Judgments - Director General of Fair Trading V First National Bank

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    18. In support of his contention that the term is unfair the Director adduced evidence of complaints made to him by a number of borrowers. Some of these disclose a very highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. In one case a husband and wife borrowed £3,000 plus £443.70 for insurance to finance improvements to their home. The principal was repayable over a five-year term by instalments of £84.89 plus £8.98 insurance. The borrowers fell into arrear and judgment was given for £3,953.11. The court ordered this sum to be paid by monthly instalments of £4.18, at which rate (it was calculated) the judgment debt would take 78 years to clear. Meanwhile, under the contract, interest would continue to accrue even if the instalments were fully and punctually paid. The bank's deponent described these borrowers as "a good example of customers who demonstrated an ability easily to pay the instalments for home improvements when the credit was granted but thereafter appeared to have undertaken many other financial commitments which seriously prejudiced their ability to pay" the bank. A financial statement prepared on these borrowers some months before the county court judgment is consistent with that assertion.

    19. For the Director, reliance was placed on the provisions in the 1991 order which denied the court power to order payment of statutory interest on money judgments given under regulated agreements and precluded entitlement to interest in any case where payment by instalments had been ordered and the instalments had been fully and punctually paid. It was argued that the term was unfair because it denied the borrower the protection which those provisions afforded. It was argued, in the alternative, that the term was unfair for the more limited reason upheld by the Court of Appeal.

    20. In judging the fairness of the term it is necessary to consider the position of typical parties when the contract is made. The borrower wants to borrow a sum of money, often quite a modest sum, often for purposes of improving his home. He discloses an income sufficient to finance repayment by instalments over the contract term. If he cannot do that, the bank will be unwilling to lend. The essential bargain is that the bank will make funds available to the borrower which the borrower will repay, over a period, with interest. Neither party could suppose that the bank would willingly forgo any part of its principal or interest. If the bank thought that outcome at all likely, it would not lend. If there were any room for doubt about the borrower's obligation to repay the principal in full with interest, that obligation is very clearly and unambiguously expressed in the conditions of contract. There is nothing unbalanced or detrimental to the consumer in that obligation; the absence of such a term would unbalance the contract to the detriment of the lender.

    21. It seems clear, as the judge pointed out ([2000] 1 WLR 98 at 111) that a secured lender who does not obtain a money judgment but instead proceeds for possession and sale under the mortgage may obtain interest at the contract rate provided for in the mortgage down to the date when he is actually repaid, and in my opinion there is nothing unbalanced or detrimental to the consumer in that result either.

    22. Should it then be said that the provisions of the 1991 order render the term unfair, providing as it does for a continuing obligation to pay interest after judgment notwithstanding the payment of instalments by the borrower in accordance with a court order? It is, I think, pertinent that the 1974 Act, which laid down a number of stipulations with which regulated agreements must comply, did not prohibit terms providing for post-judgment interest even though it required claims to enforce regulated agreements to be brought in the county court which could not at the time award statutory interest in any circumstances. The 1974 Act was passed to protect consumers and such a prohibition would no doubt have been enacted had it been recognised as a necessary or desirable form of protection. The Crowther Committee, on whose report (Cmnd. 4596, March 1971) the Act was based, did not recommend such a prohibition; indeed, it contemplated the recovery of contractual interest: see paragraphs 5.4.3, 6.6.33, 6.6.44(iv) and 6.7.16). It is also pertinent that judgments based on regulated agreements appear to have been excluded from the scope of the county court's power to award statutory interest in response to observations of Lord Donaldson of Lymington MR in Forward Trust Ltd v Whymark [1990] 2 QB 670 at 681: but that was a case based on a flat rate agreement, in which the judgment in default would include a sum for future interest not yet accrued, in contrast with a simple rate agreement of the present kind (see [2000] 1 WLR 98 at 110-111; [2000] QB 672 at 679); the logic underpinning exclusion of statutory interest in the one case would not apply, at any rate with the same force, in the other. It is understandable that when a court is exercising a statutory power to order payment by instalments it should not also be empowered to order payment of statutory interest if the instalments are duly paid, but the term is directed to the recovery of contractual and not statutory interest. I do not think that the term can be stigmatised as unfair on the ground that it violates or undermines a statutory regime enacted for the protection of consumers.

