Proposed Consumer Bill of Rights will modernise law with clear rights for digital products, Government says

Out-Law News | 18 Jul 2012 | 12:20 pm | 2 min. read

A Consumer Bill of Rights will modernise 30-year old consumer laws to create clear rights for purchasers of digital content, the Government has announced.

The proposals, which are open for consultation until 5 October, set out clear rights for shoppers and simple, standardised remedies for when things go wrong in one document. It will also bring the services regime more into line with that for goods by strengthening consumer rights in relation to faulty services and introduce clearer rights for those who purchase digital content such as music or games.

"The UK's consumer law is complex and difficult for consumers and businesses to understand," said Norman Lamb, Minister for Consumer Affairs. "We want consumers to feel confident about their rights so they can challenge businesses when they buy poor quality goods, services or digital content such as music or games. These new measures aim to do just that."

UK consumer law is currently laid out across 12 different Acts and sets of regulations, such as the Distance Selling Regulations and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. In addition a new Consumer Rights Directive, adopted by the EU in October, will change the rights of consumers when it is implemented into national law.

Commercial law expert Clare Francis of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, welcomed the consultation.

"The current proposals do not radically change any existing laws, but retailers should consider a review of their processes for distance sales – including online sales – now, to determine what changes to systems or processes may be required over the next 12 months," she said. "In particular, this should cover systems to enable retailers to process refunds within 14 days, instead of the current 30 day requirement, and the ability to receive returns for a longer period."

Under current rules, according to the consultation, if consumers buy an item and soon discover that it is faulty they will be entitled to a full refund as long as they return the item, or notify the trader, within a "reasonable" time. The consultation proposes replacing this confusing qualification with a 30 day period during which consumers will be allowed to return faulty goods for a full refund. Consumers will also be given a seven-day period to examine repaired or replacement goods, even if this period takes them over the 30 day limit.

The Government is also seeking views on whether this time period should be extended in circumstances where "both the consumer and the trader might reasonably understand that there might be a delay before the goods are used", for example when a pregnant woman buys baby clothes.

There is currently very little laid out in consumer legislation dealing with contracts for the supply of services, according to the consultation, with buyers and traders forced to rely on non-user friendly common law and the law of contract. Although traders must carry out services with "reasonable care and skill", no statutory remedy is available where the test is not met.

The consultation proposes the introduction of a "clear statutory guarantee" that services will be supplied to this standard. It also proposes that service providers will not be able to contract out of certain basic statutory rights, as is currently the case.

In relation to digital content, the Bill of Rights sets out that content must match any description given and any trial version or demo as well as being of "satisfactory quality ... [meeting] a reasonable person's expectations taking account of all relevant circumstances". In addition, a trader supplying digital content must have the right to supply that content and should not put the consumer in a position where the consumer is breaching copyright.

Adam Scorer at Consumer Focus welcomed the Government's proposals for reform of the "totally outdated" law, but warned that any changes should be 'future-proofed' to take as much account as possible of further technological advances.

"With the way consumers buy and pay for goods and services changing rapidly, the law must be brought up to speed for the digital age," he said. "Our laws are totally outdated for digital products like ebooks and downloaded film and music, which weren't even a pipedream when much of the current consumer rights legislation was written."