Friday, January 9, 2015

Consumer Rights Carroussel

Dutch law protects consumers by stating that one can expect a product to have certain properties, and that the seller must repair or replace a product which does not live up to its expectations (Burgerlijk Wetboek, artikel 7:17). However, the law leaves unspecified what these expectations are, so in practice, said article is just a starting point for endless discussion.

In my opinion, I can expect a €700 logic board of good quality to last longer than one and a half year, so I decided to seek legal help. In The Netherlands, the Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) 'keeps track of the latest trends and developments for consumers and businesses. ACM looks specifically at the energy, telecommunication, transport and postal services industries, and, more in general, at competition and consumer protection law. We take action against businesses that do not play by the rules. And we take a broader perspective when looking for what is needed to solve the underlying problem in a market. When using our instruments and powers, the effect of our actions is central.' Sounds promising, isn't it?

The ACM mission statement is phrased in more political wordings: "The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) creates opportunities and options for businesses and consumers – opportunities for innovation, new products, services and businesses, and options for consumers so they have a real choice, and are not afraid of making a choice. That is why we want businesses be open about what they offer. And finally, consumers should be informed of what their rights are. Therein lies the key to having well-functioning markets" It took me a while to learn the total lack of commitment embedded in this mission statement.

The ACM prefers to be approached through Consuwijzer, the Dutch government's counter for consumers: "With us, you can find independent and reliable information about your rights" Consuwijzer invites the abused Dutch consumer to register a complaint: "This is to your advantage, because ConsuWijzer registers each question and complaint. Your signal will directly reach this monitor (ACM), who is legally qualified to intervene if companies do not play by the rules" So, I explained my case with MacCity to the Consuwijzer website and indicated that I was both registering a complaint and asking for advice. I received an email confirmation, which promised a reply within six working days. The procedure had started. At least, I thought so.

The next day, Consuwijzer sent me a sloppy email summary of my case, which would be passed on to ACM. A note added that it is Important that I ask questions and register complaints with the ACM, as the ACM can start an investigation, have the authority to fine a company, and force companies to find a solution for a given probem. A popular saying warns that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Indeed, Consuwijzer added they will not solve my problem: they just give me advice about my rights. That is a little disappointing, but I can live with a decent advice.

Six days went by, without a word of advice.So, I emailed Consuwijzer for clarification. They replied my case was complex, indeed, and could not be handled through email: I had to contact them through phone, to receive a detailed advice, tailored to my situation. Great!

It took me a week get connected to a Consuwijzer consultant through telephone, but the consult did not last too long. Without going into the 'complexity' of my case, the lady referred me to Juridisch Loket. My question of why she could not have given me this 'advice' through email remained answered.

Juridisch Loket is funded by the Dutch Government to provide free legal counselling to people that do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer. My email was routinely answered with a standard reply about consumer rights, and I found out I needed to make a phone call (25 cent per minute) if I wanted more specific support. I was not exactly the only client willing to pay 25 cent per minute for free legal advice, so Juridisch Loket kept me waiting for almost half an hour. When I finally got through, a consultant told me that my case was too complex to be solved through phone, so I needed to visit in person, making sure to bring all  documents relevant to my case.

The nearest office of the Juridisch Loket is one hour from my home town, but at least I would have the chance to talk through my Complex Case with a Real Lawyer! My consult lasted 20 minutes. Without even looking into the specifics of my Complex Case, a dark-haired bimbo refered me to a real lawyer, who was available for providing subsidised legal help. Her computer had the flu, so details were to follow later.

One week later, the Real Lawyer told me he was not really interested in my case, or, in his words, costs and benefits were out of balance. I left with a strong impression that the case was too much work for the standard fee he would get from subsidised legal help.

To sum up, The Netherlands have a nice carroussel up and running, with Consuwijzer, ACM, Juridisch Loket and subsidised legal support, which is mainly running to support itself, and not exactly functional as a tool to protect the innocent Dutch consumer from scam artists. For practical problem solving, it is probably more effective to hire the local motorcycle gang. Our noble King has dubbed this principle 'Participation Society': every man for himself.

Fortunately, there are a number of independent and critical consumer organisations, on television in print. In my next posting, I will explain how helpful these are.

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