Article 47 - Right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial
Article 51 - Field of application
Key facts of the case:
Request for a preliminary ruling from the Krajský súd v Prešove.
Reference for a preliminary ruling – Consumer protection – Directive 2008/48/EC – Credit agreements for consumers – Directive 93/13/EEC – Unfair contract terms – Payment made under an unlawful term – Unjust enrichment of the lender – Right to restitution time-barred – Principles of Union law – Principle of effectiveness – Article 10(2) of Directive 2008/48 – Information to be included in a credit agreement – Elimination of certain national requirements on the basis of the case-law of the Court – Interpretation of the old version of the national legislation in accordance with that case-law – Temporal effects.
Outcome of the case:
On those grounds, the Court (First Chamber) hereby rules:
1) This request for a preliminary ruling concerns the interpretation of Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’), the principle of effectiveness of European Union law and provisions of Directive 2008/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2008 on credit agreements for consumers and repealing Council Directive 87/102/EEC (OJ 2008 L 133, p. 66; corrigenda OJ 2009 L 207, p. 14; OJ 2010 L 199, p. 40; and OJ 2011 L 234, p. 46), in particular, Article 10(2)(h) and (i) thereof.
23) The referring court notes, first of all, that the objective limitation period of three years begins to run and expires even though the injured consumer was not aware of the unfair or unlawful nature of the contractual term giving rise to the unjust enrichment. In its view, such a national rule is likely to infringe the right to effective judicial protection guaranteed by Article 47 of the Charter and to be incompatible with the case-law of the Court relating to consumer protection, laid down, in particular, by Directive 93/13 and Directive 2008/48.
25) It follows from that decision that it is incumbent on a consumer relying on the special objective limitation period of 10 years to show that the creditor did indeed intend to enrich himself or herself unduly to the consumer’s detriment and that, in the absence of such proof, the general objective limitation period of three years applies. The lower Slovak courts are obliged to follow that decision. However, the referring court considers that that may run counter to Article 47 of the Charter and the principle of effectiveness of Union law, since, in its view, it is practically impossible for a consumer without full information to provide the required proof.
31) In those circumstances, the Krajský súd v Prešove (Regional Court, Prešov) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling:
1. Must Article 47 of the [Charter] and, by implication, the consumer’s right to an effective legal remedy be interpreted as precluding national legislation, such as Article 107(2) of the Občianský zákonník (Civil Code of Slovakia) on the limitation of the consumer’s right by a statutory three-year limitation period, in accordance with which the consumer’s right to reimbursement which arises from an unfair contractual term may become time-barred even where the consumer is not in a position to evaluate the unfair contractual term and the limitation period starts even without the consumer being aware that the contractual term is unfair?
2. In the event that, despite a lack of awareness on the part of the consumer, the legislation which imposes a statutory limitation period of three years on the consumer’s right is consistent with Article 47 of the Charter and the principle of effectiveness, the national court then asks the following:
Is a national practice contrary to Article 47 of the Charter and the principle of effectiveness if, in accordance with that practice, the burden of proof falls on the consumer, who must prove in legal proceedings that the persons acting on behalf of the creditor were aware of the fact that the creditor was infringing the consumer’s rights, in the present case that awareness consisting in the knowledge that, by failing to indicate the precise [APR], the creditor was infringing a legal provision, and must also prove awareness of the fact that, in such circumstances, the loan was non-interest bearing and, by receiving payments of interest, the creditor obtained unjust enrichment?
34) Second, Profi Credit Slovakia submits that the questions referred by the national court are inadmissible on the grounds (i) that they do not concern the interpretation of provisions of Union law harmonising national rules on limitation periods or the effects of directives, (ii) that Article 51 of the Charter limits its scope to situations in which the Member States implement Union law and (iii) that those questions are of no use for the resolution of the dispute in the main proceedings.
36) In that regard, it must be observed that the first and second questions referred for a preliminary ruling concern, in substance, the interpretation of Article 47 of the Charter, read in conjunction with the principle of the effectiveness of Union law.
37) Under Article 51(1) of the Charter, its provisions are addressed to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law and, according to settled case-law, the concept of ‘implementation of Union law’ within the meaning of that provision presupposes a degree of connection between an act of Union law and the national measure at issue which goes beyond the matters referred to or the indirect effects of one of the matters on the other, having regard to the assessment criteria laid down by the Court (see, to that effect, judgments of 22 January 2020, Baldonedo Martín, C‑177/18, EU:C:2020:26, paragraphs 57 to 59, and of 16 July 2020, Adusbef and Others, C‑686/18, EU:C:2020:567, paragraphs 51 and 52).
39) In the present case, the first two questions put by the national court do not, of course, refer to any act of Union law other than the Charter. However, it is clear from the grounds set out in the order for reference that there is a clear and sufficient link between the limitation rules laid down in Article 107(2) of the Civil Code, which are applicable to an action brought by a consumer, such as the applicant in the main proceedings, and the provisions of secondary Union law, which are intended to ensure consumer protection.
40) More specifically, the national court is asking whether those national rules are likely not only to affect the right to an effective remedy enshrined in Article 47 of the Charter, but also to undermine the full effect of the provisions on unfair terms contained in Directive 93/13 and the provisions on consumer credit contained in Directive 2008/48.
50) In the present case, even if the referring court formally confined its first question to the interpretation of Article 47 of the Charter, that circumstance does not prevent the Court from providing it with all the elements of interpretation which may be useful for the judgment in the main proceedings, by extracting from the body of material provided by that court, and in particular from the statement of reasons for the order for reference, the elements of Union law which require interpretation in the light of the subject matter of the dispute (see, to that effect, judgments of 17 December 2015, Neptune Distributions, C‑157/14, EU:C:2015:823, paragraph 34, and of 8 May 2019, PI, C‑230/18, EU:C:2019:383, paragraph 43).
54) Furthermore, the Court has made it clear that the obligation of Member States to lay down detailed procedural rules to ensure respect for the rights which individuals derive from Directive 93/13 against the use of unfair terms implies a requirement for effective judicial protection, also guaranteed by Article 47 of the Charter, which applies, in particular, to the detailed procedural rules relating to such actions (see, to that effect, judgments of 17 July 2014, Sánchez Morcillo and Abril García, C‑169/14, EU:C:2014:2099, paragraph 35, and of 31 May 2018, Sziber, C‑483/16, EU:C:2018:367, paragraph 49).