigned Claims in Case C-498/16 Schrems v Facebook

Written by Tobias Lutzi, DPhil Candidate and Stipendiary Lecturer at the University of Oxford.

Yesterday, the ECJ has rendered its decision in Case C-498/16 Maximilian Schrems v Facebook Ireland Limited. The case will be of interest to many readers of this blog as its facts are not only closely linked to the ECJ’s well-known decision in Case C-362/14 Schrems but also could have come straight out of a conflict-of-laws textbook.

Maximilian Schrems has been litigating against Facebook and the way in which the company uses the personal data of its users since 2011, when he first submitted a range of complaints to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. In 2013, he submitted another complaint, which ultimately lead to the annulment of the ‘Safe Harbour’ framework between the EU and the US in the aforementioned decision; the proceedings continued with a reformulated version of this complaint and have recently been referred to the ECJ for a second time. Over the course of this litigation, Schrems built a reputation as a privacy activist, publishing two books, giving talks and lectures, and founding a non-profit organisation that uses ‘targeted and strategic litigation’ to enforce privacy and data protection laws across Europe.

The proceedings that gave raise to yesterday’s decision by the ECJ are formally unrelated to the aforementioned litigation. In 2014, Schrems set out to bring a ‘class action’ against Facebook for numerous violations of privacy and data protection laws. For this purpose, 25,000 Facebook users assigned their claims to him. Only eight of these claims, regarding Schrems’ own Facebook account and Facebook ‘page’ as well as the accounts of seven other users from Austria, Germany, and India, formed the object of the present proceedings. The claims were brought at Schrems’ domicile in Vienna, Austria, based on the special head of jurisdiction for consumer contracts in Art 16(1) Brussels I (= Art 18(1) of the recast Regulation).

The proceedings raised two separate questions, which the Austrian Oberster Gerichtshof ultimately referred to the ECJ:

  • Can Schrems still be considered a consumer in the sense of Art 15(1) Brussels I, despite his continued activism and professional interest in the claims?
  • If so, can he also rely on the privilege of Art 16(1) Brussels I regarding claims that have been assigned to him by other consumers who are domiciled in (a) the same EU Member State; (b) another Member State; (c) a non-member State?

Following the Advocate General’s opinion (reported here), the Court answered the first question in the positive (I.) and the second one in the negative (II.). Both answers are testimony to a nuanced interpretation of the special rules of jurisdiction for consumer contracts (III.)

I. The Consumer Exception

According to the ECJ’s well-known decisions in Case C-269/95 Benincasa and Case C-464/01 Gruber, the assessment of whether a party is a ‘consumer’ in the sense of Art 15(1) Brussels I does not depend on their subjective qualities but on the ‘the position of the person concerned in a particular contract’ (Benincasa, [16]), which must have been ‘concluded for the purpose of satisfying an individual’s own needs in terms of private consumption’ (ibid, [17]); where a contract has been concluded for a purpose that is partly private and partly professional, the professional aspect of it must be ‘so slight as to be marginal’ for the contract to still fall under the provision (Gruber, [39]).

In the present case, this definition raised two questions. The Court first had to decide whether the assessment was to be made only at the moment when the contract was originally concluded or whether subsequent changes of circumstances must also be taken into account. It held that

[38] … a user of [a digital social network] may, in bringing an action, rely on his status as a consumer only if the predominately non-professional use of those services, for which the applicant initially concluded a contract, has not subsequently become predominately professional.

Second, the Court had to decide whether this was the case for Schrems, who had originally entered into a contract with Facebook for private purposes but subsequently developed a professional activity involving litigation against Facebook. According to the Court,

[39] … neither the expertise which [a] person may acquire in the field covered by those services nor his assurances given for the purposes of representing the rights and interests of the users of those services can deprive him of the status of a ‘consumer’ within the meaning of Article 15 [Brussels I].

