Consumer rights: What are the new laws and how will they empower people?

Until now, all kinds of practices have been happening online with little or no legal protections for consumers

A new Bill of rights which should improve the life of Irish consumers for years to come has been signed into law.

The Consumer Rights Act will give people more rights that are stronger when it comes to goods and services which don’t work as they are supposed to. The law will also empower regulators to address issues with providers in a more forceful manner than has often been the case up to now.

According to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission the legislation will see “an uplifting of consumer protection across a whole host of areas” with digital services, home improvements and hotel bookings coming more into focus as a result.

What does the Consumer Rights Act do?

First off it enshrines a whole raft of consumer-friendly rules – many of which have been mandated by EU-directives into Irish law too, which should make seeking redress easier in the future.

And did it have to happen?

It did. Many of the laws in place to protect Irish consumers were drawn up before the age of the internet which means that until now all manner of practices, which would be considered entirely unacceptable in the real world, have been happening in the virtual world with little or no legal protections for consumers.

What are you talking about?

Well, when you buy a physical product and it breaks, you have certain rights. You have a right to a refund, a repair or a replacement if something you buy fails you in some significant way shortly after you buy it. It is a whole lot more nebulous in the online world and people did not have the same rights if they spent money on a digital product as they did if they spent money on a physical one.

And has that changed?

Under the new law, consumers have the same rights and protections over digital content and digital services, such as streaming, downloads, cloud products, as they do currently with any other products or services.

What will that mean in practice?

Among the enhanced digital rights people will have will be the right to a full refund, exchange or repair when goods or services are not as described or not fit for purpose. You will also be entitled to any upgrades to the product or service that are needed to ensure the goods continue to work as expected and agreed, free of charge.

Okay, so those are rights I thought I had already. Will I have any extra rights?

You will, as it happens. While consumers will have the right to a refund, a replacement or a repair, the new law will see more redress options put on the table. People will also be entitled to agree a price reduction on faulty goods and they will be entitled to withhold payment for goods partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality of the item received. In effect that gives you more power to determine outcomes and that empowerment will be enshrined in law. The new law also makes it clear that any form of redress must be free of charge and must be carried out as soon as possible.

Anything else?

The new law should stop operators writing glowing reviews of themselves on various platforms to make it seem they are a whole lot better than they are.

But is that not already illegal?

Until now it has not been against the law but from this day forward companies that engage in “misleading and aggressive” commercial practices, such as fake reviews, could be subject to fines imposed by the courts following enforcement action taken by the consumer watchdog.

And who is the consumer watchdog?

We have quite a few of them in Ireland. Some are good. Some are not. In this instance, the watchdog will most likely be the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC).

Is there more?

The law will stop companies using certain terms and conditions which are “automatically regarded as unfair when put in a contract”.

Like what?

Well any condition which allows a trader to unilaterally change the terms of a contract, or any provision which would indemnify a trader from harm caused by a product or service will not be allowed. Businesses will also have to clearly set out a description of the goods or services being provided, the total price of the item and the cost of delivery before entering into a contract with a consumer.

And has the CCPC been given more powers?

It will now be able to take enforcement action against traders who refuse or fail to provide consumers with a remedy for faulty goods or services. They will also be able to take action against traders who fail or refuse to make a reimbursement to which consumers are entitled under the Act.

And is that a big deal?

It is probably one of the most important parts of the new law. One of the biggest problems with all the consumer protection measures in Ireland over recent decades has been the absence of a State wielded stick with which miscreants could be beaten. The role of the CCPC is to give us a voice, answer any consumer-related queries we might have and enforce competition and consumer protection law in Ireland.

It won’t help you if you have a problem with a specific company and, until now, has not legally been allowed to intervene on behalf of consumers or to make contact with companies that have made life difficult unless the issue is widespread and pervasive. But with new enforcement powers available to it, it should become much more active in protecting consumers.

Is there anything else?

There is. We have just come out of the so-called Black Friday sales period and will soon be heading into the winter sales period. Many people do not trust the sales boasts made by retailers – and with good reason. But the new law should make it harder for retailers to mislead consumers about sale prices. New pricing indication regulations mean that if a retailer has a sale, they will have to clearly display the previous price and that will have to be the lowest price the product was priced at over the last 30 days before it went into sale.

What does that mean?

Well, in times past, a retailer could have increased the price just before it went on sale or used the Recommended Retail Price from 12 months previously when boasting about a discount. That should become more difficult under the new rules.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast