Limitations on party autonomy in the context of cross-border consumer contracts : the South African position

Beperkings op party outonomie in die konteks van oorgrensverbruikerskontrakte : die Suid-Afrikaanse posisie

De Villiers, M. R. H. (2013-01)

CITATION: De Villiers, M.R.H. 2013. Limitations on party autonomy in the context of cross-border consumer contracts : the South African position. Journal of South African Law / Tydskrif vir die Suid-Afrikaanse Reg, 2013(3):478-490.

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Freedom of contract is a central tenet of South African law. In the field of private international law this principle finds expression in the doctrine of party autonomy. Party autonomy enables the parties to a contract to choose the legal system that will apply to their contract. The doctrine promotes legal certainty and predictability, an important aim of private international law. However, the doctrine presupposes that the parties are in a position to exercise an effective choice - implying an equal bargaining position as well as access to the information necessary to make an informed choice. In the case of the consumer, and particularly the consumer participating in a cross-border contract, it is precisely this lack of equality in bargaining position as well as the absence of access to the necessary information regarding consumer protection in different countries that necessitates the limitation of party autonomy. Consumers may not be provided with an opportunity to choose, or if given an opportunity, they may not be able to make an informed choice. Mandatory rules are one of the methods employed by states to limit party autonomy. It is this method that will form the focus of the article. This article will briefly contextualise when a consumer contract will fall within the ambit of private international law - ie when such a contract will amount to a cross-border contract. Following this contextualisation, the article will explain the doctrine of party autonomy as recognised in the field of private international law, and consider the rationale behind recognising the doctrine as well as the need for its limitation. Next the article will study the current South African approach to party autonomy and its implications for consumer protection. The discussion of the South African position will focus on the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, the Consumer Protection Act, and the National Credit Act, evaluating whether the protections provided by the aforementioned acts qualify as mandatory rules that will be applicable to cross-border consumer contracts whenever South Africa is the forum, regardless of the legal system the parties chose to apply to their contract. The application of mandatory rules of third countries falls outside of the scope of this article.

Die artikel ondersoek die redes vir die erkenning en beperking van party outonomie in oorgrensverbruikerskontrakte en evalueer die huidige Suid-Afrikaanse posisie in hierdie verband aan die hand van Suid-Afrikaanse verbruikersbeskermingswetgewing en Representative of Lloyds v Classic Sailing Adventures (Pty) Ltd (2010 4 All SA 366 (HHA)). Kontrakteervryheid is van sentrale belang in die Suid-Afrikaanse reg. In internasionale privaatreg vind hierdie beginsel neerslag in die leerstuk van party outonomie. Hierdie leerstuk behels dat kontrakspartye die regstelsel kan kies wat op hul kontrak van toepassing moet wees. Party outonomie voorveronderstel egter dat die kontrakspartye in 'n posisie is om 'n effektiewe keuse uit te oefen. Dit verg 'n mate van gelykheid in die partye se onderhandelingsposisie en toegang tot die nodige inligting om die keuse uit te oefen. By verbruikerskontrakte, veral dié met 'n internasionale dimensie, word algemeen aanvaar dat albei ontbreek en party outonomie gevolglik beperk moet word. Die vernaamste wyse waarop party outonomie beperk word, is dwingende reëls wat toepassing vind ongeag die partye se poging om 'n ander toepaslike reg te kies. Hierdie dwingende reëls kan verskillende gevolge inhou: dit kan naamlik die partye ontneem van enige keuse rakende die toepaslike reg, die keuse beperk tot gespesifiseerde regstelsels waaruit die partye kan kies, of die gevolg van die uitgeoefende keuse beperk. Laasgenoemde behels dat die verbruikersbeskermingsbestel wat aan die verbruiker die meeste beskerming bied in 'n bepaalde situasie toegepas sal word. Die artikel ondersoek die begrip "dwingende reël" en evalueer die bepalings van Suid-Afrikaanse verbruikersbeskermingswetgewing om te bepaal of hierdie bepalings as sodanig klassifiseer en ook of die toepassing van hierdie bepalings partye van enige keuse sal ontneem of bloot die effek van hul keuse sal beperk. Vir doeleindes van hierdie artikel word uitsluitlik gefokus op die dwingende reëls van die lex fori.

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