[40] Indeed, an interpretation of the notion of ‘consumer’ which excluded such activities would have the effect of preventing an effective defence of the rights that consumers enjoy in relation to their contractual partners who are traders or professionals, including those rights which relate to the protection of their personal data. …

Interestingly, the Court put little emphasis on the possible distinction between Schrems’ private Facebook ‘profile’ and his arguably professional Facebook ‘page’ (see [34]–[36]). Instead, it seemed to generally exclude ‘representing the rights and interests of the users’ of a particular service from the range of professional activities that might prevent the contract for this service from being considered a consumer contract. The Court explicitly linked this interpretation to the objective of ensuring a high level of consumer protection in Art 169 TFEU. Thus, its decision might not even have been different had Schrems joined Facebook with the sole aim of enforcing his (and other users’) rights. This way, the Court effectively sidestepped the problems created by the increasingly wide range of uses to which social media and other online platform accounts can be put, which the Advocate General had so colourfully described as ‘fifty shades of (Facebook) blue’ (Opinion, [46]) – and which, for the time being, remain unaddressed.

II. Jurisdiction for Assigned Claims

With regard to using the second alternative of Art 16(1) Brussels I to bring claims that have been assigned to the claimant by other consumers at the claimant’s domicile, the Court held:

[45] The rules on jurisdiction laid down, as regards consumer contracts, in Article 16(1) of the regulation apply, in accordance with the wording of that provision, only to an action brought by a consumer against the other party to the contract, which necessarily implies that a contract has been concluded by the consumer with the trader or professional concerned ….

[48] … [T]he assignment of claims cannot, in itself, have an impact on the determination of the court having jurisdiction …. It follows that the jurisdiction of courts other than those expressly referred to by Regulation No 44/2001 cannot be established through the concentration of several claims in the person of a single applicant. … [A]n assignment of claims such as that at issue in the main proceedings cannot provide the basis for a new specific forum for a consumer to whom those claims have been assigned.

This interpretation seems to align well with earlier decisions by the Court, according to which the special head of jurisdiction in Art 16(1) Brussels I is only available personally to the consumer who is party to the consumer contract in question (Case C-89/91 Shearson Lehman Hutton, [23]; Case C-167/00 Henkel), [33]), and according to which the assignment of a claim does not affect international jurisdiction under the Brussels I Regulation (Case C-352/13 CDC Hydrogene Peroxide, [35]–[36]).

An interesting, and arguably unfortunate, side effect of this restrictive interpretation is that it may even exclude the consolidation of the claims of other Austrian consumers in the same forum, considering that the second alternative of Art 16(1) does not only contain a rule of international jurisdiction but also determines local (internal) jurisdiction. In this regard, the Advocate General argued that an additional forum in which such consumer claims could be brought could be created under national law (Opinion, [117]), a proposition that does not appear easily reconcilable with the clear wording of Art 16(1).

Contrary to the claimant’s press release, though, the fact that a consumer is not allowed to avail him- or herself of the privilege in Art 16(1) Brussels I in order to bring the claims 25,000 other consumers that have been assigned to him at his or her domicile does not mean that company’s can ‘divide and conquer’ and ‘block enforcement of consumer rights’. A claimant is free to rely on the first alternative of Art 16(1) Brussels I (which mirrors Art 2(1)) and bring all claims in the defendant’s Member State of domicile, the procedural law of which will then decide on whether the claims may be consolidated.

III. A Nuanced Approach to the Consumer Exception

What seems to emerge from the decision is a nuanced approach to the special provisions for consumer contracts. The Court applies a rather flexible interpretation to Art 15(1) Brussels I, allowing for changes of circumstances to be taken into account but also distinguishing the enforcement of (consumer) rights from other types of professional activities. At the same time, it interprets the special head of jurisdiction in Art 16(1) restrictively, limiting the privilege to each individual consumer and excluding the possibility of other consumers assigning their claims to one who is domiciled in what may appear as a more favourable forum.

Of course, there may well be strong arguments for the existence of such a possibility, especially in cases where each individual claim is too small to justify litigation but the sum of them is not. But it seems questionable whether Art 16(1) Brussels I would be the right instrument to create such a mechanism of collective redress – and, indeed, whether it should be the Court’s role to implement it.