    23. It is of course foreseeable that a borrower, no matter how honourable and realistic his intentions when entering into a credit agreement, may fall on hard times and find himself unable to honour his obligations. The bank's standard conditions recognise that possibility by providing for the contingency of default. The 1974 Act even more fully recognises that possibility, by providing for time orders to be made and providing that when a time order is made the terms of the underlying agreement may also be amended. These provisions are clearly framed for the relief not of the borrower who, having the means to meet his contractual obligations, chooses not to do so, but for the relief of those who cannot pay or cannot pay without more time. Properly applied, these provisions enable the undeserving borrower to be distinguished from the deserving and for the contractual obligations of the deserving to be re-drawn in terms which reasonably reflect such ability, if any, as he may then have to repay within a reasonable period. Where problems arise in practice, it appears to be because borrowers do not know of the effect of sections 129 and 136; neither the procedure for giving notice of default to the borrower nor the prescribed county court forms draw attention to them; and judgments will routinely be entered in the county court without the court considering whether to exercise its power under the sections.

    24. I have no hesitation in accepting the proposition, inherent in the Director's submissions, that this situation is unacceptable. I have much greater difficulty in deciding whether the difficulties derive, as the Court of Appeal concluded, from the unfairness of the term or from the absence of procedural safeguards for the consumer at the stage of default. When the contract is made, default is a foreseeable contingency, not an expected outcome. It is not customary, even in consumer contracts, for notice to be given to the consumer of statutory reliefs open to him if he defaults. The 1974 Act does not require that notice of the effect of sections 129 and 136 be given. The evidence contains examples of clauses used by over 30 other lenders providing for the payment of interest after judgment, and none alerts the borrower to these potential grounds of relief. Regulation 4 is directed to the unfairness of a contract term, not the use which a supplier may make of a term which is in itself fair. It is readily understandable that a borrower may be disagreeably surprised if he finds that his contractual interest obligation continues to mount despite his duly paying the instalments ordered by the court, but it appears that the bank seeks to prevent that surprise by sending what is described in the evidence as a standard form of letter:

    "You need only pay the amount ordered by the Court under the terms of the judgment but you should be aware that under the terms of the agreement interest continues to accrue on your account.

    It is therefore in your interest to increase the instalment paid as soon as possible otherwise a much greater balance than the judgment debt may quickly build up."

On balance, I do not consider that the term can properly be said to cause a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations under the contract to the detriment of the consumer in a manner or to an extent which is contrary to the requirement of good faith.

    25. I do not think that the issues raised in this appeal raise any question on which the House requires a ruling from the European Court of Justice to enable it to give judgment and I would not accordingly order a reference to be made.

    26. For the reasons I have given, and those given by each of my noble and learned friends, I would allow the bank's appeal with costs in the House and the Court of Appeal and restore the order of the judge.

    27. In conclusion, I would add a footnote on sections 129 and 136 of the 1974 Act. In the course of argument the House was referred to the decision of the Court of Appeal in Southern and District Finance plc v Barnes and Barnes and two related appeals reported at [1995] CCLR 62. The effect and interaction of sections 129 and 136 were there considered.

    28. Of section 129 the court said (at p 68):

    "When a time order is made, it should normally be made for a stipulated period on account of temporary financial difficulty. If, despite the giving of time, the debtor is unlikely to be able to resume repayment of the total indebtedness by at least the amount of the contractual instalments, no time order should be made. In such circumstances it will be more equitable to allow the regulated agreement to be enforced."

I would in general agree that time orders extending over very long periods of time are usually better avoided. But I note that the court dismissed an appeal against a judge who had rescheduled payments over a period of 15 years ("Though the judge's methods were robust and his reasoning economical, his instincts were sound and his order just": p 71), and the broad language of section 129 should be so construed as to permit the county court to make such order as seems to it just in all the circumstances.

    29. Of section 136 the court said (at p 68):

    "The court may include in a time order any amendment of the agreement, which it considers just to both parties, and which is a consequence of a term of the order . . ."

In the case already referred to the judge had ordered that no additional interest should be payable beyond that which had already accrued, and the Court of Appeal upheld his decision. It was right to do so: provided the amendment is a consequence of a term of the time order, the court should be ready to include in a time order any provision amending the agreement which it considers just to both parties.

