The Distance Selling Regulations: Trick or Treat? Depends on your point of view
On All Hallows Eve (Halloween) 2000, a new set of consumer protection regulations came into effect. But (you knew there would be a "but") after more than four years, most consumers don't know of its existence.
Copyright © 2002-2008 Bruce Tober All Rights Reserved (based on an article by Tober published originally in The Evening Standard, London in 2002)
The Distance Selling Regulations (DSR) are of little or no concern to the fruit and veg shop down the road, but once the owners of that shop begin to do business on the Net, the DSR comes into its own. "There are very major implications for those selling virtually anything on the internet (and for consumers who have new rights)," said Rafi Azim-Khan, formerly a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, London.
The regs were made as a result of a European Directive, No. 97/7/EC. According to A. W. & C. Barsby: Legal Research and Publishing, the DSR requires sellers to give the following information before a contract is concluded:
The following additional requirements apply and must be provided in writing (or "some other durable medium") when goods are delivered, the company says:
Those readers with a keen eye will have noted the word "cancellation" three times in the above. And therein lies a major reason sellers are not going to like these regulations. The DSR's "Consumers' cancellation rights" include a "cooling-off period" of seven working days and is without penalty. It commences on the date of receipt of the goods.
The cooling off period is seven days from the receipt of the goods "only if the requisite information is provided prior to the delivery of the goods," said Ian Williamson at Bird & Bird International Law Firm, London. "However, if the information is not provided before delivery, then the [cooling off] period can be extended to up to three months and seven days. [Still, on the other hand] if the missing information is provided within three months of delivery, the cooling off period will be seven days from when the information is provided," Williamson continued.
With regard to services rather than good, "for the delivery of services, the cooling-off right can be lost where:
Those are as opposed to more traditional cancellation periods which commenced on the date of placing the order.
Clear and Practical Advice
Graham Smith, Partner at Bird & Bird and author and editor of the book, Internet Law and Regulation, added, "The clear legal and practical thing to do is to make sure you've got your online contracting process properly sorted out and that you understand at what point you are committed to supplying the goods or services that the customer has requested at your website. The crucial point is at what point is the contract concluded. And at that point you're then bound to supply at the prices at which you promised to supply them."
For example, both Smith and Azim-Khan cited cases such as the Kodak situation in which Kodak advertised a £329 digital camera for only £100. Apparently up to 10,000 people placed orders for the camera before the company noticed and tried to rectify the problem by first cancelling the orders (for which customers had already received confirmations) and then by telling the customers they could have the cameras for the actual £329 price less 10%.
Smith, while refusing to discuss any specific case, said, "The problem is most of these [online ordering] processes are automated and there's unlikely to be much human supervision when an order acknowledgement goes out. So, if there's been a mistake on the price, [and an] automated acceptance of the order has gone out with the wrong price, you've got a potentially difficult situation.
"Whether the acknowledgement of the order is a binding contract," Smith continued, "depends on exactly how the ordering process on the site is set up." But since most of these website ordering processes are totally automated, even if there's an error in the pricing, "you can end up in the situation where you, as a supplier, have accepted an order at variance to the price you intend."
One Possible Get-Out
Smith explained that one get-out for the seller would be to prove the "price was so ludicrously low that the customer on the site must have realised that it was a mistake, if that's the situation, then the supplier may have an argument that they're not bound by the contract because the customer must have known that's not what the supplier intended." But, of course, sellers are often known to make goods available at ludicrously low-prices, such situations are known as "sales" and the goods are known as "loss-leaders".
In such case, it's rather difficult for a seller to make the claim that the customer should have known the price was a mistake and "then the supplier is very likely to be bound to supply at that price."
Azim-Khan cited what he called a "nightmare scenario" resulting from the DSRs. in this situation, a person might buy a car online, use it for a few hundred (thousand?) miles and after five or six days decide she doesn't like the colour or the car itself, after all. So she cancels contract. "In theory she could ask for all her money back and the car company could not impose any penalty or depreciation charge (just reasonable actual direct cost of taking it back)."
Like Smith, Azim-Khan warned that any companies concluding any sales over the net, by post or otherwise at a distance must "urgently seek specialist advice as, at the least, their terms and conditions are most likely badly out of date and/or in need of additional provisions to cover scenarios such as those highlighted above. Websites and/or catalogues also need urgent updating. The practical implications in terms of returns and contracts with their own suppliers etc also need urgent review."
But That Ain't All, Folks
In addition to the Distance Selling Regulations, the small business setting up a commercial website needs to be aware of new regulations which came into effect at about the same time as the DSR, but these were to implement the Electronic Commerce Directive (e-CD) according to Smith..
And that's not to mention provisions of the Data Protection Act and of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. But we won't get into those here.
The e-CD regulations will put "quite specific compliance requirements on the online providers. Those requirements involve things like various pieces of information that have to be provided on the Website, specific provisions about the providing of acknowledgements of orders within a short time, and provisions affecting the technical design of the site." These include provisions that Websites must enable consumers to correct input errors when they're placing an order and that they explain up front the ordering process."
Smith said the bottom line that is "the small business is stepping through a mine field in setting up a commercial Website." It's always been problematic, he said, but "what's changed is everyone has woken up to the Internet and e-commerce since then, there is a lot more legislation specifically aimed at online trading and it's now much higher up the agenda of the enforcement authorities to achieve compliance with this legislation. So more attention is going to have to be paid to these sorts of requirements than perhaps was necessary in the past.
"The bottom line," he concludes, "is to think about the legal aspects before you build your Website, not after."
Yes, There's a Wee Bit of Seller Protection
While the legislation is heavily geared in the buyers' favour, there are a few bones tossed our (the sellers' way).
As Williamson noted, "There are certain exceptional types of contract where the cooling-off period does not apply - i.e. the following:
"Where the consumer exercises the cooling-off right in relation to goods, they are under the duty to retain possession of the goods and to take reasonable care of them," Williamson added. "The legislation obliges the consumer to make the goods available for collection, but it is possible for a supplier to have an express term in its ts&cs requiring the consumer to return goods if they exercise the cooling off right."
Oh well, that's better than nowt, as they say up north..
Further InformationYes, There's a Wee Bit of Seller Protection
And we at Books at Star Dot Star attempt to comply with the DSR at all times.
For further information on the DSRs see (all pages open in a new window):
A Business's FAQ to the DSR is here.