An individual investor, with substantial means and more knowledge and experience than the average person, may still be considered a 'consumer' for the purposes of Article 17 of Regulation (EU) No 1215/2012 on jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters ("Recast Brussels Regulation"), even when contracting to trade a specialised product such as cryptocurrency futures.

The recent Commercial Court decision in Ramona Ang v Reliantco Investments Limited [2019] EWHC 879 (Comm) has confirmed the purposive test to be applied when considering whether an individual investor is a consumer under the Recast Brussels Regulation. While this decision arguably gives a generous interpretation as to who is a consumer under Article 17, it does provide some helpful clarification for financial institutions contracting with retail clients. In particular:

  1. The court held that the key question when assessing if an individual investor is a consumer is the purpose for which the investment was entered into. Specifically, whether the individual entered into the contract for a purpose which can be regarded as being outside his or her trade or profession. While the circumstances of the individual and the nature of the investment activity (including the use of intermediaries/advisers) will be considered, the court emphasised that these factors will not be determinative of the issue.
  2. This decision is a good example of how each case will be fact-specific and will turn on whether the individual is considered to be contracting for a non-business purpose. In this instance, the court held that despite the specialised nature of the products themselves, a wealthy individual committing substantial capital to speculative transactions in the hope of making investment gains was a consumer for the purposes of Article 17 of the Recast Brussels Regulation. It disagreed with the suggestion from other EU Member State courts that such activity must necessarily be a business activity, i.e. cannot ever be a consumer activity.
  3. In cases where a person does meet the 'consumer' test, if they have nonetheless given the other party the impression that they are contracting for business purposes, they will not be able to rely upon Article 17. (However, that was not the case here).
  4. This case is a reminder that if an individual investor meets the criteria under Article 17 of the Recast Brussels Regulation and brings a claim in the courts of their choice as a consumer under Article 18, this may trump an exclusive jurisdiction clause under Article 25 (unless certain exceptions apply, such as agreeing the exclusive jurisdiction clause after the dispute has arisen).

It is worth noting that the Court of Justice of the European Union ("CJEU") has recently published an Advocate General ("AG") opinion in a similar case, concerning a preliminary ruling on whether a natural person who engages in trade on the currency exchange market is to be regarded as a consumer within the meaning of Article 17: Jana Petruchová v FIBO Group Holdings Limited Case C 208/18. The AG opinion is largely consistent with the decision of the High Court in this case, save that it goes further by stating that no account should be taken of the circumstances of the individual and the nature/pattern of their investment (whereas in the instant case, the High Court said such factors would be considered, but would not be determinative – see the first point above).

Background

The claimant (an individual of substantial means) invested in Bitcoin futures, on a leveraged basis, through an online trading platform (UFX), owned by the defendant. The claimant had no education or training in cryptocurrency investment or trading and was not employed at the time, but she played a part in looking after the family's wealth and assisting her husband, a computer scientist with cybersecurity and blockchain expertise, who has identified himself publicly as being "Satoshi Nakamoto", the online pseudonym associated with the investor of Bitcoin.

During the account opening process on the UFX platform, the claimant provided certain information about herself, including that she was self-employed, familiar with investment products including currencies and was a frequent trader (75+ trades). She was provided with and accepted the defendant's terms and conditions.

The defendant terminated the claimant's UFX account, the claimant alleged that the defendant did so wrongfully and brought a claim in the English High Court for compensation for the loss of her open Bitcoin positions. In response, the defendant challenged the jurisdiction of the English High Court, by reference to an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of the courts of Cyprus in the terms and conditions (and relying upon Article 25 of the Recast Brussels Regulation).

Decision

The claimant argued that the exclusive jurisdiction clause in the defendant's terms and conditions was ineffective, either because she was a consumer within Section 4 of the Recast Brussels Regulation or because the clause was not incorporated into her UFX customer agreement in such a way to satisfy the requirements of Article 25 of the Recast Brussels Regulation.

The High Court held that the claimant was a consumer within Article 17 of the Recast Brussels Regulation, on the basis that she was contracting with the defendant for a purpose outside her trade or profession. As a result, she was permitted under Article 18 of the same regulation to continue her claim in the High Court and the defendant's challenge to the jurisdiction was dismissed. The court's decision in relation to Article 17 is discussed further below.

Test to be applied to an individual under Article 17 of the Recast Brussels Regulation

Article 17 of the Recast Brussels Regulation applies to contracts "concluded by a person, the consumer, for a purpose which can be regarded as being outside his trade or profession". The court noted that the concept of 'consumer' had been considered a number of times by the ECJ/CJEU and had an autonomous meaning under EU law, which was independent of national law.

The defendant contended that the ECJ/CJEU had 'glossed' the definition of consumer, relying in particular upon the ECJ's statement in Benincasa [1997] ETMR 447 that "only contracts concluded for the purpose of satisfying an individual's own needs in terms of private consumption" were protected by the consumer rule under Article 17. The High Court rejected this contention, however, following the approach taken by Longmore J in Standard Bank London Ltd v Apostolakis [2002] CLC 933 and holding that this reference to "private consumption" was not a new or different test to the one under the Recast Brussels Regulation. The court reaffirmed that there were "end user" and "private individual" elements inherent in the notion of a consumer, but that an individual acting for gain could nonetheless meet the test.

In doing so, the court made the following key observations:

  • The court confirmed that the issue as to whether an individual investor is a consumer will be fact-specific in any given case. It emphasised that the question of purpose is the question to be asked, and must be considered upon all of the evidence available to the court and not to any one part of that evidence in isolation.
  • It agreed with the decision in AMT Futures Limited v Marzillier [2015] 2 WLR 187that any assessment of whether an individual investor is a consumer is "likely to be heavily dependent on the circumstances of each individual and the nature and pattern of investment". However, it emphasised that these factors cannot determine the issue, as to do so would be to effectively replace the non-business purpose test set by the Recast Brussels Regulation.
  • It disagreed with the conclusion reached by the Greek courts in both Standard Bank of London v Apostolakis [2003] I L Pr 29 and R Ghandour v Arab Bank (Switzerland) [2008] I L Pr 35 that "the purchase of moveable property for the purpose of resale for profit and its subsequent actual resale…" was intrinsically commercial, so that engaging in such trading was necessarily a business activity and not a consumer activity.

Application of the test

Applying the purposive test as set out in the Recast Brussels Regulation, the court's view was that the claimant had contracted with the defendant for a non-business purpose. It is worth noting that the court reached this conclusion despite finding that the claimant had over-stated the extent of her prior trading experience. Given that such over-statement did not go as far as creating the impression that the claimant was opening an account for a business purpose, it did not affect the court's overall conclusion.