By Ugonna Kanu
The Court of Justice of the European Union, which rules on cases between members of the European Union often involving treaties, issued a significant opinion on compulsory consumer ADR earlier this year.
Advocate General Henrik Saugmandsgaard Øe, who prepared the ruling, supported an Italian national law that compels consumers to mediate as a precondition for bringing legal proceedings in the Italian courts.
At the same time, the opinion suggests that parties may determine their own fate without a lawyer, overruling an Italian law requiring that a litigant use an attorney to mediate their case.
The EU Court of Justice opinion was based on a request for a preliminary ruling from the District Court in Verona, Italy. Menini v. Banco Popolare – Società Cooperativa, Case C-75/16 (February 16, 2017)(Available at http://bit.ly/2usImgu).
In the case, a dispute arose between a bank and two clients concerning the performance of a mortgage contract. The bank obtained a court order against the consumers to pay the required sum.
The consumers appealed the order to the Verona district court and sought to have its provisional enforcement suspended. The district court found that the parties making the appeal must, in order for the appeal to be admissible, use a mediation procedure in accordance with the national law.
But questions arose whether the national law that forces consumers to mediate as a pre-condition to judicial proceedings; mandates legal representation of consumers in a mediation, or penalizes a party from withdrawing from a mediation without valid reason, was incompatible with the EU consumer ADR directives.
The District Court decided to stay its proceedings and to refer the questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.
The EU court mostly backed the mediation requirements.
According to the 2013 EU directives, the opinion noted, consumer ADR mechanisms are voluntary. But they do not preclude “any national rules making the participation of [parties] in such procedures mandatory or subject to incentives or sanctions or making their outcome binding on parties, provided that such legislation does not prevent the parties from exercising their right of access to the judicial system.” Recital No. 49, Directive 2013/11/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2013 on alternative dispute resolution for consumer disputes and amending Regulation (EC) No. 2006/2004 and Directive 2009/22/EC)(available at http://bit.ly/2jv7LjA).
Accordingly, Advocate General Saugmandsgaard, in his ruling, held on one hand, that the Italian law was compatible with the EU directives to the extent it does not deny the consumers access to the judiciary and that the limitation period does not expire during such mediation process.
On the other hand, however, the ruling precludes national legislation which mandates consumers to be assisted by lawyers, or penalizes consumers who withdraw from the mediation process without valid grounds (unless the concept of “valid grounds” includes the party simply being dissatisfied with the ADR procedure).
The author is an attorney in Nigeria who has just completed her L.L.M. in Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. She is a CPR Institute 2017 summer intern.