Since the launch of the UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC) in 2007 we have consistently grown the volumes of cases that we handle and the services we provide to consumers. Our functions have always been related to the provision of consumer law and assistance of consumers in resolving their disputes abroad. Building upon our track record for helping consumers we would like to continue to develop capabilities in this field, not only in providing our services within the EU, potentially under new structures and channels, but also to expand our capabilities as an international dispute resolution centre operating beyond the EU.
Few UK organisations can combine advice and assistance as we do for cross-border disputes. One of our strong points is the provision of second-tier support for consumers. This means we follow the consumer dispute all the way from our first contact to its resolution. This also means that we facilitate UK traders in resolving their disputes with consumers in an amicable way.
Essential after EU Exit
Since the UK ECC’s launch, we have helped consumers obtain redress between a set of highly harmonised regulations. EU Exit looks to break many of these legal givens, replacing them with potentially complex and uncertain arrangements due to legal ‘divergence’. So cross-border consumers are likely to need even more support going forward to navigate through diverging laws and regulations post-EU Exit.
The UK ECC team, therefore, has an even larger role to play in helping to facilitate consumers during this uncertain period. Our guiding principle here is that consumers should continue to
feel confident to enter contracts with EU businesses by knowing that, in case of problems, they would find an established organisation which can help deal with their disputes. Ineffective means of redress could have an adverse effect on consumers’ confidence, possibly resulting in fewer cross-border transactions taking place.
The UK ECC can step in to help prevent and also resolve disputes due to divergence in laws after EU Exit. A real example of this capability can be seen with the COVID-19 situation: since the spring lockdown various EU member states have responded with different emergency regulations, which take priority over well-known and established consumer rules. These measures have been adopted to safeguard interests within individual EU Member States, and have led to a significant amount of regulatory uncertainty. The ECC Network’s response has been very effective; by liaising with colleagues from counterpart centres we were able to quickly resolve disputes and give advice to consumers in need.
Considering the UK’s proximity and trading volumes with Europe, the main aim of the CTSI contact centres, through UK ECC, is to preserve our strong relationships with the EU centres and to continue offering cross-border support. In addition, there is scope for the development of international relationships further afield. So despite the uncertainty surrounding EU Exit, there are a number of opportunities.
One of our latest projects is to leverage our skills and expertise to give our centre a ‘global reach’. We have already started opening up discussions with a number of networks for cooperation in resolving consumer/trader disputes. The aim is to create close working relationships with consumer organisations around the world for cross-border disputes (similar to those established with the ECC Network). We understand that ‘closer joint working’ between consumer bodies is essential in order to address international challenges in consumer protection, particularly now, when the UK is seeking new avenues to trade globally.
Overall, the non-EU project mission is very similar to that of the UK ECC. Our vision is to work strategically to enhance positive outcomes for our consumers through expanding our working relationship with international organisations and striving to reach a comprehensive geographical coverage for the benefit of UK consumers, but also non-EU consumers wishing to make cross-border purchases from UK businesses. The idea is to stimulate trade, support e-commerce and more, by making sure UK consumers feel as confident in shopping with non-EU countries as when they shop locally.
We aspire to achieve this by providing consumers with knowledge of cross-border consumer law and when necessary to help them resolve their disputes in an efficient way through the representation of the trader’s local organisation. Building on our expertise and experience with the EU, we hope to establish a dispute resolution network with ‘a global reach’. CTSI – which operates the UK ECC – has signed MOUs with Japanese and Korean consumer organisations and we have an informal agreement with the New Zealand organisation. Also, we are currently in discussion to form formal cooperation with further consumer organisations across three continents, and are close to signing a new tranche of MOUs with Malaysia, Singapore, Russia and Latin America.
The UK ECC is an established organisation with strong working relationships with a number of critical organisations, which go well beyond the regulatory minimum in facilitating resolution for UK consumers and which may benefit from a non-EU network. Our connections are both created to respond to consumer support requests in the course of the years and also for the need to support consumers.
Our collaborative routine activities include: signposting consumers to national organisations, providing data for enforcement authorities and, because of our front-line cross-border role, we are in the position to understand when laws are lacking or a particular market is more affected than others.
We routinely report on potential gaps in legal frameworks for policy organisations and market analysis through consultation papers and ad-hoc requests. We can use these channels to enhance communication between the various representative bodies and the non-EU network, sharing best practice and finding common ways to resolve mutual issues. For example, we are aware of the rapid increase in the volume of e-commerce shopping and a parallel increase of support requests amongst non-EU countries.
Consumer dispute resolution works when the organisations set to help consumers are working well together. Currently EU Exit creates challenges not only for consumers, but also businesses and enforcers alike, which, in turn, creates barriers to the resolution of disputes. There is also significant uncertainty regarding consumer rights when shopping in non-EU countries and the various routes to redress which might be available.
I have understood from my experience in building up our Online Dispute Resolution platform that whilst there might be a high fragmentation of organisations or remedies, behind the scenes, consumers do not need to know the details. The important thing is to provide a clear path towards the solution of their disputes.
In other words, the CTSI contact centre can be the gateway for consumers to access the bodies and organisations, both EU and non-EU, which will facilitate the resolution of their disputes in the most efficient way possible. We can pave the way for consumer redress before UK trade negotiations arrive, or whilst they are being undertaken. More broadly our work can encourage trade, contribute to raising standards for case handling, facilitate the development of consumer policies and help enforcers to protect consumers from harm both within the EU and internationally.