I will be presenting evidence on May 23rd 2016 to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum and on the 24th to a conference at the Peace Palace in The Hague (home of the International Court of Justice) of breaches of consumer law by many top companies.
As from February 2016 all companies in Europe selling goods and services online to consumers have had a legal duty* to ensure that their websites contain a readily accessible** hyperlink to a special European Union website that will enable disputes to be resolved quickly outside of court through online Alternative Dispute Resolution and at no more than nominal cost to consumers.
I have carried out a review of the 25 e-commerce websites run by companies listed this year by The Sunday Times in its list of the “Best 100 Companies to Work For” and found that just 5 carried the link. Further, none of these links satisfied the accessibility requirement in that they were all buried deep within lengthy terms and conditions and other ‘legal’ pages unlikely to be read, thus defeating the objective of the legislation. Something we all know, that nobody reads T&Cs, was proven in 2010 by Gamestation who included within their terms a clause whereby every purchaser sold their immortal soul to the company unless they clicked a link. Not one of 75,000 clicked the link which seems fairly good evidence that no-on had read the terms.
Since the objective of the legislation is to encourage public confidence in buying from any EU retailer, this link should be noticeable for the public before they make a purchase not something they search for when they have a problem if read at all. It should, therefore, be on the home page or similar and not buried within text.
Additionally to the 5, major online retailer Argos provides a one line link at the end of the Returns and Refunds page, overlooking the fact that disputes are not always just about returns and refunds.
Companies from the 25 that have failed to include a link at all include Toyota (merchandise), Build A Bear shops (soft toys), Bravissimo (lingerie),Big Yellow (storage) and Swansay (car servicing). Additionally, further research shows that major names such as PC World, Maplin, John Lewis and T K Maxx also fail to contain the link.
Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), providing fast and fair mediation and arbitration services as conveniently as your nearest smartphone, is generally recognised as the way forward to enable greater access to justice for modest value cases. It is disheartening when legislation designed to bring in these benefits for consumers is so blatantly ignored by business.
A study using a large data set shows that businesses that engage in Online Dispute Resolution enjoy greater customer loyalty so it is not just about complying with the law but it’s bad business to ignore ODR.
The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills should be doing more to inform businesses of this law.
I addressed these issues when giving expert evidence before the 47 member Council of Europe in 2015, who subsequently issued a Resolution last December urging all member States to encourage the use of Online Dispute Resolution (online mediation and arbitration) as a way of improving access to justice.
* The Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Amendment) Regulations 2015
(http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2015/1392/pdfs/uksi_20151392_en.pdf) requires in paragraph 19(a)(3)(i) that the websites of those selling goods or services to consumers must contain a link to the EU Online Dispute Resolution website at https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/odr
** Under Article 14 of the EU Regulation on Online Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (524/2013) that link must be ‘easily accessible for consumers’. (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:165:0001:0012:EN:PDF)