98/257/EC: Commission Recommendation of 30 March 1998 on the principles applicable to the bodies responsible for out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes (Text with EEA relevance)
OJ L 115, 17.4.1998, p. 31–34 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)
COMMISSION RECOMMENDATION of 30 March 1998 on the principles applicable to the bodies responsible for out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes (*) (Text with EEA relevance) (98/257/EC)
THE COMMISSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES,
Having regard to the Treaty establishing the European Community and in particular Article 155 thereof,
Whereas the Council, in its conclusions approved by the Consumer Affairs Council of 25 November 1996, emphasised the need to boost consumer confidence in the functioning of the internal market and consumers' scope for taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by the internal market, including the possibility for consumers to settle disputes in an efficient and appropriate manner through out-of-court or other comparable procedures;
Whereas the European Parliament, in its resolution of 14 November 1996 (1), stressed the need for such procedures to meet minimum criteria guaranteeing the impartiality of the body, the efficiency of the procedure and the publicising and transparency of proceedings and called on the Commission to draft proposals on this matter;
Whereas most consumer disputes, by their nature, are characterised by a disproportion between the economic value at stake and the cost of its judicial settlement; whereas the difficulties that court procedures may involve may, notably in the case of cross-border conflicts, discourage consumers from exercising their rights in practice;
Whereas the 'Green Paper on the access of consumers to justice and the settlement of consumer disputes in the single market` (2) was the subject of wide-ranging consultations whose results have confirmed the urgent need for Community action with a view to improving the current situation;
Whereas the experience gained by several Member States shows that alternative mechanisms for the out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes - provided certain essential principles are respected - have had good results, both for consumers and firms, by reducing the cost of settling consumer disputes and the duration of the procedure;
Whereas the adoption of such principles at European level would facilitate the implementation of out-of-court procedures for settling consumer disputes; whereas, in the case of cross-border conflicts, this would enhance mutual confidence between existing out-of-court bodies in the different Member States and strengthen consumer confidence in the existing national procedures; whereas these criteria will make it easier for parties providing out-of-court settlement services established in one Member State to offer their services in other Member States;
Whereas one of the conclusions of the Green Paper concerned the adoption of a Commission recommendation with a view to improving the functioning of the ombudsman systems responsible for handling consumer disputes;
Whereas the need for such a recommendation was stressed during the consultations on the Green Paper and was confirmed during the consultation on the 'Action Plan` communication (3) by a very large majority of the parties concerned;
Whereas this recommendation must be limited to procedures which, no matter what they are called, lead to the settling of a dispute through the active intervention of a third party, who proposes or imposes a solution; whereas, therefore, it does not concern procedures that merely involve an attempt to bring the parties together to convince them to find a solution by common consent;
Whereas the decisions taken by out-of-court bodies may be binding on the parties, may be mere recommendations or may constitute settlement proposals which have to be accepted by the parties; whereas for the purposes of this recommendation these various cases are covered by the term 'decision`;
Whereas the decision-making body's impartiality and objectivity are essential for safeguarding the protection of consumer rights and for strengthening consumer confidence in alternative mechanisms for resolving consumer disputes;
Whereas a body can only be impartial if, in exercising its functions, it is not subject to pressures that might sway its decision; whereas, therefore, its independence must be guaranteed without this implying the need for guarantees that are as strict as those designed to ensure the independence of judges in the judicial system;
Whereas, when the decision is taken by an individual, the decision-maker's impartiality can only be assured if he can demonstrate that he possesses the necessary independence and qualifications and works in an environment which allows him to decide on an autonomous basis; whereas this requires the person to be granted a mandate of sufficient duration, in the course of which he cannot be relieved of his duties without just cause;
Whereas, when the decision is taken by a group, equal participation of representatives of consumers and professionals is an appropriate way of ensuring this independence;
Whereas, in order to ensure that the persons concerned receive the information they need, the transparency of the procedure and of the activities of the bodies responsible for resolving the disputes must be guaranteed; whereas the absence of transparency may adversely affect the rights of the parties and cause misgivings as to out-of-court procedures for resolving consumer disputes;
Whereas certain interests of the parties can only be safeguarded if the procedure allows them to express their viewpoints before the competent body and to acquaint themselves with the facts presented by the opposing party and, where applicable, the experts' statements; whereas this does not necessarily necessitate oral hearings of the parties;
Whereas out-of-court procedures are designed to facilitate consumer access to justice; whereas, therefore, if they are to be effective, they must remedy certain problems associated with court procedures, such as high fees, long delays and cumbersome procedures;
Whereas, in order to enhance the effectiveness and equity of the procedure, the competent body must play an active role which allows it to take into consideration any element useful in resolving the dispute; whereas this active role is all the more important when, in the framework of out-of-court procedures, the parties in many cases do not have the benefit of legal advice;
Whereas the out-of-court bodies may decide not only on the basis of legal rules but also in equity and on the basis of codes of conduct; whereas, however, this flexibility as regards the grounds for their decisions should not lead to a reduction in the level of consumer protection by comparison with the protection consumers would enjoy, under Community law, through the application of the law by the courts;
Whereas the parties are entitled to be informed of the decisions handed down and of grounds for these decisions; whereas the grounds for decisions are a prerequisite for transparency and the parties' confidence in the operation of out-of-court procedures;
Whereas in accordance with Article 6 of the European Human Rights Convention, access to the courts is a fundamental right that knows no exceptions; whereas since Community law guarantees free movement of goods and services in the common market, it is a corollary of those freedoms that operators, including consumers, must be able, in order to resolve any disputes arising from their economic activities, to bring actions in the courts of a Member State in the same way as nationals of that State; whereas out-of-court procedures cannot be designed to replace court procedures; whereas, therefore, use of the out-of-court alternative may not deprive consumers of their right to bring the matter before the courts unless they expressly agree to do so, in full awareness of the facts and only after the dispute has materialised;
Whereas in some cases, and independently of the subject and value of the dispute, the parties and in particular the consumer, as the party who is regarded as economically weaker and less experienced in legal matters than the other party to the contract, may require the legal advice of a third party to defend and protect their rights more effectively;
Whereas, in order to ensure a level of transparency and dissemination of information on out-of-court procedures in line with the principles set out in the recommendation and to facilitate networking, the Commission intends to create a database of the out-of-court bodies responsible for resolving consumer disputes that offer these safeguards; whereas the database will contain particulars communicated to the Commission by the Member States that wish to participate in this initiative; whereas, to ensure standardised information and to simplify the transmission of these data, a standard information form will be made available to the Member States;
Whereas, finally, the establishment of minimum principles governing the creation and operation of out-of-court procedures for resolving consumer disputes seems, in these circumstances, necessary at Community level to support and supplement, in an essential area, the initiatives taken by the Member States in order to realise, in accordance with Article 129a of the Treaty, a high level of consumer protection; whereas it does not go beyond what is necessary to ensure the smooth operation of out-of-court procedures; whereas it is therefore consistent with the principle of subsidiarity,
that all existing bodies and bodies to be created with responsibility for the out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes respect the following principles:
Principle of independence
The independence of the decision-making body is ensured in order to guarantee the impartiality of its actions.
