In an ever-increasing consumer market, it is now more important than ever for consumers to know their rights. As consumers, we purchase, use and depend on services regularly and increasingly, use the internet to make purchases, particularly digital content for our electronic devices. Yet, when that item or service fails us, do you know what our rights are? Do you know how to fight it? Do you know when and how you are protected? At present these questions are likely to be answered with a ‘no’.
As of the 23 January 2014, when the bill completed its first reading, the Consumer Rights Bill made its journey towards Royal Assent. The Bill is said to “clarify and simplify consumer rights”. In a world where our purchases are no longer restricted to the shop counter but are over the internet for both tangible and intangible products. It appears that in an ever growing and evolving consumer market, it is important for us to know where we stand in the face of large, powerful, clever and sometimes faceless businesses.
The purpose of the bill set out by GOV.UK is two-fold; consumer confidence and enforcement, the latter includes amended rights of small businesses which enable them to bring legal action against larger businesses that are in breach of competition laws with greater ease.
Consumers have long been protected by several pieces of legislation; Consumer Protection Act 1987, Sale and Supply of Services Act 1994 and the Sale of Goods Act 1979. The latter’s main purpose was to set out the rules in business to business transactions, yet even under this act, consumers are mentioned and provided for in Part 5A of the Act, although consumers are only briefly included. Consumers have always been accounted for and recognised as vulnerable since they have little specialist knowledge and even less bargaining power. However, this area is decidedly complex and remedies rarely occur. The Consumer Bill website states “We think that consumer law is not clear enough – it’s out of date, it’s confusing and it’s incomplete” and I can only agree with them. The economic market is in a completely different shape to how it was in the 1980s and the vast majority of the consumer population do not understand Consumer Law. Most consumers understand as to the extent of their rights, the basic “14 or 28 day refund”, “1 year guarantee” that is in large print and is said with a smile by the sales assistant. The “Terms and Conditions” that are handed to us are often thrown or clicked away by a “tick the box” and are rarely read. On the rare occasion that products and services fail, we find ourselves left feeling disappointed and lost, and often never have the issue rectified. This all seems set to change with the new bill.
The three main parts of the Consumer Rights Bill intend to clarify the law on goods, services and digital content. In each chapter, it outlines what type of good, digital content or service is covered; the statutory rights; and remedies. The Consumer Rights Bill appears to provide more security to consumers by applying the same standard of laws across the board. This means that not only will you be able to enforce statutory rights to have the product you bought to be repaired or replaced, but also to be able to claim compensation as a last resort when you have received unsatisfactory goods or services that you paid for e.g. decorators, builders, photographers etc…
Digital Content is a new addition. At present there are few legal remedies available to purchasers for digital products that are defective or are not of the expected quality. For, possibly the first time, legislation will clearly outline how and when a consumer can claim money back for software they have paid for that has failed to work, or alternatively, be repaired. Digital goods will essentially be treated in the same way as any other. They must “meet the description provided, correspond with a sample, and be of satisfactory quality including being fit for purpose”. In our modern age, it is now the norm to purchase and download software such as music, books, games, antivirus products and other software straight to our electronic devices without, in some cases, ever actually touching a cover or product sleeve. The Consumer Bill should act to allow for the software to be either repaired or replaced and failing that, will entitle you to some money back.
For the first time, government is recognising the need not only for clarity in the law to communicate important legislation to the public and that consumers deserve better from businesses, but that the modern age demands more from legislation. The world is changing, the law must change with it in order to protect those that it most affects. The Consumer Rights Bill will also make amendments to the Competition Act 1998 and Enterprise Act 2002 under Schedule 8, which enables small businesses to bring legal action against bigger businesses. Again, clarifying their legal rights and allowing greater access to legal action against businesses that are larger and have greater power.
It appears that the Consumer Bill is a desperately needed piece of legislation and is set to blow away the cobwebs and give this area of law a much needed and modern makeover to bring the law into the 21st Century. More importantly it should make it; accessible, digestible and understandable to the general public like you and me. The public sector information website GOV.UK has a site specifically for the Consumer Rights Bill provided by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, providing simple and easy-to-follow webpages on the Consumer Bill, and allow you to see example questions and resolutions in regards to the bill in simple language with no legal or business jargon, as well as a link to an online and pdf copy of the drafted bill.
The 122-page document due around June 2014, appears set to greatly empower and enlighten consumers and level the playing field between small and large businesses. It is a piece of legislation that will affect all of us and continues to be praised and supported by commentators. For what is a relatively short piece of legislation once passed it will hopefully bring the law into our technological age and change the face of consumer law for the better. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills ‘The Consumer Rights Bill’ <http://discuss.bis.gov.uk/consumerrightsbill/>  The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills ‘Providing better information and protection for consumers’ (2 April 2014) <https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/providing-better-information-and-protection-for-consumers/supporting-pages/consumer-bill-of-rights>