The French Consumer Rights Act of 17 March 2014 introduced a form of class actions in France. The French “action de groupe” is an opt-in system limited to the reparation of consumers’ material injuries in the fields of consumer law and anti-competitive practices.
The French class action procedure
After decades of discussions and abandoned drafts, a class action procedure was introduced in the French legal system by the French Consumer Rights Act of 17 March 2014.1 An implementing decree has recently been published,2 and the procedural rules of the French class action accordingly entered into force on 1 October 2014. France is the ninth country among the European Union Member States to adopt a form of class action.
The scope of the French class action is restricted to consumer damages arising from the breach of contractual or statutory duties by professionals (people and companies manufacturing, distributing or supplying goods or services). Its scope is limited to consumer harm, consumers being strictly natural persons. Businesses and professionals, including foreign entities, cannot participate in French class actions, as they are reserved solely for consumers. The damages granted are also limited to patrimonial damages (damages for financial loss), excluding extra-patrimonial or other damages. The procedure is available for claims of anticompetitive practices in addition to consumer damages although, unlike the new UK class action regime, consumers must opt-in to the procedure (not opt-out). Unlike other European countries, such as Sweden, the French class action does not presently extend to environment- or health-related claims, although this is to be reviewed within 30 months of enactment.
A three-stage procedure
1. A decision on the professional’s liability
Class actions are only open to duly authorised consumer associations. There are sixteen of these associations at present. These associations will have to bring a class action before civil courts of first instance (Tribunal de Grande Instance). A first decision will simultaneously rule on the admissibility of the case, the criteria and timeframe within which the consumers have to join the group, the amount of damages or the way to assess such damages, and order the advertising measures that must be taken. This decision is subject to appeal. The publicity measures can only occur once all appeals have been made.
2. An opt-in system
Consumers placed in a similar position must opt-in to join the group in order to be compensated for their loss (opt-in). The judgment will define the group of consumers that are eligible and the criteria to be met by a consumer to be part of this group. The judgment will also define the deadline by which consumers must join the group (between 2 and 6 months after the judgment).
3. A decision on the compensation of consumers
A subsequent decision will define the conditions under which the professional held liable must compensate the consumers who opted in the class action.
Civil courts of first instance have jurisdiction to hear any dispute concerning enforcement of the decision, including any dispute relating to the recovery of damages by consumers.
Other dispute resolution mechanisms
The simplified procedure
A simplified procedural framework is available where the identity and the number of harmed consumers are known, if the consumers are identifiable and have suffered the same or a similar loss (recipients of a service-plan for instance). As all consumers are known, there is no need for broad publicity and no opt-in procedure is therefore provided for. The judge may order the professional to compensate each known consumer directly and individually in respect of their loss. However, contrary to, for example, the Netherlands, this is not an opt-outprocedure, as the consumers must have previously agreed to obtain compensation.3
The law also enables authorised consumer associations to initiate a mediation procedure. When the mediation leads to a settlement, the civil court of first instance must approve such a settlement, and define the deadline and measures to be put in place in order to inform the consumers and allow them to join in the settlement.
Statutes of limitation
The statute of limitation is the same as other actions under French law, i.e. five years from the day the harm was suffered or from the day it was discovered; except for class actions following a decision on anti-competitive practices, where the limitation is five years from the final decision on liability by the relevant competition authority.
The introduction of a class action suspends the statute of limitation.
Since the French class action entered into force on October 1, four actions have been initiated, three in the field of real estate and one concerning insurance.