Sharia law in Greece: Blending European values with Islamic tradition

The Hellenic Republic is the sole EU Member State which provides for the application of Sharia law in its territory for more than a century. A recent amendment is granting Greek Moslems the right to opt-out, and resort to domestic civil law. At the same time, the new law respects the right to opt-in for the application of Sharia law, upon the condition of mutual agreement between the parties.

Law 4511/2018 was enacted on January 15. It contains only one article (the second simply declares that the law will be in force upon publication in the State Gazette), which amends the previous status of Sharia courts in Greece. A new Paragraph (4) is added to Art. 5 Law 1920/1991. By virtue of the new provision, the jurisdiction of the Mufti becomes the exception, whereas (until today) it was the rule for Greek Moslems living in the region of (Western) Thrace. The Mufti has jurisdiction for a vast number of family and succession matters, which are listed under Article 5.2 Law 1920/1991. A prerequisite is that the parties have submitted the above matters to Sharia law.

The new law grants the right to each party to seek Justice before domestic courts, and in accordance with Greek substantive and procedural law. The Mufti may exercise jurisdiction only if both parties file an application for this cause. Once the case is submitted to the Mufti, the jurisdiction of national courts is irrevocably excluded.

In addition, the new law paves the path for a more structured procedure before the Mufti: A drafting Committee will be authorized to prepare a decree, which will shape (for the first time) the Rules and Regulations of the Mufti ‘courts’. Signs of a formalized process are already clearly visible in the new law (Article 4.b).

Inheritance matters are also regulated by the new legislation: In principle they are subjected to Greek law, unless the testator solemnly states before a notary public his wish to submit succession matters to Sharia law. A parallel application of Greek and Sharia law is not permitted. However, revocation of the testator’s declaration is allowed, pursuant to Greek succession law provisions embedded in the Civil Code.

The new law has certainly conflict of laws ramifications too, most notably in light of the recent Sahyouni case of the CJEU. In this respect it is important to underline that all decisions rendered by the Mufti are passing through a hybrid process of domestic exequatur, which is rudimentarily regulated under Article 5.3 Law 1920/1991. Failure to submit the Mufti decisions to domestic courts’ scrutiny, deprives them of res iudicata and enforceability. Hence, EU Member States courts, whenever confronted with a request to recognize or enforce Mufti decisions within their jurisdiction, will always have to examine whether a Greek court has granted full faith and credit to the Mufti’s ruling.

Japanese Supreme Court Renders Decision on Hague Abduction Convention

On December 21, 2017, the Japanese Supreme Court rendered a decision on the Hague Abduction Convention.  The Court upheld a lower court decision in favor of the Japanese mother, even though she  had turned back on her promise to return the kids from a visit to Japan, and even though that same court had earlier issued a return order in favor of the American father. The matter had received international press attention, and even a Congressional subcommittee hearing.

Japan had long refused to join the Hague Convention, and when it did, in 2014, critical observers already expected that courts would find ways to undermine it. Those observers see themselves vindicated.

Colin Jones reports critically on the decision; he has previously written on Japan’s joining the Convention and on reluctance to enforce it. Useful background from the Law Library of Congress is here.

Japanese accession to the Convention has been a frequent scholarly topic, both in Japan and elsewhere. Yuko Nishitani, who had already written about “International Child Abduction in Japan” in (2006) 8 Yearbook of  Private International Law 125-143, and who wrote a long report (in Japanese) for the Japanese Ministry in 2010, provided a brief  analysis in 2011.  Dai Yokomizo discussed the accession in (2012) Revue critique 799; Jun Yokohama did so in the Mélanges van Loon (2013, pp 661-72).  Vol. 57 (2014) of the Japanese Yearbook of International Law contains articles by Tatsuki Nishioka and Takako Tsujisaka, Masayuki Tanamura, Masako Murakami, Martina Erb-Klünemann, and Nigel Vaughan Lowe.  Takeshi Hamano helpfully explains the Japanese reluctance with regard to the Japanese ideology of the family. Outside of Japanese authors, Barbara Stark and Paul Hanley wrote most recently in the United States; the topic is also addressed in several student  notes. The accession was also discussed by Bengt Schwemann (in German) and Francisco Barberán Pelegrín (in Spanish).

