House of Lords
|Session 2001- 02
Publications on the Internet|
|Judgments - Director General of Fair Trading V First National Bank
HOUSE OF LORDS
Lord Bingham of Cornhill Lord Steyn Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Millett Lord Rodger of Earlsferry
OPINIONS OF THE LORDS OF APPEAL FOR JUDGMENT
IN THE CAUSE
THE DIRECTOR GENERAL OF FAIR TRADING
(ORIGINAL RESPONDENT AND CROSS-APPELLANT)
FIRST NATIONAL BANK PLC
(ORIGINAL APPELLANTS AND CROSS-RESPONDENTS)
ON 25 OCTOBER 2001
 UKHL 52
LORD BINGHAM OF CORNHILL
1. First National Bank plc ("the bank") is licensed to carry on consumer credit business. It is a major lender in the market and has lent large sums to borrowers under credit agreements regulated under the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Such agreements are made on its printed form which contains a number of standard terms. The Director General of Fair Trading ("the Director"), in exercising powers conferred on him by regulation 8 of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1994 (SI 1994/3159) ("the regulations"), sought an injunction to restrain use of or reliance on one such standard term on the ground that it was unfair. The bank resisted the Director's application on two grounds. The first, rejected by Evans-Lombe J at first instance ( 1 WLR 98) and the Court of Appeal (Peter Gibson, Waller and Buxton L JJ) ( QB 672), was that the fairness provisions of the regulations did not apply to the term in question. The second, accepted by the judge but partially rejected by the Court of Appeal, was that the term in question was not unfair. In this appeal to the House the bank again relies on both these arguments. The Director seeks to uphold the decision of the Court of Appeal but contends that the term was more fundamentally unfair than the Court of Appeal held it to be. Thus there are two broad questions before the House:
(1) Do the fairness provisions of the regulations apply to the term in question?
(2) If so, is the term unfair and, if it is, on what ground?
2. By its standard form of regulated credit agreement the bank agrees to make a sum of money available to the borrower for a specified period in consideration of the borrower's agreement to repay that sum by specified instalments on specified dates with interest at a specified rate. Condition 4 of the bank's standard form provided that:
and provided that the rate of interest might be varied. Condition 8 of the agreement was in these terms:
Emphasis has been added to the last sentence of this condition, since it is to that sentence alone that the Director's objection relates. I shall refer to this sentence as "the term".
3. The bank's stipulation that interest shall be charged until payment after as well as before any judgment, such obligation to be independent of and not to merge with the judgment, is readily explicable. At any rate since In re Sneyd; Ex p Fewings (1883) 25 Ch D 338, not challenged but accepted without demur by the House of Lords in Economic Life Assurance Society v Usborne  AC 147, the understanding of lawyers in England has been as accurately summarised by the Court of Appeal at p 682 of the judgment under appeal:
4. To ensure that they were able to recover not only the full sum of principal outstanding but also any interest accruing on that sum after judgment as well as before, it became the practice for lenders to include in their credit agreements a term to the effect of the term here in issue. If such a provision had not been included, a lender seeking to enforce a loan agreement against a borrower in the High Court would suffer prejudice only to the extent that the statutory rate of interest on judgment debts at the material time is lower than the contractual interest rate, because the High Court has, since 1838, had power to award statutory interest on a judgment debt until payment.
5. But a lender seeking to enforce a regulated credit agreement is in a different position. He is obliged by section 141 of the 1974 Act to sue in the county court. Until the Lord Chancellor, exercising his power under section 74 of the County Courts Act 1984, made the County Courts (Interest on Judgment Debts) Order 1991 (SI 1991/1184), the county court lacked power to award statutory interest on any judgment debt and, when such a general power was conferred by the order, judgments given in proceedings to recover money due under agreements regulated by the 1974 Act were expressly excluded from its scope. It was further provided in the order:
6. Thus a lender under a regulated credit agreement who obtains judgment against a defaulting borrower in the county court will be entitled to recover the principal outstanding at the date of judgment and interest accrued up to that date but will not be entitled to an order for statutory interest after that date, and even if the court had power to award statutory post-judgment interest it could not do so, in any case where an instalment order had been made, unless there had been a default in the due payment of any instalment. The lender may recover post-judgment interest only if he has the benefit of an independent covenant by the borrower entitling him to recover such interest. There is nothing to preclude inclusion of such a covenant in a regulated credit agreement, unless it falls foul of the fairness requirement in the regulations.
7. Section 71 of the County Courts Act 1984 conferred a general power on the county court, where any judgment was given or order made for payment of a money sum, to order that the money might be paid "by such instalments payable at such times as the court may fix". The 1974 Act also conferred on the county court three powers relevant for present purposes. First, the court was empowered to make a time order. Sections 129 and 130 of the Act, so far as relevant, provided:
Secondly, section 136 provided:
Thirdly, by sections 137, 138 and 139 of the Act the county court was given power to reopen credit agreements "so as to do justice between the parties" if it found a credit bargain to be "extortionate". A credit bargain was defined as extortionate if it
In determining whether a credit bargain was extortionate regard was to be had to such evidence as might be adduced concerning interest rates prevailing at the time the bargain was made, a number of factors relating to the debtor and the circumstances of the transaction and "any other relevant considerations".
