23 September 2008

Hesselink on Fairness and Social Justice in European Private Law

Martijn Hesselink (University of Amsterdam) has posted 'CFR & Social Justice: A short study for the European Parliament on the values underlying the Draft Common Frame of Reference for European Private Law - What roles for fairness and social justice?' on SSRN (Center for the Study of European Contract Law - CSECL - Working Paper 2008/08). This is the abstract:

The draft Common Frame of Reference is likely to play a prominent role in the further development of European contract law. Therefore, with a view to its acceptability it is crucial to assess the draft from the point of view of social justice.

The DCFR has all the characteristics of a typical European compromise. Ideological and esthetical purists will certainly be disappointed. This is not necessarily something to be worried about. A common frame of reference is not drafted, in the first place (if at all), for esthetical or ideological reasons; it is meant to provide some normative guidance in the further development of European contract law. European citizens have very different interests, preferences and opinions in relation to almost all the subjects dealt with in the DCFR. A DCFR consistently based on only one conception about the right choices would inevitably have disappointed all European citizens with a different idea of social justice in European private law. Therefore, if we really want the further Europeanization of private law we will have to accept that it will probably look rather different from both the particular Member State law that each of us is familiar with and our personal ideas of social justice. The publication of the interim outline edition of the draft CFR, which is the result of a close collaboration between hundreds of legal scholars from all Member States, has brought that message home. The characterisations of the DCFR as 'a law for big business and competent consumers' or, alternatively, as a 'massive reduction of private autonomy' are both unfounded. Overall, from the point of view of social justice, the DCFR is fairly balanced. Nevertheless, there is certainly room for improvement.

Even if the DCFR is going to remain only a soft law instrument it is still likely to have a considerable influence on the further development of private law in Europe and will therefore also affect, directly or indirectly, the lives of all European citizens. For this reason it is crucial that European citizens will not only be the addressees of the CFR, or of the legislative measures based thereon, but can also rightly consider themselves as its authors. After the drafting by legal experts and the rather one-sided 'stakeholders'' input that were both organised by the European Commission it is now time for the citizens' voice. Only a meaningful input from the European and national Parliaments can provide the final CFR with the regulatory legitimacy that it needs.

The level of consumer protection in the DCFR is sufficiently high for it to be acceptable as the content of an optional instrument, which could be made applicable, for example, by clicking on a 'blue button'. However, as an absolute maximum beyond which the Member States would not be allowed to go in the case of full harmonisation, it is submitted, the level of protection in the DCFR is insufficient. Moreover, the DCFR draws a sharp distinction between B2C and B2B contracts. It categorically excludes from the protection that it grants to consumers all businesses, even the smallest ones that may be as vulnerable as consumers (or even more so) when it comes to a lack of information, inexperience and dependence. This sharp distinction deviates from the law in many Member States, is not required by the EC Treaty (which is relevant with a view to the CFR's role as a toolbox for revising the acquis and for drafting new acquis), and is potentially contrary to the fundamental principle of justice that any distinction between groups of people should favour the least privileged.

General private law - the bulk of the model rules contained in the DCFR - cannot be said to be 'neoliberal' as the Social Justice Group feared it would. Nor is it 'socialist' as some business stake holders warned for. It strikes a balance between autonomy and solidarity that is quite similar to the ones drawn in the modern private laws (including the case law, i.e. not merely the civil codes) of the Member States. However, where the DCFR deviates from the Principles of European Contract Law (PECL) it is always in the liberal direction.

Throughout the last Century general clauses, such as good faith, have played a prominent role in promoting social justice in private law in the Member States. In fact they became delegations of law-making power to the courts in order to allow them to find just and fair solutions in new cases. This tradition was codified in the PECL. However, in the DCFR the role of good faith is narrower and deliberately so. From the point of view of social justice it is important that in the final CFR the role of good faith as an undisputed legal basis for judge-made law should be restored.

The catalogue of underlying values and principles, that is meant to become the preamble to the final CFR and is likely to play a crucial role in the interpretation and further development of the CFR, brings back to the foreground some fundamental values that have played a prominent role in private law making in the Member States but that have been overshadowed, on the European level, by the narrow focus on market building. Having said that, the list of values in the DCFR could be framed so as to be more balanced. In particular, the privileged position of party autonomy as the only principle that is also contained in the black-letter model rules seems unjustified.

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