News

On Digitalisation of Judicial Cooperation and Access to Justice: The Commission Proposal

Dr. Lenka Valkova, Researcher at the University of Milan, offers a description of the Proposal for a Regulation on the digitalisation of judicial cooperation and access to justice in cross-border civil, commercial and criminal matters, and amending certain acts in the judicial cooperation, COM(2021) 759 final, issued on 1 December 2021.

Although a comprehensive set of instruments were designed to enhance judicial cooperation and access to justice in cross-border civil, commercial and criminal cases at EU level, most of them do not provide for engaging in communication between authorities and individuals or legal entities through digital means.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, in many instances national courts have been unable to maintain normal operations and were forced to switch to the use of digital technologies (e.g. email, videoconference, etc.). However, many of the technical solutions employed were developed in an ad hoc manner. Against this background, in December 2020 the Commission adopted a Communication on the digitalisation of justice in the EU proposing a set of measures to bring forward digitalisation at both the national and EU level in line with the ‘digital by default’ principle. Such principle should be understood as a way to improve the efficiency and resilience of communication, reduce costs and administrative burden, by making the digital channel of communication the preferred one to be used (on the Communication see here and Commission Staff Working Document Accompanying the Communication see here).

In this framework, and following the publication of The Roadmap and Public consultation, the Proposal for a Regulation on the digitalisation of judicial cooperation and access to justice in cross-border civil, commercial and criminal matters, and amending certain acts in the judicial cooperation, was issued on 1 December 2021 (on the Proposal and also on the Impact Assessment see here). According to the Proposal, the Regulation shall apply to electronic communication between competent authorities and between natural or legal persons and competent authorities, and videoconferencing in proceedings falling under the scope of the legal acts listed in Annex I, and notably the Brussels Ibis Regulation, the Regulation on European Order for Payment Procedure, the Regulation on European Enforcement Order for Uncontested Claims, the Regulation on European Small Claims Procedure, the Regulation on European Account Preservation Order, the Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings, the Brussels IIter Regulation, the Maintenance Regulation, the Regulations on Matrimonial Property Regimes and on the Property Consequences of Registered Partnerships (on complete list of the legal instruments in Annex I see here).

To guarantee a common approach towards the use of modern technologies in cross-border judicial cooperation and access to justice, this initiative aims to make using digital communication compulsory for communication between courts and competent authorities through a decentralised IT system, subject to justified exceptions in case of disruption of the system or in other specific circumstances. Moreover, the Regulation should provide a legal basis for the electronic communication between courts and natural and legal persons and for the use of videoconferencing or other distance communication technology for oral hearings in cross-border cases. To this end, the European electronic access point, located on the European e-Justice Portal, which may be used by natural and legal persons for electronic communication with the courts and competent authorities in civil and commercial matters with cross-border implications, will be established. While the courts and competent authorities will be required to accept electronic communication from natural and legal persons, the use of the digital channel will be voluntary for the natural and legal persons. In fact, to respect the needs of disadvantaged groups and vulnerable people and to ensure that citizens who lack digital skills, who live in remote areas or whose personal capacity does not allow them a seamless access to the digital tools, the paper-based communication will be maintained as an option.

This Proposal and other EU initiatives concerning cross-border civil, commercial and family law in the digital world will be discussed on 8 December 2021 during the event PhD Book Club – EU PIL in Digital World. The event is organized under the auspices of the Digital in Law project, co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

A quarterly on civil procedure (“Polish Civil Procedure”) publishes a special issue on international family law with a particular focus on the Regulation 2019/1111

The quarterly “Polish Civil Procedure” (“Polski Proces Cywilny”) just published a special issue on international procedural law and private international law. The issue is entirely devoted to international family law. Under the common title “New efforts in judicial cooperation in European child abduction cases”, it gathers contributions drafted in English and coming from authors representing several jurisdictions.

