“Is there any scope to make a complaint to the consumer ombudsman against a retailer when it comes to high prices or is it simply the case that retailers can charge as they see fit?”
That is how a mail sent to The Irish Times last week opened. The sender detailed their concerns about the price of a particular product but that is not what concerns us here - not least because the answer is pretty simple. Retailers can charge whatever they want and once they make that price clear before we buy there are no legal issues - although there might often be moral ones, but that’s a different story.
We started with this email because it is typical of the queries we get and reflects a misunderstanding of the rights and protections Irish consumers have. There is no consumer ombudsman and there is no hotline a person can call to have a problem fixed in real time.
That is not, however, to say we don’t have authorities and commissions and regulators who are tasked with protecting us and it is certainly not to suggest we don’t have rights. We do have rights and we do have bodies which protect us. It is just that it is often-times the process is not as simple or as straightforward as we might like.
There are regulators for air travel, financial institutions, public bodies and telecommunications. We also have an over-arching consumer organisation and an EU-wide one as well as a low-cost court we can go to if things go badly wrong and ombudsmen who are there to adjudicate on matters of high finance and public bodies.
But as anyone who has even been let down by their bank or abandoned by their airline or left hanging on the line for hours-on-end trying to fix problems with their phone or broadband will testify, regulators can sometimes be found wanting.
To be fair, they can also wield power effectively – something we saw when the Central Bank finally took on the banks over their mismanagement of tracker mortgages which saw many thousands of people forced to pay over the odds, with some losing their homes as a result.
It is worth pointing out that things are at least getting better and with the signing into law of a new Consumer Rights Act in November, we do have more rights and the authorities that enforce those rights have more powers.
Competition and Consumer Protection Commission
Its role is to give us a voice and to answer any consumer-related queries we might have and to enforce competition and consumer protection law in Ireland. In the past it could not intervene on behalf of consumers or make contact with companies who had made life difficult, unless the issue was widespread and pervasive.
But under the Consumer Rights Act it can address issues with providers in a more forceful manner and take enforcement action against traders who refuse or fail to provide consumers with a remedy for faulty goods or services or fail or refuse to make a reimbursement to which consumers are entitled under the Act.
Contact: ccpc.ie; 01-402 5555
The European Consumer Centre
The European Consumer Centre (ECC) is a Europe-wide organisation that engages with consumers, and offers information and advice services on cross-border rights. It can fight the corner of wronged consumers and often wins fights that might have been impossible to win because of language barriers or because consumers here have no idea where to turn when bad things happen to them outside of this jurisdiction.
An illustration of its effectiveness was on display during the pandemic when the ECC’s 30 centres across the EU and the EEA secured cancelled flights reimbursements totalling millions of euro.
If an Irish consumer gets into difficulty with a retailer or service provider outside of this jurisdiction, the ECC can help build a solid case, which it passes on to its counterpart in the relevant country which can then make contact with the trader to have the problem resolved.
Contact: eccireland.ie; 01-879 7620
The Central Bank
The Central Bank watches over Ireland’s financial system and works alongside the CCPC and the Financial Services Ombudsman in some areas. It also looks after the Central Credit Register, the centralised system for collecting personal and credit information on loans.
If you have a problem with your mobile phone, your broadband or landline, you go to ComReg. It will make sure you have exhausted a company’s internal complaints system before it can help. It can be a slow and frustrating experience – as anyone who has ever dealt with a mobile phone operator will tell you – but at least ComReg can and does show its teeth.
Contact: comreg.ie; 01-804 9668, 1890-229668
The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman
The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman investigates customer complaints in relation to the financial sector, including banks, building societies, credit unions, brokers, money lenders, hire-purchase providers, health insurance companies and retail credit firms. Given the complexities of the cases – and the sometimes intimidating responses from financial institutions when challenged – the process can be slow.
Contact: fspo.ie; 01 567 7000
The Ombudsman examines complaints from people who believe they have been unfairly treated by providers of public services such as Government departments, local authorities, the Health Service Executive and publicly funded higher education bodies. It can also examine complaints about private nursing homes.
The Consumer Association of Ireland
This is a voluntary organisation which represents Irish consumers in the public sphere in as much as it can, given a small budget and a small office. It can and does provide a voice for consumers on live issues. What it can’t do is help you out if you have been given the runaround by a company or shop.
Contact: thecai.ie; 01-637 3961
Commission for Aviation Regulation
The Commission for Aviation Regulation is there to help people who are denied boarding or those who have had a flight cancelled or delayed, and are entitled to such things as refunds, assistance and compensation.
Contact: flightrights.ie; 01-661 1700
Small Claims Court
“Court” sounds a bit terrifying but it’s not and the process is pleasingly simple. Any grievance against a retailer or service provider that has a financial worth of €2,000 or less can be pursued here and there is no need to involve a solicitor.
You lodge a claim at courts.ie or download an application form from the site. You give details of the claimant (you), the respondent (the business), the amount claimed and the details of your claim. You must complete an application and pay the €25 fee.
Your claim is then processed by a District Court clerk. The clerk informs the business of your claim, after which it has 15 days to respond. If it doesn’t, you win and the District Court makes an order in your favour. If it does dispute your claim, the court registrar negotiates with both parties to try to reach an agreement. The setting tends to be informal and private. The registrar asks both parties to outline their side of the story and tries to reach a deal. If this isn’t possible, a hearing before a District Court judge is arranged.
We will look how the rights of Irish consumers compare with those in other countries in a forthcoming edition of On the Money.
You can contact us at OnTheMoney@irishtimes.com with personal finance questions you would like to see us address. If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can read it here. Also, to ensure you continue to receive On The Money, be sure to add the email address you receive the newsletter from to your safe senders’ list.