The competent authority to issue a settlement procedure for consumers’ request on the European Union territory as regards the relationship with economic authorities from other Member States is the European Consumers Centres Network, which is an entity founded by the European Commission in the year of 2005, that acts through the medium of the European Consumer Centres founded within the Member States of the Community.
The purpose of the European Consumer Centres is to assist European citizens in the field of cross-border purchases.
Thus, these entities offer information to the European consumers regarding their rights and assist them in resolving complaints against professionals based in other Member States in order to identify amiable solutions for the problems they are currently facing.
Likewise, if it is not possible to resolve complaints in an amiable way, the European Consumer Centres offer advice to consumers with regards to any other alternatives which can be pursued, such as mediation or the European Procedure concerning small claims procedure.
It is important to mention that these entities, regardless in what Member State they were founded, cannot oblige the professional to act in a specific way, represent consumers in the court nor impose fines upon the professional.
- The disputes settlement procedure between professionals and consumers established in other Member States encompasses three stages, at which both the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the consumer resides, as well as the European Consumers Centre from the Member State where the professional has its headquarters registered are attending.
- The first stage which must be undertaken by the consumer for having the case considered by the European Consumer Centre – the only entity which can be directly applied for, refers to issuing a declaration towards the professional, so it can be allowed to offer a solution for the occurred disagreement.
In considering a claim, the European Commission Centres imposes an obligation to pursue the above-mentioned procedure within a 30-day limit so the professional can reply to the claim issued by the consumer.
If the professional does not respond to the sent complaint or offers a solution which the consumer finds unsatisfactory, then the consumer has the possibility to appeal to the European Consumer Centre from the Member State in which he is residing in, being offered the permission to start a second settlement procedure for the arose dispute.
In this respect, the consumer must send the European Consumer Centre a standard online application form. The complaint can be sent by post or e-mail, with a short and concise description of the encountered issue, alongside with a series of justifiable documents, such as: a copy of the Agreement between the consumer and professional, a copy of the professional’s terms and conditions, if relevant, and it can also add copies of the correspondence with the professional’s representatives (including a copy with the claim initially sent to the professional), copies of receipts, bills and other documents that prove the payment.
After the complaint is sent, the European Consumer Centre from the Member State it resides must confirm the consumer that his/ her complaint has been received, within 5 working from the moment it has been received.
Upon completing the above-mentioned process, the following procedure is the preliminary evaluation of the complaint, where in maximum 7 working days, the European Consumers Centre will communicate its decision on the consumer’s request, which can be one of the following:
- A) The acknowledgment of the case alongside with its introduction in the European Consumer Centre’s database.
- B) The request of additional information and/ or supplementary documents within 30 days for a better analysis of the concerned situation. If within this period, the requested information/ documents are not sent by the consumer, the case is closed, with the consequence being that it will be reopened once the documents are successfully delivered.
- C) A motivated rejection of the case.
- If the consumer’s case is accepted, then the third stage of the settlement procedure between the consumers and professionals based in different Member States begins.
More exactly, once the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the consumer resides considers that it disposes of all the necessary information to accept the case, it will be subsequently passed to the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the professional has the headquarters established.
Cases are prioritised depending on which one has been accepted first. By virtue of this process, the European Consumers Centre keeps the consumer up-to-date once the case will be assessed.
From the moment when the case has been taken into consideration by the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the Professional has its headquarters established, the authorized institution decides if the case is accepted or rejected, within 7 working days of its receipt.
Once the case has been accepted, the European Consumers Centre must obtain all the necessary evidence and legal advice in order to identify an amiable solution for the dispute.
Likewise, the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the professional has its headquarters established contacts the professional in order to identify a possible amiable solution between the parties.
Depending on the professional’s stance, the competent European Consumers Centre may propose a solution that could lead to an extinction of the dispute between the parties.
Generally, the settlement procedures vary up to 10 weeks, but, should well-grounded reasons be invoked, then this term may be extended.
In the event that the dispute does not reach an amiable solution, the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the professional has established its headquarter may send the case to a mediation organization, if such an organizations exists in said state.
If the European Consumers Centre from the Member State in which the professional has its headquarters established considers that the most feasible solution for the settlement procedure is to notify the competent authority which deals with consumers’ protection, then it may proceed in said manner.
Furthermore, it could be recommended for the consumer to apply the for the small claim European procedure, as encompassed by Regulation no. 871/ 2006 of the European Parliament and Council.
The small claim European procedure is applicable for civil and commercial cross-border litigations only if the requests are worth less than 2000 EUR. This can be seen as an alternative for national procedures.
This procedure is applicable if at least one party has its residence in a Member State, which is a different state from the one where the court has been notified.
The small claim request is submitted by filling an application form to the court from where the Defendant/ Professional has its headquarters registered.
Within 14 days upon receiving the form, the court has to send an acknowledgement form, alongside with a request copy and other necessary justifiable documents to the Defendant, who has 30 days to respond. If the Defendant wishes to issue a counterclaim, then a copy must be sent to the Plaintiff, who has 30 days to answer. Once the response has been received, the court has a 30-day limit to deliver a judgement, which cannot be subject to a substantive review in the Member State where its implementation is requested.
The procedure is in a written form, being undertaken as mentioned above. However, there is a possibility to organise an oral debate if it is necessary or it has been requested by one of the parties. Yet, the request can be rejected if it is considered that it is not needed in order to conduct the litigation. The oral submission might be conducted through videoconferences or any other similar means.
In conclusion, the disputes settlement procedure between the consumers and professionals established in different Member States is a complex one, which is undertaken in 3 different stages, taking up to 10 weeks. The main aim of this procedure is to achieve an amiable solution for the case between the consumer and professional, whilst the European Consumers Centre do not have the possibility to apply sanctions or issue unacceptable measures by the concerned parties. If an amiable solution cannot be reached, there is a possibility to pursue mediation or the small claim European procedure , as notifying the competent authority in the specific Member State from where the professional has the headquarters established can be seen as a last resort, taking into consideration that the settlement’s purpose is solving the case, not imposing sanctions upon the professional.
III) Regarding the statistics made available by the European Consumers Centres Network, we mention the following aspects:
- According to the European Consumers Centres Network, more than two-thirds of cases are solved in an amiable manner.
- At the European level, in the year of 2004, approximately 68% of cases are online commerce (e-commerce) related, whereas a large majority from the rest of these cases concern transport activities.
- 15% of these cases deal with undelivered products, whilst 11% of them refer to improper working order.
- In 10 years at the European level, the European Consumers Centre has analysed a number of 100.000 complaints per annum, where only a number of 40.000 were accepted.
According to the ECC Annual Report, statistics which have been confirmed by the Romanian representatives of the ECC, 11% of complaints refer to recreational and cultural sectors, 7% to hotel services, 6% relate to the fashion industry, and 4% in the sales of furniture, appliances and maintenance services. Similar percentages occurred in complaints sent by the ECC from Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.