Confusion over rights in foreign goods sales

VERY few people read the small print when buying goods or services – and even fewer are likely to know their rights when they are buying from another country.

The fact is that while the EU is supposed to have a common market with no borders for consumers and sellers, each country has its own contract laws for purchases.

The result is that more than two-thirds of Irish orders being made online fail – mostly because vendors don’t want to deal with somebody cross-border.

And if you are buying in person in another EU country, you are equally at the mercy of the small print, often in a language you don’t understand and a different legal system.

The result is that sales borders still exist in the EU but a new drive has just been launched to produce a contract that could apply throughout the 27 member states.

Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has produced options to simplify the legal situation and invited all EU citizens to contribute their opinions before the end of January next year.

Sales contracts are probably the most common legal undertakings in everybody’s lives as whenever a person buys or sells a product or service, they agree to the conditions irrespective of whether they read them or sign anything.

For instance in a business- to-consumer contract, an Irish consumer buying an MP3 player online from a French retailer, Irish contract law applies, if the French retailer has designed his website for Irish consumers.

But the current plethora of contracts is a block to more cross-border business in the EU and a headache for small companies and businesses in particular.

They result in legal uncertainty and having to adapt contracts to the different countries can cost a lot of money, which makes some businesses shy away from selling cross-border.

“I want a Polish, German or Spanish consumer to feel as safe when doing business with an Italian, Finnish or French company online when they are at home. And I want Europe’s small and medium-sized companies to offer their product and services to consumers in other countries without having to become experts in the national contract law systems for all other 26 EU countries,” Ms Reding said.

The commission has put forward a number of options including a web-based model contract that could be used; a single contract for all member states or a separate EU contract that would exist with the national contract and which people could choose to sue.


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