LORD STEYN

My Lords,

    30. This is the first occasion on which the House has had the opportunity to examine an important branch of consumer law. It is therefore appropriate to consider the framework in which the questions before the House must be considered.

    31. As between the directive and the domestic implementing regulations, the former is the dominant text. Fortunately, the 1994 Regulations, and even more so the 1999 Regulations, appear to have implemented the directive in domestic law in a manner which ought not to cause serious difficulty. The purpose of the directive is twofold, viz the promotion of fair standard contract forms to improve the functioning of the European market place and the protection of consumers throughout the European Community. The directive is aimed at contracts of adhesion, viz "take it or leave it" contracts. It treats consumers as presumptively weaker parties and therefore fit for protection from abuses by stronger contracting parties. This is an objective which must throughout guide the interpretation of the directive as well as the implementing regulations. If contracting parties were able to avoid the application of the directive and regulations by exclusionary stipulations the regulatory scheme would be ineffective. The conclusion that the directive and regulations are mandatory is inescapable.

    32. The directive is not an altogether harmonious text. It reflects the pragmatic compromises which were necessary to arrive at practical solutions between member states with divergent legal systems. But, despite some inelegance and untidiness in the text, the general principle that the construction must be adopted which promotes the effectiveness and practical value of the system ought to overcome difficulties. And the concepts of the directive must be given autonomous meanings so that there will be uniform application of the directive so far as is possible.

    33. The directive made provision for a dual system of ex casu challenges and pre-emptive or collective challenges by appropriate bodies: see article 7. This system was domestically enacted in the 1994 Regulations, with the Director General of Fair Trading as the administering official to investigate and take action on complaints: see regulation 8. The 1999 Regulations extended the system of enforcement by including other bodies as qualified to undertake pre-emptive challenges. The system of pre-emptive challenges is a more effective way of preventing the continuing use of unfair terms and changing contracting practice than ex casu actions: see Susan Bright, "Winning the battle against unfair contract terms", (2000) 20 Legal Studies 331, 333-338. It is, however, to be noted that in a pre-emptive challenge there is not a direct lis between the consumer and the other contracting party. The directive and the Regulations do not always distinguish between the two situations. This point is illustrated by the emphasis in article 4.1 of the directive and regulation 4(2) on the relevance of particular circumstances affecting a contractual relationship. The directive and the regulations must be made to work sensibly and effectively and this can only be done by taking into account the effects of contemplated or typical relationships between the contracting parties. Inevitably, the primary focus of such a pre-emptive challenge is on issues of substantive unfairness.

    34. Under the Regulations, a term in a standard form contract that is unfair is not binding on the consumer. But certain provisions, sometimes called core terms, have been excepted from the regulatory regime. Regulation 3(2) so provides:

    "In so far as it is in plain, intelligible language, no assessment shall be made of the fairness of any term which - (a) defines the main subject matter of the contract, or (b) concerns the adequacy of the price or remuneration, as against the goods or services sold or supplied."

Clause 8 of the contract, the only provision in dispute, is a default provision. It prescribes remedies which only become available to the lender upon the default of the consumer. For this reason the escape route of regulation 3(2) is not available to the bank. So far as the description of terms covered by regulation 3(2) as core terms is helpful at all, I would say that clause 8 of the contract is a subsidiary term. In any event, article 3(2) must be given a restrictive interpretation. Unless that is done article 3(2)(a) will enable the main purpose of the scheme to be frustrated by endless formalistic arguments as to whether a provision is a definitional or an exclusionary provision. Similarly, article 3(2)(b) dealing with "the adequacy of the price of remuneration" must be given a restrictive interpretation. After all, in a broad sense all terms of the contract are in some way related to the price or remuneration. That is not what is intended. Even price escalation clauses have been treated by the Director as subject to the fairness provision: see Susan Bright, loc. cit., at pp 345 and 349. It would be a gaping hole in the system if such clauses were not subject to the fairness requirement. For these further reasons I would reject the argument of the bank that regulation 3(2), and in particular 3(2)(b), take clause 8 outside the scope of the regulations.

    35. Given these conclusions the attack on the merger principle mounted by the bank was misplaced. In any event, I am not willing to uphold criticism by the bank of the well tried and tested principle of merger. I would therefore reject the bank's submissions under this heading.

