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The government’s complaints overhaul must make enforcement a priority

Law and enforcement

A review of protections in consumer markets has been announced, looking at new technologies, enforcement and consumer protection. We want stronger and more effective enforcement, do you agree?

The Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper sets out the government’s three principles for responding to the challenges and opportunities of modern consumer markets:

  1. 1. Competition is central  –  the government has a role in ensuring that consumers are active in the marketplace and that firms compete to provide the best goods and services for the lowest price
  2. 2. New tech that works in favour of the customer – we should all benefit from new technology and new business models, with competition and regulation working for us
  3. 3. Redress for when things go wrong – we should be able to resolve our consumer disputes and get redress, all with effective enforcement in cases of harm.

Consumer enforcement in the UK

The government had said that it’s considering strengthening national enforcement of consumer rights while maintaining strong levels of consumer protection at a local level.

While we welcome any new steps that ensure that we all get a better deal in vital areas like financial services, energy and telecoms, it will only make a difference if action can be taken against companies that break the rules.

Any new or existing consumer law isn’t worth the paper it’s printed if it can’t be enforced. We all need to be empowered to put things right when they go wrong, and at the centre of that is a strong route to enforcement for all consumers.

We want the government to use these reforms to overhaul our consumer enforcement system so that, as we leave the EU, we can ensure people are supported by high levels of rights and protection – with greater access than ever before to quality, affordable products and services.

Enforcement problems

We hear of lots of instances where enforcement action hasn’t been taken when we believe it should have been.

For example, a lot of enforcement action falls at the feet of an already stretched local Trading Standards teams who, despite a lack of funding and personnel, are expected to enforce 263 different pieces of legislation for different government departments.

The government has recognised that more can be done to help us all access to high-quality dispute resolution services and to avoid costly court hearings.

It says it will help consumers enforce their rights by improving consumers’ awareness, access and experience of alternative dispute resolution and in particular strengthen advocacy arrangements in the telecoms sector.

At present figuring out when, how and what Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme you should use can prove to be a stiff mountain to climb for many of us.

Your views

A consultation on the green paper will run for 12 weeks.

What changes do you think are needed to improve the current complaints and redress system? Have you had a problem with escalating a consumer rights problem?

Comments
Member

What I would like to see is enforcement rather than consumers having to fight for their rights or even go to court. Twice recently I have had to argue with retailers who wanted me to deal with the manufacturer when goods had failed after a year but within the guarantee period. This is such a common scenario that enforcement action should be taken against the companies.

Whether it’s existing problems or new technology we need enforcement and it does not help that successive governments have run down the Trading Standards to a point that it is difficult for consumers to get help.

Thanks for a very relevant Convo, Adam.

Member

In principle dealing with retailers seems quite straightforward. Just a pity that the law seems not to be enforced and delinquent retailers appropriately penalised. Maybe if they, and their staff, were properly dealt with, and consumers better informed, things might improve and our rights automatically granted? Scope for some hard work and a campaign?

I wonder why the Whirlpool problem was not partly dealt with using this route?

Retailers’ responsibilities:
Your responsibilities for the goods you sell
You are responsible for the goods you sell and if a customer returns an item they purchased from you that is faulty (it does not conform to contract) because it
• does not match the description
• is not of satisfactory quality
• is not fit for purpose,
you (not the manufacturer or supplier) are legally obliged to resolve the matter with the customer at any time for up to six years from the date of purchase, or in Scotland for up to five years from the discovery of the problem.
Any refund, repair or replacement you arrange with your customer relating to faulty goods must not cause them too much inconvenience and you will have to pay for other costs, for example, collection or delivery.

Complying with the law
You cannot remove a customer’s legal rights, for example by displaying a notice saying ‘we do not give refunds under any circumstances’ or ‘credit notes only in the case of faulty items’.
It is also against the law to mislead consumers about their legal rights – this could lead to a criminal prosecution under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Member

Surely if the government is serious, the obvious first step is bring Trading Standards up to scratch at local level (“while maintaining strong levels of consumer protection at a local level.” it says in the intro) together with a similar National Trading Standards that deals with all national issues, not just ones they nominate. These need to be geared up to deal with, and respond to, individual consumers issues on many complaints and direct them to appropriate bodies that deal with those outside their remit. The government will not address this problem with words; it needs resources.

Many consumers may not know how to deal with a complaint, or indeed even know if they have a valid complaint. Maybe this is something Which? could capitalise on. Produce a book(let) giving consumer’s rights under different categories, who to approach in the first instance, and how to follow up if there is no initial success. Maybe also, like Which?Legal they could offer individual help on a pay per complaint basis.

However, as a consumers’ champion I would like to see Which? much more active in dealing with delinquent organisations and commercial companies that do not deal properly with consumers, to try to put a stop to bad practice. Currys, amazon, Ryanair, Sony, VW, Whirlpool all spring to mind where consumers have suffered significant detriment in considerable numbers but Which? has not been effective.

Member

There are so many “box movers” out there selling direct to the public, and – with a tacit acceptance of this – so many manufacturers out there who actually take on the duty that should strictly be performed by the retailers.

And of course we encourage it by buying from box makers rather than true local retail outlets.

Member

They are still retailers of course and should be made to meet their obligations, particularly under the consumer rights Act. Something Which? should be using its muscle to ensure. Consumers need to be educated to learn their rights, and that they are with the retailer.

Member

Absolutely. However, sometimes the path of least resistance is beneficial to the consumer. Not always – and the short cut takes nothing away from said obligations.

Member

The link provided by Adam relating to the green paper and current consultation refers to improving the system of alternative dispute resolution. ADR is not something that I recall featuring much in the advice on the Which? website other than in relation to Trusted Traders and I don’t remember examples of legal cases demonstrating how we could use ADR if available rather than the small claims court.

It would be interesting to learn more about ADR, especially how it compares with going to court.

Member

ADR is certainly something my team are looking at in terms of improving our consumer rights advice, and
– in broader terms – something the wider organisation ids looking into. As the green paper attests, it is a confusing picture for consumers in terms of finding and accessing ADR. And that makes it challenging in terms of communicating to consumers how to approach and use ADR.

At present we do flag when to use ADR throughout relevant guides on the Which? consumer rights website, and have a small section focused primarily on ombudsmen (a subset of ADR providers in the UK). – https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/l/ombudsman-complaints

Member

Thanks Adam. I’m fortunate in not having even thought of taking legal action against a company. I suspect that many of us would be prepared to seek ADR including using an ombudsman but going to court could be rather intimidating.

It seems fairly easy to see which areas are covered by ombudsman services – financial, furniture, etc. but I suppose that it would be necessary to ask if a company uses ADR or other mediation service.