Deirdre Kilroy explains how the EU is attempting to standardise consumer rights across borders.

The European Union (Consumer Information, Cancellation and Other Rights) Regulations 2013, which implements the EU Consumer Rights Directive in Irish law, came into force on 13 June 2014.

The stated purpose of the legislation is to strengthen consumer rights by standardising, or harmonising, consumer rights throughout the EU. It is hoped that this can be achieved without affecting the competitiveness of businesses. The regulations revoke two earlier sets of regulations which applied to distance contracts and off-premises contracts.

Contracts

The regulations apply to the business that is conducted between traders and consumers, i.e. contracts between traders and consumers. The regulations do not apply to some specified types of contracts such as financial services, package holidays or gambling contracts.

The fundamentals of contracts between traders and consumers are dealt with by the regulations including:

  • the substance and form of the information traders must provide to consumers;
  • cancellation procedures; and
  • the regulation of fees and costs.

The regulations deal with different types of contracts such as on-premises contracts, off-premises contracts, distance contracts and sales contracts, all of which are defined in the legislation. Traders should ensure that they are complying with the regulations, especially online traders, as many of the additional requirements apply specifically to online purchases. In this regard, a review of existing sales and payment terms and conditions should be a priority.

Some of the main provisions in the regulations include:

  • A cooling-off period: The time period in which a consumer can decide to unilaterally withdraw from off-premises or distance contracts has been extended from seven to 14 days. The trader must supply the consumer with information relating to the right to cancel the contract or he will run the risk of the cancellation period being extended to 12 months following the expiration of the 14 day period.
  • Refund rights: Consumers must be refunded within 14 days of withdrawing from a transaction. The reimbursement should include any delivery charges paid by the consumer.
  • Credit cards: Traders are prohibited from imposing excessive charges on consumers for the use of credit cards and they are only permitted to charge for the cost borne by the trader for the use of that means of payment. Should a dispute arise, the trader must be able to show that it has complied with the regulations.
  • Pre-ticked boxes: These are banned under the regulations. They can often result in unexpected extra charges and add-ons for consumers.
  • Understanding charges: Consumers must explicitly confirm that they understand any charges that apply to distance contracts being concluded by electronic means.
  • Digital products: The regulations provide much more detailed regulation of the purchase of digital products, e.g. downloading.

To facilitate cross-border trading

The regulations aim to facilitate cross-border trading and strive to strike a balance between free trade and consumer protection. It is crucial that businesses comply with the terms of the regulations or they will run the risk of contracts being unenforceable and/or being convicted of a criminal offence. Fines of up to €5,000 and/or 12 months imprisonment can result from a summary conviction (which means that the offence would be dealt with in the District Court with no jury), while conviction on indictment can result in fines of up to €60,000 and/or 18 months imprisonment (which would be heard in the Circuit Court or the High Court with a jury).

Further changes in the area of consumer protection may be on the way. In late August the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published a consultation paper on proposals to update and consolidate the law on consumer contract rights. New legislation may seek to address (amongst other things) consumer rights and remedies in contracts for the sale of goods, supply of goods, supply of digital content, supply of services as well as unfair terms in consumer contracts.

The regulatory body responsible for enforcing consumer law is also due to change in the near future. The National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority are to be amalgamated into a new body known as the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC). The CCPC is due to be officially established in October 2014 and will be the body responsible for overseeing the implementation of and compliance with consumer legislation.

This article first appeared in ShelfLife Magazine on 16 September 2014.