8. The provisions of the regulations directly at issue in these proceedings must be considered in more detail below. It should however be noted that the regulations were made to give effect in the United Kingdom to Council Directive 93/13/EEC (OJ 1993, L95, p 29) on unfair terms in consumer contracts ("the directive"). (They were superseded by further regulations in 1999, but these are to very much the same effect, do not govern this case and need not be further considered). It is common ground that the regulations should be construed so as to give effect to the directive, to which resort may properly be made for purposes of construction. Regulation 5, giving effect to article 6 of the directive, provides:
Thus the Director's challenge, although addressed only to the bank's use of and reliance on the term, if upheld, may well invalidate any similar term in any other regulated agreement made by any other lender with any borrower. The questions at issue are accordingly of general public importance.
(1) The applicability of the regulations
9. Regulation 3(2) of the regulations provides:
This gives effect, almost word for word, to article 4(2) of the directive, although some light may be shed on its meaning by the 19th recital to the directive:
10. In reliance on regulation 3(2)(b) Lord Goodhart QC, on behalf of the bank, submitted that no assessment might be made of the fairness of the term because it concerns the adequacy of the bank's remuneration as against the services supplied, namely the loan of money. A bank's remuneration under a credit agreement is the receipt of interest. The term, by entitling the bank to post-judgment interest, concerns the quantum and thus the adequacy of that remuneration. This was the more obviously true if, as Lord Goodhart submitted, the merger rule as commonly understood is unsound. Where judgment is given for outstanding principal payable under a loan agreement and interest accrued up to the date of judgment, those claims (he accepted) are merged in the judgment. That is a conventional application of the principle of res judicata. But no claim for future interest has been the subject of adjudication by the court and such a claim cannot be barred as res judicata. The borrower's covenant to pay interest on any part of the principal loan outstanding thus survives such a judgment, and In re Sneyd, above, was wrong to lay down any contrary principle. Lord Goodhart adopted the observation of Templeman LJ in Ealing London Borough Council v El Isaac  1 WLR 932 at 937:
11. To this submission Mr Crowe, representing the Director, gave two short answers. First, condition 8, of which the term forms part, is a default provision. Its purpose, and its only purpose, is to prescribe the consequences of a default by the borrower. It does not lay down the rate of interest which the bank is entitled to receive and the borrower bound to pay. It is an ancillary term, well outside the bounds of regulation 3(2)(b). Secondly, there is no merger "rule" but only a rule of construction. It is a question of construction of any given agreement whether the borrower's covenant to pay interest is or is not to be understood as intended to continue after judgment. But whatever the correct approach to merger, it is an irrelevance. Even if a bank's borrower's covenant to pay interest is ordinarily to be taken, as in Scotland (see Bank of Scotland v Davis 1982 SLT 20), to continue until the full sum of principal is repaid, after as before judgment, the term remains part of a default provision and not one falling within the provisions of regulation 3(2)(b).
12. In agreement with the judge and the Court of Appeal, I do not accept the bank's submission on this issue. The regulations, as Professor Sir Guenter Treitel QC has aptly observed (The Law of Contract, 10th ed, 1999, p 248) "are not intended to operate as a mechanism of quality or price control" and regulation 3(2) is of "crucial importance in recognising the parties' freedom of contract with respect to the essential features of their bargain" (ibid, at p 249). But there is an important "distinction between the term or terms which express the substance of the bargain and 'incidental' (if important) terms which surround them" (Chitty on Contracts, 28th ed, 1999, "Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts", p 747, para 15-025). The object of the regulations and the directive is to protect consumers against the inclusion of unfair and prejudicial terms in standard-form contracts into which they enter, and that object would plainly be frustrated if regulation 3(2)(b) were so broadly interpreted as to cover any terms other than those falling squarely within it. In my opinion the term, as part of a provision prescribing the consequences of default, plainly does not fall within it. It does not concern the adequacy of the interest earned by the bank as its remuneration but is designed to ensure that the bank's entitlement to interest does not come to an end on the entry of judgment. I do not think the bank's argument on merger advances its case. It appears that some judges in the past have been readier than I would be to infer that a borrower's covenant to pay interest was not intended to extend beyond the entry of judgment. But even if a borrower's obligation were ordinarily understood to extend beyond judgment even in the absence of an independent covenant, it would not alter my view of the term as an ancillary provision and not one concerned with the adequacy of the bank's remuneration as against the services supplied. It is therefore necessary to address the second question.
