Resolving your disputes over online sales could soon become much easier ©Belga/Illustra 

Giving your credit card a workout can be fun but it can come at the cost of your peace of mind if you are having problems with your purchase. The EU now wants to make it easier and cheaper to settle disputes without the need for going to court. Find out how the Parliament plans to make resolving your consumer conflicts affordable and hassle free.

The Parliament's internal market committee adopted on 10 July reports on two proposals concerning consumer disputes. One relates to alternative dispute resolution, which refers to any attempt to resolve conflicts outside the courtroom, for example by negotiation or conciliation. The other proposal is about online dispute resolution for consumer disputes.

Resolving disputes outside the courtroom

Going to court over a dispute takes a long time and can prove to be very costly. This is why member states also offer the possibility of alternative dispute resolution, which aims to solve the problem without litigation. It applies to both products and services regardless of whether they were bought online or offline.

The problem is that not only can  the quality vary, but this initiative is not yet available in every region and every sector. Many consumers and traders are unaware of the possibility or know too little about it. In 2010 only 5% of consumers experiencing problems resorted to alternative dispute resolutions, while only 9% of business reported ever having used it.

To overcome this the Commission launched a proposal to encourage more consumers to make use of these procedures and ensure everyone across the EU can benefit from the same high level of protection. This type of conflict resolving should always be free of charge or at the very least involve only reasonable costs for consumers.

The EP's internal market committee wants to improve the proposal further. It says the directive should not only cover cross-border disputes but also domestic ones. Bodies in charge of alternative dispute resolutions should resolve disputes within 90 days and people working for them should be impartial and independent. Traders should always inform consumers of which complaints body covers them on their website and documentation.

Maltese Social -Democrat Louis Grech, responsible for steering this proposal through the Parliament, commented: "Alternative dispute resolution should be simple, fast, affordable and not overly bureaucratic. They must have obvious advantages over conventional dispute resolution structures such as courts, or else consumers won't use them.”

Tackling online conflicts

The Commission has also proposed a regulation to help resolve disputes regarding online purchases. It proposes to establish a European platform for online dispute resolution. It would be available free of charge in all of the EU's official languages and boast an interactive website that would direct consumers and traders to the most appropriate resolution scheme for their dispute. The website would also offer a standard complaint form, which would be user-friendly.

The internal market committee said that the regulation should not only apply to cross-border sales but also to domestic ones. Polish Christian-Democrat Róża Gräfin von Thun und Hohenstein, who is responsible for steering the proposal through Parliament, explained in her report why this would be a good idea: "It is often difficult for consumers to ascertain if they are buying products and services on a cross-border basis when carrying out online transactions.”

The committee also wants every complaint to be passed on to the appropriate complaints body within seven working days of being submitted to the platform.

Next steps

After the summer break the internal market committee will have to decide whether it will already start negotiations with the Council. Both the Parliament and the Council will have to agree on the proposals before they can enter into force.