A special attention is being given to the Regulation 2019/1111. In fact, as Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly, Karol Weitz, and his colleagues clarify in the Editorial, it is the upcoming entry intro application of the Regulation that has prompted them to “invite distinguished and well-known academics from all over Europe to share their ideas [in particular on] the practical problems of its application by national courts and predicted impacts of amendments introduced pursuant to the [Regulation] as well as the outlook for the future developments in the field of European private international and procedural law, with a particular emphasis on cross-border family law matters”.

In addition to the print, the contributions contained in this issue are available online. The texts themselves as well as the table of content with abstracts can be consulted here.

Single-click shortcut for our readers:

Dieter Martiny

New efforts in judicial cooperation in European child abduction cases

Burkhard Hess

Towards a Uniform Concept of Habitual Residence in European Procedural and Private International Law?

Michele Angelo Lupoi

Between parties’ consent and judicial discretion: joinder of claims and transfer of cases in Regulation (EU) 2019/1111

Maciej Szpunar, Krzysztof Pacula

Forum of necessity in family law matters within the framework of EU and international law

Olga Bobrzynska

Brussels II ter Regulation and the 1996 Hague Convention on Child Protection – the interplay of the European and Hague regimes in the matters of parental responsibility

Fernando Gascón Inchausti, Pilar Peiteado Mariscal

International child abduction in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union: learning from the past and looking to the future

Zofia Kubicka-Grupa

A review of the Polish Supreme Court case law in international family law matters (from January 2015 to April 2021)

Seminar Series Cost and Funding of Civil Litigation

A monthly (online) seminar series on Trends and Challenges in Costs and Funding of Civil Justice will be launched on 15 December 2021 and run till June 2022. The seminars aim to discuss developments in costs and funding of civil litigation in Europe and at the global level, including third-party litigation funding, crowdfunding, collective and public interest ligitation, legal mobilization, austerity policies and funding of ADR. The seminars are organized  by the team of the five year Vici project ‘Affordable Access to Justice’, financed by the Dutch Research Council, at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam.

You can register for all or some of the seminars here.

The first seminar will address key issues in access to justice and costs and funding, including funding of international commercial litigation, third-party funding of collective redress and Law & Economics views on litigation funding. It is combined with the launch of the book New Pathways to Civil Justice in Europe (Springer, 2021) which resulted from a conference organized by the Rotterdam ERC team Building EU Civil Justice.

Access to Justice and Costs and Funding of Civil Litigation – 15 December 2021, 15.30-17.30 CET

PROGRAM

15.30-15.40  Xandra Kramer (Erasmus School of Law): Welcome, Introduction and book launch

15.40-16.10  Judith Resnik (Yale University): Constituting a Civil Legal System Called “Just”: Law, Money, Power, and Publicity (open access chapter)  – including Q&A

16.15-16.35  Ianika Tzankova (Tilburg University): Access to Justice in the Global Village? Follow the Money!

16.35-16.55  John Sorabji (University College London): Developments in Costs and Funding of Civil Justice

16.55-17.15  Louis Visscher (Erasmus School of Law): Funding Litigation – a Law & Economics perspective

17.15-17.30 Discussion

OTHER UPCOMOMING SEMINARS:

19 January 2022: Legal Mobilization:?A European Perspective

16 February 2022: The impact of public interest litigation on access to justice: an empirical perspective

March 2022: Delving into Third-Party Litigation Funding in Europe (registration not open yet, date and details will follow)

20 April 2022: ‘Emotions recollected in tranquillity’: Austerity policies and litigation costs reforms in Southern Europe

25 May 2022: Funding and Costs of ADR in the Civil Justice System

June 2022: Regulating Third-Party Litigation Funding (registration not open yet, date and details will follow; may be combined with a live event in Rotterdam)