13. Regulation 4 of the regulations is entitled "Unfair terms" and provides:
Schedule 2 to the regulations provides:
Each of (a), (b) and (c) also appear in Schedule 2 to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 among the guidelines for application of the reasonableness test laid down by that statute, suggesting that some similarity of approach in applying the two tests may be appropriate. In a case such as the present, where the fairness of a term is challenged in the absence of any individual consumer, little attention need be paid to (b) and (c). It may however be assumed that any borrower is in a much weaker bargaining position than a large bank contracting on its own standard form. (d) applies a general test of fair and equitable dealing between supplier and consumer. Schedule 3 contains a list of indicative and illustrative terms which may because of their object or effect be regarded as unfair. Examples are terms which have the object or effect of "(e) requiring any consumer who fails to fulfil his obligation to pay a disproportionately high sum in compensation;", "(i) irrevocably binding the consumer to terms with which he had no real opportunity of becoming acquainted before the conclusion of the contract;", or "(k) enabling the seller or supplier to alter unilaterally without a valid reason any characteristics of the product or service to be provided". It is not suggested that the term falls within any specific entry in the list. It is common ground that fairness must be judged as at the date the contract is made, although account may properly be taken of the likely effect of any term which is then agreed and said to be unfair.
14. The 15th and 16th recitals to the directive are relevant. They provide:
Article 3(1) of the directive is the counterpart of regulation 4(1), and is in terms which are for present purposes indistinguishable. The directive has no annex to the effect of Schedule 2 to the regulations, but has an annex in terms identical to those of Schedule 3.
15. The trial judge first asked himself whether the term was inherently unfair and concluded that it was not because a borrower, to whom the effect of the term had been fully explained, would not have regarded it as unfair that he would be obliged, in the event of his default, to pay interest on the full sum owed to the lender until complete repayment, even if the court permitted him to pay by instalments extending over a substantial period ( 1 WLR 98 at 108C-H). The judge then considered whether the term was unfair because a defaulting borrower would not expect to bear an interest charge over and above any instalments ordered by the court, and whether the term deprived the consumer of a benefit or advantage which he might reasonably expect to receive. The judge resolved these issues in favour of the bank (pp 108-111), observing (at p 111H) that
16. The Court of Appeal differed from the judge on the question of unfairness. In the judgment of the court it was said ( QB 672 at 688):
The Court of Appeal did not grant an injunction but instead accepted undertakings offered by the bank (subject to appeal) which would bring to the borrower's attention the powers of the court under sections 129 and 136 of the 1974 Act and ensure that a claim to post judgment contractual interest would not be enforced by the bank after the court had made an instalment order unless the court's attention had previously been drawn to its powers under sections 129 and 136 and it had considered whether to exercise those powers.
17. The test laid down by regulation 4(1), deriving as it does from article 3(1) of the directive, has understandably attracted much discussion in academic and professional circles and helpful submissions were made to the House on it. It is plain from the recitals to the directive that one of its objectives was partially to harmonise the law in this important field among all member states of the European Union. The member states have no common concept of fairness or good faith, and the directive does not purport to state the law of any single member state. It lays down a test to be applied, whatever their pre-existing law, by all member states. If the meaning of the test were doubtful, or vulnerable to the possibility of differing interpretations in differing member states, it might be desirable or necessary to seek a ruling from the European Court of Justice on its interpretation. But the language used in expressing the test, so far as applicable in this case, is in my opinion clear and not reasonably capable of differing interpretations. A term falling within the scope of the regulations is unfair if it causes 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. The requirement of significant imbalance is met if a term is so weighted in favour of the supplier as to tilt the parties' rights and obligations under the contract significantly in his favour. This may be by the granting to the supplier of a beneficial option or discretion or power, or by the imposing on the consumer of a disadvantageous burden or risk or duty. The illustrative terms set out in Schedule 3 to the regulations provide very good examples of terms which may be regarded as unfair; whether a given term is or is not to be so regarded depends on whether it causes a significant imbalance in the parties' rights and obligations under the contract. This involves looking at the contract as a whole. But the imbalance must be to the detriment of the consumer; a significant imbalance to the detriment of the supplier, assumed to be the stronger party, is not a mischief which the regulations seek to address. The requirement of good faith in this context is one of fair and open dealing. Openness requires that the terms should be expressed fully, clearly and legibly, containing no concealed pitfalls or traps. Appropriate prominence should be given to terms which might operate disadvantageously to the customer. Fair dealing requires that a supplier should not, whether deliberately or unconsciously, take advantage of the consumer's necessity, indigence, lack of experience, unfamiliarity with the subject matter of the contract, weak bargaining position or any other factor listed in or analogous to those listed in Schedule 2 of the regulations. Good faith in this context is not an artificial or technical concept; nor, since Lord Mansfield was its champion, is it a concept wholly unfamiliar to British lawyers. It looks to good standards of commercial morality and practice. Regulation 4(1) lays down a composite test, covering both the making and the substance of the contract, and must be applied bearing clearly in mind the objective which the regulations are designed to promote.