    36. It is now necessary to refer to the provisions which prescribe how it should be determined whether a term is unfair. Implementing article 3(1) of the directive regulation 4(1) provides:

    "'unfair term' means any term which contrary to the requirement of good faith causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations under the contract to the detriment of the consumer."

There are three independent requirements. But the element of detriment to the consumer may not add much. But it serves to make clear that the directive is aimed at significant imbalance against the consumer, rather than the seller or supplier. The twin requirements of good faith and significant imbalance will in practice be determinative. Schedule 2 to the Regulations, which explains the concept of good faith, provides that regard must be had, amongst other things, to the extent to which the seller or supplier has dealt fairly and equitably with the consumer. It is an objective criterion. Good faith imports, as Lord Bingham has observed in his opinion, the notion of open and fair dealing: see also Interfoto Picture Library Ltd v Stiletto Visual Programmes Ltd [1989] QB 433. And helpfully the commentary to the 2000 edition of Principles of European Contract Law, prepared by the Commission of European Contract Law, explains that the purpose of the provision of good faith and fair dealing is "to enforce community standards of fairness and reasonableness in commercial transactions": at 113; A fortiori that is true of consumer transactions. Schedule 3 to the Regulations (which corresponds to the Annex to the directive) is best regarded as a check list of terms which must be regarded as potentially vulnerable. The examples given in Schedule 3 convincingly demonstrate that the argument of the bank that good faith is predominantly concerned with procedural defects in negotiating procedures cannot be sustained. Any purely procedural or even predominantly procedural interpretation of the requirement of good faith must be rejected.

    37. That brings me to the element of significant imbalance. It has been pointed out by Hugh Collins that the test "of a significant imbalance of the obligations obviously directs attention to the substantive unfairness of the contract": "Good Faith in European Contract Law," (1994), 14 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 229, 249. It is however, also right to say that there is a large area of overlap between the concepts of good faith and significant imbalance.

    38. It is now necessary to turn to the application of these requirements to the facts of the present case. The point is a relatively narrow one. I agree that the starting point is that a lender ought to be able to recover interest at the contractual rate until the date of payment, and this applies both before and after judgment. On the other hand, counsel for the Director advanced a contrary argument. Adopting the test of asking what the position of a consumer is in the contract under consideration with or without clause 8, he said that the consumer is in a significantly worse position than he would have been if there had been no such provision. Certainly, the consumer is worse off. The difficulty facing counsel, however, is that this disadvantage to the consumer appears to be the consequence not of clause 8 but of the County Courts (Interest on Judgment Debts) Order 1991. Under this Order no statutory interest is payable on a county court judgment given in proceedings to recover money due under a regulated agreement: see regulation 2. Counsel said that for policy reasons it was decided that in such a case no interest may be recovered after judgment. He said that it is not open to the House to criticise directly or indirectly this legal context. In these circumstances he submitted that it is not legitimate for a court to conclude that fairness requires that a lender must be able to insist on a stipulation designed to avoid the statutory regime under the 1991 Order. Initially I was inclined to uphold this policy argument. On reflection, however, I have been persuaded that this argument cannot prevail in circumstances where the legislature has neither expressly nor by necessary implication barred a stipulation that interest may continue to accrue after judgment until payment in full.

    39. For these reasons as well as the reasons given by Lord Bingham I agree that clause 8 is not unfair and I would also make the order which Lord Bingham proposes.

LORD HOPE OF CRAIGHEAD

My Lords,

    40. I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Bingham of Cornhill. I agree with it, and for reasons which he has given I too would allow the appeal. I also agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Millett that the real source of the problem revealed by this case remains to be tackled. It is with that point particularly in mind that I wish to add these observations.

    41. The term to which the Director has taken objection is to be found in the last sentence of condition 8 of the bank's standard form. It seeks to do three things. Firstly, it provides that interest on the amount which becomes payable under that condition is to be payable in accordance with condition 4. Second, it provides that interest is to be payable on that amount until payment after as well as before any judgment. Third, it makes it clear that the obligation to pay interest is to be independent of and not to merge with the judgment. The amount on which the interest is to be charged is described in the preceding sentence. It consists of (a) the balance on the customer's account, (b) interest outstanding at the specified date and (c) other costs, charges and expenses incurred in trying to obtain the repayment of the unpaid instalment of such balance and interest. Mr Crowe for the Director made it clear that no objection was taken to the provision in the first part of the sentence that interest was to be payable on that amount. He accepted that this part of the sentence cannot be regarded as unfair. The contractual term which he says is unfair is to be found in the other parts of the sentence, which provide that interest on the amount referred to in the first part of it is to be payable after as well as before any judgment and that the obligation to do so is to be independent of and not to merge with the judgment.

