Top-Down Study Not Needed to Rule Contract Unfair, EU Court Says

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Every term of a consumer contract need not face scrutiny for the whole deal to be found unfair, the EU’s highest court ruled Wednesday.

The case arose from a mortgage that Györgyné Lintner obtained in 2007 from UniCredit Bank Hungary. It was not until 2012, however, that Lintner realized the contract included a clause that allowed the bank to change other aspects unilaterally in the future.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File)

Lintner brought a 2012 lawsuit alleging violations of the EU directive on unfair contract terms, regulations aimed at protecting consumers from predatory contracts ranging from gym memberships to loan agreements.

The Budapest High Court initially ruled against Lintner but will tackle the case again on remand from the Budapest Regional Court of Appeal.

Now, however, the trial court has instructions to study other aspects of the contract that concerned the Court of Appeal, namely the notarial certificate, the grounds for termination and certain fees payable by the consumer.

The lower court referred the matter to the European Court of Justice and got its answer Wednesday.

“A national court, hearing an action brought by a consumer seeking to establish the unfair nature of certain terms in a contract … is not required to examine of its own motion and individually all the other contractual terms, which were not challenged by that consumer,” the five-judge panel based in Luxembourg wrote.

The Third Chamber of the Court of Justice held that national courts do not have to examine every aspect of a contract, but must investigate anything related to the complaint. Connected terms “must be examined in order to determine whether they are unfair, where that court has available to it the legal and factual elements necessary for that task,” the opinion states.

Moreover, member states “remain free to make provision, in their national law, for a more extensive … examination than that which their courts must carry out.”

The ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

Zsolt Lajer, an attorney, submitted a brief to the court on behalf of UniCredit, an Italian bank operating across Europe.

The European Commission submitted a brief as well. Although the cabinet body of the 27-member state political and economic union generally gets more attention for going after large multinational companies for violating EU competition regulations, it also has regulations protecting consumer privacy, ensuring product safety and outlawing abusive payment conditions.

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