Out-Law News 3 min. read

Draft Consumer Rights Bill will streamline complex consumer protection legislation, says minister

The Government has published its draft Consumer Rights Bill, which will simplify and consolidate eight separate pieces of consumer protection legislation.

If approved in its current form, the draft legislation (117-page / 749KB PDF) would give consumers the right to a full refund if they return faulty goods within 30 days. After this point, they would be able to get some money back after one failed repair or replacement of faulty goods, and to demand that substandard services are reperformed or reduced in price.  At present, consumers can reject goods as faulty within a "reasonable period" - interpreted by some retailers as 14 days but by others as up to two months.

The draft Bill also modernises the existing consumer protection regime by creating a right to a repair or replacement of faulty digital content; such as film and music downloads, online games and e-books.

Consumer Minister Jo Swinson called on businesses, consumer groups and enforcement agencies to scrutinise the draft proposals.

"For too long the rules that apply when buying goods and services have been murky for both consumers and businesses. The situation is even worse in relation to digital content," she said.

"We want to make sure consumers are confident about their rights in everyday situations be it their washing machine breaking down or an online game they purchased always crashing. This will also benefit businesses as they are going to spend less time working out their legal obligations when they get complaints from customers," she said.

The draft Bill was produced following extensive consultation with industry, consumer rights groups, enforcement officers and legal professionals. Regulatory expert Pauline Munro of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, was a member of the Law Society reference group that provided comment and input to the Government throughout the consultation process. She said that the draft Bill was a "well-intentioned and much needed" piece of legislation".

"Not only does draft Bill bring consumer law into the digital age, and streamline and put into a single piece of legislation consumer rights in respect of contracts for goods, services, digital content and the law relating to unfair contract terms, it will also provide clarity in respect of the rights of consumers to redress," she said. "All of this should, in theory, make for a better and more efficient system."

UK consumer law is currently set out in a variety of overlapping legislation and sets of regulations, such as the Distance Selling Regulations and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. The Government said that the new Bill would reduce time and ongoing training costs for businesses, which would be able to spend less time understanding their obligations or considering different scenarios when training staff.

Other measures included in the draft Bill of particular benefit to businesses are a new requirement for Trading Standards officers and other enforcers to provide "reasonable notice" of routine inspections, and faster remedies for those businesses that have lost out as a result of breaches of competition law.

Currently, rules governing the provision of services are mostly set out in case law and the law of contract rather than in consumer protection legislation. The draft Bill proposes the introduction of a statutory guarantee in contracts between traders and consumers that services will be carried out with "reasonable care and skill". It will also prevent suppliers of goods and services from contracting out of certain basic statutory rights.

The proposed rules governing digital content will apply to both content paid for by the consumer, and 'freemium' products for which the consumer has subsequently downloaded paid-for 'add-ons' or additional content. Content must match the description given and any trial version or demo, as well as being of "satisfactory quality". In addition, a trader supplying digital content must have the right to supply that content. Under the draft Bill, consumers would also be entitled to seek compensation if the digital content causes damage to a device or other digital content that they own.

"Enforcement of the legislation will rest with a number of bodies, but Trading Standards will remain key and it is worth noting that their powers to investigate cross-authority are formally recognised in the draft Bill," said regulatory expert Pauline Munro. "Of equal note is the need for Trading Standards to give at least two days notice of routine inspections except in certain circumstances, and the proposals to seek remedies in the civil courts as an alternative to criminal prosecution."

"Businesses should prepare for the new consumer landscape and make sure that their operations are aligned with the new proposals, and that terms and conditions and complaints procedures reflect both the spirit and the intention of the proposed legislation, which is expected to reach the statute books unchanged," she said.

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