    42. Regulation 3(2)(b) of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1994 provides that no assessment is to be made of the fairness of any term which concerns the adequacy of the price or remuneration as against the goods or services supplied. This is the provision on which Lord Goodhart QC relied when he said that the fairness provisions did not apply in this case. But it seems to me to be plain that the last sentence of condition 8 is not concerned with the adequacy of the remuneration which the bank is to receive for making its money available to the borrower.

    43. As the nineteenth recital to the Council Directive 93/13/EEC indicates, regulation 3(2) applies only to terms which describe the main subject matter of the contract or are directly related to the adequacy of the price charged for the goods or services. The last sentence of condition 8 is concerned with neither of these two things. The obligation to pay interest on the outstanding balance is set out in condition 4. It is there that the provisions are to be found that concern the adequacy of the price charged for the loan. Condition 8 is a default provision. The last sentence of it is designed to enable interest to be recovered on the whole of the amount due on default. That amount includes legal and other costs, charges and expenses, so it is not confined to the outstanding balance due by the borrower. I do not think that it can be said to be directly related to the price charged for the loan or to its adequacy. It is concerned instead with the consequences of the borrower's breach of contract. It sets out what is to happen if he fails to make the repayments to the bank as they fall due. I agree that regulation 3(2)(b) does not apply to it, and that its fairness as defined in regulation 4(1) of the 1994 Regulations must be assessed.

    44. The primary reason which the Director has given for maintaining that the term is unfair is the uncertainty, confusion and hardship which has been shown to result from the bank's practice of claiming contractual interest from its borrowers after judgment has been given for the principal. Particular unfairness is said to arise where an order is made to pay the debt by instalments, whether under section 71 of the County Courts Act 1984 or a time order under section 129 of the 1974 Act, and where no consideration has been given to making an order under section 136 of the 1974 Act to amend the agreement so as to prevent the accrual of contractual interest on instalments which are paid when they fall due. The fact that it is commonplace for no consideration to be given to the use of section 136 when payment by instalments is being ordered is not in dispute. So it is not surprising that borrowers, on finding that they are liable for further amounts in addition to the instalments provided for in judgments obtained against them by the bank, have complained to the Director.

    45. I am not persuaded that, despite these consequences, the term is unfair. The meaning to be given to the word "unfair" in this context is laid down in regulation 4(1) of the 1994 Regulations. Guidance as to how the words used in that paragraph are to be understood is to be found in the sixteenth recital to the directive. The recital explains what "constitutes the requirement of good faith". It states that an assessment of the unfair character of unfair terms must be supplemented by an overall evaluation of the different interests involved. Regulation 4(2) indicates the wide range of circumstances to be taken into account in the assessment. It provides that the assessment is to be done as at the time of the conclusion of the contract. But an appreciation of how the term will affect each party when the contract is put into effect must clearly form part of the exercise. It has been pointed out that there are considerable differences between the legal systems of the member states as to how extensive and how powerful the penetration has been of the principle of good faith and fair dealing: Lando and Beale, Principles of European Contract Law, Parts I and II (Combined and Revised, 2000), p 116. But in the present context there is no need to explore this topic in any depth. The directive provides all the guidance that it needed as to its application.

    46. Following this approach it does not seem to me that there is a significant imbalance to the detriment of the borrower in the stipulation that the interest which is payable in terms of the first part of the last sentence is to be charged after as well as before any judgment and that this obligation is not to merge in the judgment. The primary obligation in condition 4 is to pay interest on the outstanding balance due to the bank. The plain fact is that, in the event of a default by the borrower, the bank will not have recovered all of its money until the entire balance on the borrower's account has been paid. The main purpose of the last sentence is to ensure that the borrower does not enjoy the benefit of the outstanding balance after judgment without fulfilling the corresponding obligation which he has undertaken to pay interest on it as provided for in the contract. While the working out of that purpose may give rise to uncertainty in practice, the term itself does not seem to me to be unfair.

 
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