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By | Kable 28th January 2011 13:47

EU ministers strip consumer rights law of controversial elements

UK will keep 'right to reject goods'

EU member states have given a proposed Consumer Rights Directive the go-ahead but have removed its most controversial elements. A European Parliament vote in March is the last hurdle to the passing of the law.

Consumer protection advocates have said that the new version of the Directive will have little practical impact on UK law.

The European Commission proposed the Directive, which would have harmonised many aspects of consumer law. It was opposed in countries, including the UK, where it would have reduced consumer protection.

The EU's Council of Ministers, though, has stripped the measure of those controversial elements and has passed the remainder of the Directive on to the European Parliament for approval.

The proposed Directive was criticised in the UK over plans to harmonise consumer law so fully that some elements of the right to reject goods is taken away from UK consumers.

Consumer protection organisation Which? had campaigned against the measure, but now says that it is happy with the amended law.

"The Directive as the council has proposed it is a truncated version of the original and has dropped all the stuff about unfair terms and remedies if you buy faulty goods, and it now concentrates on rules for distance and doorstep selling," said Chris Warner, a lawyer with Which?.

"Our concerns were about those remedies for faulty goods and unfair terms so our concerns have gone away," he said. "Most of it is business as usual, it has no practical impact."

EU ministers have given their support to the proposed Directive, meaning that only the European Parliament's consent is required for it to be passed. The European Commission said that the parliament could vote on the proposal as early as March if the consumer protection committee passes it in February.

"The [ministers'] agreement follows a discussion at the Competitiveness Council on 10 December during which EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the ministers’ balanced approach will strengthen both the Single Market’s functioning and consumer rights," said a commission statement.

"Harmonising consumers' rights in distance sales and off-premises sales will make it easier for consumers to shop cross-border, in particular on the internet," said the statement. "It will also make it less costly for traders to offer their products to consumers in other countries."

The proposed Directive had been opposed in the UK by law reform bodies and consumer regulator the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) because it would remove the current right of UK consumers to reject faulty goods and receive a refund rather than a repair.

"During the discussion of that directive we have been concerned that longstanding UK key consumer protection provisions, such as the consumer’s right to reject faulty goods and the length of liability periods, have been under threat from the maximum harmonisation approach, and we have therefore welcomed recent indications of greater flexibility on key areas within the [proposal]," the OFT told the Ministry of Justice in December.

Warner said that while Which? is pleased that the proposed Directive no longer threatens UK consumers' rights, the scaling down of the proposed Directive strips it of much of its purpose.

"Overall from a European perspective it is disappointing and it means that a lot of time and effort was spent for very little, and some consumers will even be losing out for something that was meant to improve their lot," he said.

The European Commission is considering another law change which could perform some of the functions of its proposed Consumer Protection Directive. It is considering harmonising consumer contract law across the EU's 27 member states, a move that would force the UK and other countries to adopt the same rules on returning goods.

UK consumer regulator the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) told the Government in December that it should not back the plan because, it said, just 0.005 per cent of problems reported in the UK by consumers related to cross-border trade.

This article was originally published at Kable.

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