Consumer protection webinar - what's new in consumer protection?

Consumer protection webinar - what's new in consumer protection?

Well not the Consumer Rights Act - quite yet.

Lexis Nexis offer a series of webinars on various topics of interest and on Monday 16 February I attended a webinar on consumer law. When the webinar was planned it was probably thought that the Consumer Rights Bill would have completed its passage through parliament and there would have been a definitive copy of the new Act to work with, but of course at the time of writing, the Bill is still being discussed by both Houses.

The webinar was presented by Claire Andrews of Gough Square Chambers and Ben Douglas-Jones of 5 Paper Buildings. They made the point that the Consumer Rights Bill was devised to address general agreement between businesses and consumer groups that consumer law is unnecessarily complex, fragmented and has not kept up-to-date with technological developments etc.

The Consumer Rights Bill is one of five parts of the Coalition Government’s programme on consumer law reform and includes deregulation as one of its aims – the government wants to find the correct balance between the interests of consumer and businesses  - but the fact that there are five components means that consumer law will still be very fragmented – this has partly come about by having to implement European Union law by June 2014 and the delays to the Consumer Rights Bill.   As well as the five pieces of legislation there are also pieces of government guidance as well, which though not statutory guidance, help users to understand the legislation and act as “soft law” and so add somewhat to the fragmentation. It follows several consultations and reports from the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission.  As well as the five areas of law, normal contract law continues to apply – eg a consumer still has a right to damages or specific performance as well as the statutory remedies set out in the Consumer Rights Bill.  So things are, sadly, not going to get any simpler.

The other four parts are the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013, the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012, the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014 and online/alternative dispute resolution for consumers.

In relation to the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012, which implement part of the Consumer Rights Directive, Claire made the point that although the aim is to benefit consumers, the regulations do allow them to be charged legitimate costs of payment and these could include not just the direct merchant costs but also costs such as the point-of-sale devices, card terminals, processing fees for reversing or refunding transactions or fraud prevention.

In relation to the right to a discount under the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations, Claire said that there were likely to be lots of discussions about the seriousness of a breach as it is not defined, although there are examples in the government guidance.

Claire made the point that it is a pity that the ADR and consumer rights provisions could not have been more tightly tied together – it is difficult for consumers to enforce their rights when the sums involved can be quite small and not really worth going to court over. She also advises consumers who are confused to go to their Citizens Advice bureau – which is probably not exactly what the government had in mind in trying to simplify the law.

The main take-away of the webinar for me was that the law will remain confusing and fragmented and it may not be any easier for consumers to understand their rights, or businesses their obligations.

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