Out-Law News 3 min. read

Government proposes single catch-all consumer protection law

The Government has proposed centralising all existing UK consumer protection laws and regulations under a new Consumer Bill of Rights.

The new Bill will "consolidate, clarify and strengthen" consumer protection legislation, it said.

Current rights of UK consumers are laid out in 12 Acts and regulations and this number of "overlapping" laws is confusing to consumers and costly to business, the Government said. The new law will bring these rights together and also implement the requirements of a new EU Directive, which has still to be formally approved but is expected to be implemented in 2013.

"Consumer law in the UK comes from a variety of Acts and regulation, making it complex and confusing," Ed Davey, Consumer Minister, said in a statement.

"This is bad for consumers and bad for business as people don’t know their rights and the cost of compliance for business is higher than necessary. The Consumer Bill of Rights will consolidate, clarify and strengthen the consumer laws already in place, which will make it easier for everyone to understand and consumer rights in the UK will be stronger than ever. This Bill will give everyone a single place to find all their consumer rights," Davey said.

"The Bill will update the law for goods and services and for digital content, clarify the law on unfair contract terms, consolidate consumer powers for Trading Standards, and provide much stronger protection for vulnerable customers targeted by misleading aggressive sales practices," the statement said.

The new Bill should give customers who have been the victims of aggressive selling practices more time to "unwind" from a contract, the Government said.

"Current aggressive practices include implying a connection with social services or an old age charity; preying on the elderly person’s fear of losing their independence; writing out cheques or an order form for the victim; and salespersons refusing to leave the premises until they have secured a sale," the Government's statement said.

"We will be proposing that victims should have a clear time, extending beyond the default cancellation period currently in place, in which to unwind the contract," the statement said.

The Government's proposals were welcomed by consumer rights group Consumer Focus.

"A Consumer Bill of Rights would help streamline and modernise the current patchwork of consumer protection law, making things easier for consumers and businesses alike," Christine Farnish, Chair of Consumer Focus, said in a statement.

"Well informed consumers make markets work better. This is good for consumers, good for economic growth and good for Britain," Farnish said.

Consumers are currently protected by laws such as the Distance Selling Regulations and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs).

Under the CPRs a practice is unfair if it fails to meet the standard of "professional diligence", which is the standard of skill and care that would reasonably be expected of a trader in its field of activity, and it materially impairs an average consumer's ability to make an informed decision, causing him to make a decision he would not otherwise have made.

Currently the CPRs are enforced by the OFT and Trading Standards under powers given to the authorities under the UK's Enterprise Act. The organisations can enforce the regulations through the civil and criminal courts.

The Distance Selling Regulations give shoppers specific legal protections and different cancellation rights from those buying in a shop.

Businesses are generally required to supply goods within 30 days or pay a refund, but the regulations state that in most circumstances online purchasers have the right to cancel an order they made within seven days of the goods being delivered and receive full refunds. Online customers are also entitled to a full refund for goods or services not provided by the date agreed with a business.

Earlier this year the European Parliament agreed a new Consumer Rights Directive which, if given final approval by EU ministers, will change the rights of consumers when it is implemented into national law.

Currently under the Distancing Selling Regulations consumers have seven working days to cancel a sales contract and change their minds. This will be extended to a minimum of 14 days beginning from the time the consumer receives the goods – not at the conclusion of the contract as is currently the case – if EU ministers approve the current draft Directive.

Purchasers that receive deliveries of multiple orders or parts of goods at different times will have 14 days to claim a refund from the time of the last delivery, a draft of the new consumer laws approved by the Parliament said.

Retailers currently have up to 30 days to provide a refund but under the draft plans this will be reduced to 14 days from the date of notice of cancellation and must include the costs of delivery.

"A new consolidated set of rules is good news for consumers", said Claire McCracken, technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, "For too long consumers have struggled with the numerous complex rules governing consumer protection in the UK.  An overhaul has been required for sometime now and the new Consumer Bill of Rights will hopefully be more user-friendly and assist consumers to ascertain exactly what their rights are and offer much needed protection to vulnerable individuals".

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