Consumers must have cheap, fair, reliable and easy means of settling outside the courts in disputes with traders over goods or services they have purchased, say internal market committee MEPs. They adopted amendments on Tuesday tightening up two draft laws on alternative and online dispute resolution schemes aimed at improving protection for consumers, in particular when shopping online and across borders.
Alternative dispute resolution schemes (ADR) already exist in many member states, but problems such as lack of awareness, patchy coverage or overloading make it difficult for consumers to obtain redress.
As a result, although a fifth of consumers in 2010 encountered problems buying goods or services in the EU, only 5 % took their case to an ADR entity and only 9 % of businesses report ever having used an ADR scheme.
Boosting the use of ADR
"The gaps in the single market are currently creating frustration among citizens, eroding trust and confidence and fuelling a new wave of protectionism", said the rapporteur, Louis Grech (S&D, MT). The draft directive on ADR aims to boost the use of the system by consumers with complaints against traders in all sectors, whether the product or service was bought online or in a shop.
MEPs want ADR schemes to be available to consumers free of charge or for a "nominal fee" and say disputes should usually be resolved within 90 days. To raise awareness of ADR, they want traders to inform consumers of the ADR bodies they are covered by, how to contact them and whether or not the trader is committed to using ADR to settle a complaint.
Guarantee of quality and fairness
To ensure the even quality of ADR entities, the rapporteur proposes a quality label to prove that they comply with the minimum quality standards set in the directive. "The proposed minimum standards for the quality of ADR entities are of the utmost importance to the single market, by engaging with consumers and working towards restoring trust in the online market between consumers and traders alike", Mr Grech explained.
MEPs also inserted a number of safeguards to guarantee the impartiality of the ADR arbitrators or mediators, so that consumers can be sure of being treated fairly.
Better guidance for consumers in online, cross-border disputes
To resolve disputes concerning sales made online, a separate regulation will establish an online platform, set up and maintained by the Commission in all EU languages. It will be accessable from the Your Europe Portal, will serve as a single point of entry for consumers and will direct them to the most appropriate resolution scheme for their dispute, supplyng a user-friendly, standard complaint form.
"Consumers and traders, especially smaller ones, feel insecure when carrying out cross-border transactions online. They are missing out on the potential of the single market because they do not know where to turn for help if they encounter a problem. ODR – Online Dispute Resolution – will give them the confidence to buy and sell throughout the EU, thereby providing better choice for the consumer and a larger market for the trader", said the rapporteur for ODR, Rόża Thun (EPP, PL).
The Commission regulation is restricted to cross-border sales only, but as it is often difficult for consumers to know in which country an online dealer is located, the internal market committee wants to extend its scope to include domestic disputes. This means that ODR schemes would deal with all disputes relating to online sales, making the system simpler for consumers to use.
The proposals on ADR and ODR are among the 12 levers for growth set out in the Single Market Act. By strengthening means of redess for consumers, the proposals will enhance consumer confidence in cross-border online shopping thus unleashing the huge growth potential in this sector.
The internal market committee will decide after the summer break whether to start negotiations with the Council with a view to possible first-reading agreements on the two proposals.
In the Chair: Chair Malcolm Harbour (ECR, UK)