When the decision is taken by an individual, this independence is in particular guaranteed by the following measures:
- the person appointed possesses the abilities, experience and competence, particularly in the field of law, required to carry out his function,
- the person appointed is granted a period of office of sufficient duration to ensure the independence of his action and shall not be liable to be relieved of his duties without just cause,
- if the person concerned is appointed or remunerated by a professional association or an enterprise, he must not, during the three years prior to assuming his present function, have worked for this professional association or for one of its members or for the enterprise concerned.
When the decision is taken by a collegiate body, the independence of the body responsible for taking the decision must be ensured by giving equal representation to consumers and professionals or by complying with the criteria set out above.
Principle of transparency
Appropriate measures are taken to ensure the transparency of the procedure. These include:
1. provision of the following information, in writing or any other suitable form, to any persons requesting it:
- a precise description of the types of dispute which may be referred to the body concerned, as well as any existing restrictions in regard to territorial coverage and the value of the dispute,
- the rules governing the referral of the matter to the body, including any preliminary requirements that the consumer may have to meet, as well as other procedural rules, notably those concerning the written or oral nature of the procedure, attendance in person and the languages of the procedure,
- the possible cost of the procedure for the parties, including rules on the award of costs at the end of the procedure,
- the type of rules serving as the basis for the body's decisions (legal provisions, considerations of equity, codes of conduct, etc.),
- the decision-making arrangements within the body,
- the legal force of the decision taken, whereby it shall be stated clearly whether it is binding on the professional or on both parties. If the decision is binding, the penalties to be imposed in the event of non-compliance shall be stated, as shall the means of obtaining redress available to the losing party.
2. Publication by the competent body of an annual report setting out the decisions taken, enabling the results obtained to be assessed and the nature of the disputes referred to it to be identified.
The procedure to be followed allows all the parties concerned to present their viewpoint before the competent body and to hear the arguments and facts put forward by the other party, and any experts' statements.
Principle of effectiveness
The effectiveness of the procedure is ensured through measures guaranteeing:
- that the consumer has access to the procedure without being obliged to use a legal representative,
- that the procedure is free of charges or of moderate costs,
- that only short periods elapse between the referral of a matter and the decision,
- that the competent body is given an active role, thus enabling it to take into consideration any factors conducive to a settlement of the dispute.
Principle of legality
The decision taken by the body may not result in the consumer being deprived of the protection afforded by the mandatory provisions of the law of the State in whose territory the body is established. In the case of cross-border disputes, the decision taken by the body may not result in the consumer being deprived of the protection afforded by the mandatory provisions applying under the law of the Member State in which he is normally resident in the instances provided for under Article 5 of the Rome Convention of 19 June 1980 on the law applicable to contractual obligations.
All decisions are communicated to the parties concerned as soon as possible, in writing or any other suitable form, stating the grounds on which they are based.
Principle of liberty
The decision taken by the body concerned may be binding on the parties only if they were informed of its binding nature in advance and specifically accepted this.
The consumer's recourse to the out-of-court procedure may not be the result of a commitment prior to the materialisation of the dispute, where such commitment has the effect of depriving the consumer of his right to bring an action before the courts for the settlement of the dispute.
Principle of representation
The procedure does not deprive the parties of the right to be represented or assisted by a third party at all stages of the procedure.
THIS RECOMMENDATION is addressed to the bodies responsible for the out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes, to any natural or legal person responsible for the creation or operation of such bodies, as well as to the Member States, to the extent that they are involved.
Done at Brussels, 30 March 1998.
For the Commission
Member of the Commission
(*) A communication on the out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes was adopted by the Commission on 30 March 1998. This communication, which includes this recommendation and the European consumer complaint form, is available on the Internet (http://europa.eu.int/comm/dg24).
(1) European Parliament resolution on the Commission communication 'Action plan on consumer access to justice and the settlement of consumer disputes in the internal market` of 14 November 1996 (OJ C 362, 2. 12. 1996, p. 275).
(2) COM(93) 576 final of 16 November 1993.
(3) Action Plan on consumer access to justice and the settlement of consumer disputes in the internal market, COM(96) 13 final of 14 February 1996.