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The controversy surrounding the possible nullity of certain abusive clauses in the procurement of financial services underwent another development last 23rd January of 2019. On this date, the Civil Division of the Spanish Supreme Court handed down five rulings (44, 46, 47, 48 and 49/2019) while meeting in a plenary session for the purpose of fully declaring its position on the following issues: (i) opening commissions; (ii) notarial tariffs, (iii) tax on documented legal acts (IAJD, Impuesto de actos jurídicos documentados); (iv) registration tariffs and (v) management fees. In this overview, we focus strictly on the first of these without prejudice to future analyses.
At the core of it, we are seeing the High Tribunal’s first reflections on the validity of opening commissions, at least since the maelstrom concerning the study of abusive clauses began nearly a decade ago. The rest of the issues addressed are but the consequences of the principles established in the Supreme Court Ruling 23 December 2015 with regard to the possible nullity of the expense allocation clause.
It should be recalled that, according to the legal theory on the nullity of contractual clauses, a three-part scrutiny and monitoring process should be performed, preceded by prior compliance with two objective requirements of doctrine applicability (arising from the Spanish Law on the general conditions of contracts and its reference to special regulations on consumer and user protection). Thus,
- Pre-requisite 1: The principle requires the involvement of a consumer. This means that the loan in question cannot be associated with a business activity or professional loan provider.
- Pre-requisite 2: The contractual clause in question must be a general condition of the contract. In other words, it cannot be a clause that is negotiated by the parties. It must have been previously drafted by the financial institution for the purpose of being incorporated into a variety of contracts.
If these two prerequisites are met, the principles described by the Supreme Court in multiple phases (albeit not without some notable missteps along the way) become applicable, submitting the contractual clause to a triple inspection crucible for “purity”, you could say. These are:
- Establishment monitoring
Or, verification of the formal legality of the contractual stipulation. In the specific case of opening commissions, it seemed obvious that said inspection is passed with NO trouble. In fact, the Supreme Court does not even address this question, as if taking it for granted. Notwithstanding, it is easy to find explicit references to opening commissions in banking sector regulations (for example, in Order 12 December 1989; Circular 8/1990 of 7 September; Circular 5/1994 of 22 July; Order of 5 May 1994; Circular 5/2012 of 27 June; Law 2/2009 of 31 March, and even indirectly in Directive 2014/17/EU. The prohibition of vague or opaque clauses also fall within this domain of scrutiny.
- Content monitoring
O control de legalidad material. A través del mismo se mide la proporcionalidad de la estipulación contractual, y su posible carácter abusivo para el consumidor en el contexto de la relación negocial. Ahora bien, este análisis de proporcionalidad debe realizarse siempre desde una perspectiva jurídica, nunca económica, de tal suerte que no será de aplicación el control de contenido para juzgar la prudencia o bondad del precio del contrato. Y en relación con la comisión de apertura hete aquí el quid de la cuestión.
Al contrario de lo que venía considerando la jurisprudencia menor, la comisión de apertura del préstamo no supone propiamente -como es habitual en las “comisiones”- la repercusión de un gasto, que deba ser acreditado por quién exige su abono. Estamos, más bien, ante el cobro de una partida integrante del precio que el banco pone a sus servicios y, como tal, queda eximida del control de contenido. El interés remuneratorio y la comisión de apertura constituyen las dos partidas principales del precio del préstamo
Si bien podría haberse quedado aquí el tribunal, una vez expuesto que este control de contenido no es adecuado a la naturaleza de la estipulación, prefiere salir al paso de la polémica y afrontar -a mayor abundamiento- algunos de los argumentos que en denuncia de la abusividad se venían sosteniendo. En esta línea, afirma:
- That the commission corresponds to inherent and necessary activities for the granting of the loan in its initial phases, specifically, its preparation and official granting.
- That the opening commission is not treated the same way as other commissions within sector regulation, since it is not charged with the intent of validating the effective provision of a service charged through the commission itself, but instead is part of the price.
- That, as a consequence of the foregoing, the principle of «reality of the remunerated service» does not require anything other than the grant of the loan in the case of the opening commission.
- That the proportionality of the amount of the commission compared to the services provided cannot be ruled upon because this amount constitutes the free establishment of the price of a service.
- Moreover, insofar as the opening commission is an integral portion of the APR, notification of the opening commission must be given in advance when the offer is made. This practice would be inconsistent with its subsequent establishment on the condition of services that have not yet been provided.
- Transparency monitoring
Created by the SC on the occasion of the infamous Ruling of 9 May 2013 on minimum applied interest rates, popularly know as claúsula suelo or ‘ground clauses’. Transparency is neither analysed through a test of the the clause’s formal legality, nor of its proportionality or abusive nature from a substantive perspective (prohibited to those elements that form an integral part of the price of the contact), but instead, the possible true comprehension of how the clause operates and of its economic consequences from the banking client’s perspective. This inspection is applicable to this specific case, although the Division considers that the commission has passed with flying colours. They state: “It is widely known among consumers that the banking institutions charge an opening commission in the vast majority of mortgage loans” and that “in fact, this tends to be one of the main subjects of banking publicity and marketing” and that being “a commission to be paid in its entirety at the start of the loan […] makes the average consumer pay special attention to it”. It is evident that allegations of lack of knowledge on what was paid from the beginning is not an argument that will easily win.
Superado este triple examen, la Sala le concede el “aprobado” a la controvertida estipulación.