From 15 February 2016, the European Commission’s Online Dispute Resolution platform (the “Platform”) will go live. The launch is part of the European Commission’s wider aims of making it easier for consumers to buy goods from any business located in one of the 28 member states of the EU.  The Platform can be accessed via http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/odr/.

Background

Under the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015, all traders selling to consumers are required to provide consumers with details of a certified Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider and inform the consumer whether they intend to use ADR as a way of resolving a dispute.

Following the growth of ADR in consumer contracts, the European Commission has introduced the Platform as a method of online dispute resolution (ODR), which will be implemented in the UK via The Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (the “Regulations”).

The Platform will help consumers who have bought goods or services online and then subsequently have had a problem with that purchase. Consumers will be able to submit their contractual dispute through the Platform and conduct an ADR procedure online and in any of the 23 official languages of the EU. The Platform will translate communications as part of its aim to simplify cross-border dispute resolution.

ODR is already used on popular sites like eBay and Amazon and the introduction of the Platform is intended to broaden consumer protection when purchasing goods online.

Whilst the Platform was originally due to go live in January 2016, the European Commission took the view that some member states were not ready to implement the associated legal requirements, meaning a slight delay until mid-February 2016.

What am I required to do?

State an e-mail address: All online traders must state a contact e-mail address on their website (an online contact form that does not show the e-mail address is not sufficient to meet this requirement).

Link to the Platform: Traders must provide a link to the Platform on their website. The link should be easily accessible for consumers and could be placed in a prominent position on a consumer’s “orders” or “returns” page or, alternatively within a complaints policy.

Inform consumers: In addition to linking to the Platform, traders must inform customers of the existence and potential use of the Platform to resolve disputes. This requires a trader to:  

  • include this information in any terms and conditions of sale (or equivalent document/page);
  • provide a link to the Platform in any offer made to a consumer by e-mail (this could be a quotation or offer e-mail); and
  • informing the consumer, in a durable form (i.e. not through a website but in writing by post, fax or e-mail) once your internal complaints procedure has been exhausted —
  • that you cannot settle the complaint;
  • of the name and website address of an ADR entity (see below) or EU listed body that would be competent to deal with the complaint; and
  • whether the trader is obliged (see below), or prepared, to submit to an alternative dispute resolution procedure operated by an ADR entity or EU listed body,

in addition to informing the consumer of the Platform and their ability to use it.

Check to ensure you are not already committed to use ADR: You may, depending on circumstances may be bound to only use a certain ADR provider (for example, as a member of a trade scheme). If so, you must give details of that ADR provider to consumers. A full list of ADR approved bodies in the UK can be found here on the Trading Standards website.

Do I have to comply?

If a trader who sells to consumers fails to comply with the information requirements above, trading standards services can apply for a court order requiring them to comply. If, following trading standards obtaining a court order, the order is then not complied with; the maximum penalty against a non-compliant trader is an unlimited fine and two years' imprisonment.   

It is therefore important to ensure:

  • a link is available on your website to the Platform;
  • terms and conditions are updated to include the existence of the Platform and the ability for a consumer to use it (in addition to the existence of ADR bodies and whether you use a particular ADR body);
  • an e-mail address is available on your website; and
  • you provide a link to the Platform in any offer made to a consumer by e-mail.

A good time to consolidate

Ahead of the changes coming into effect on 15 February, now would be good time to consolidate your terms and conditions to ensure you remain compliant with the ever growing bundle of consumer legislation. This is particularly important if you haven’t updated your terms and conditions in the last 6 months, as you will also more than likely be falling foul of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

For more information, take a look at our Consumer Rights Summary Guide to review the position on selling goods, services and digital content to consumers under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

About the author

Thomas Coe Solicitor

Thomas assists a wide range of businesses across various sectors, from small owner managed businesses to multinational companies in areas of general commercial law as well as more specific areas such as internet and e-commerce law, agency and distribution and outsourcing.