New European Commission proposals could prove a boon to online shoppers who have disputes with traders.
The so-called Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) directive should mean faster, easier and cheaper solutions to disputes with online vendors.
In 2010, one in five European consumers encountered problems when buying goods and services in the single market, according to the Commission. But out-of-court dispute resolution is currently only possible in some business sectors.
The Commission wants to create an E.U.-wide single online platform, which will allow users to solve contractual disputes entirely online within 30 days. So if a seller refuses to repair a laptop that broke when under warranty or if a person cannot reach an agreement with a travel agent over a refund for a ruined holiday, there will be a way to sort it out without going to court.
Although a voluntary plan for traders, it is estimated that it could save millions in court costs.
"It is unacceptable that so many consumer problems are left unresolved because consumers have no real effective means of solving disputes with traders. This affects their pockets and hurts their confidence; it also slows down European growth," said Consumers Commissioner John Dalli.
ADR relies on a neutral party such as an arbitrator, mediator or ombudsman. Today, there are more than 750 ADR entities in the E.U. However, they are largely restricted to the financial service and telecommunications sectors.
Consumers' organization BEUC welcomed the news. "Let's see these systems put into place speedily so we can help empower consumers who are so often at a loss when trying to seek redress from business. ADR gives a means to an end throughout all market sectors. The major reasons people don't buy across borders within the E.U. are fears about fraud, what to do if problems arise and worries about delivery. ADR is valuable in helping consumers when purchases and services go wrong, also in cross-border situations," said Monique Goyens, BEUC director general.
The European Parliament and the European Council have committed to adopting the package by the end of 2012.