Vouching for Consumers

NCA logo, via their siteThe Consumer Protection Act, 2007 (also here), though it is the latest in a long line of piecemeal legislative forays into the area, nevertheless bids fair to provide substantial protection for consumers, provided both that the National Consumer Agency established under it is vigilant and active in that goal, and that it is allowed to be (for example, it may not survive in its current form calls (for example, by Fine Gael) for its abolition as part of the government’s cost-cutting desire to merge various statutory agencies). One important step was taken yesterday with the publication of draft guidelines for the retail sector.

Section 90(1) of the Act provides:

… the Agency may prepare, issue and publish guidelines applicable to traders, or persons representing traders, concerning
(a) a matter of consumer welfare or protection; [or]
(b) a matter of practical guidance to traders in relation to commercial practices, whether generally or in a particular trade, business or professional sector; …

Before issuing and publishing such guidelines, section 90(2) provides that the Agency may prepare draft guidelines and consult as necessary. Yesterday’s announcement was of draft guidelines, and as part of a consultation with the retail sector and more generally. From the press release:

The guidelines are intended to facilitate the retail sector in complying with the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 in relation to a variety of misleading practices.

The guidelines, when adopted, will help traders to better appreciate their obligations to provide unambiguous information to consumers, give clarity on certain aspects of the Act and provide a basis for a fairer and more evenly balanced approach towards advertising throughout the sector.

There is more information here; there is press coverage in the Irish Times; and the guidelines themselves are here (html) and here (doc). They cover various aspects of the Agency’s remit under the Act, including unfair, misleading, aggressive or prohibited sales practices, misleading price and product advertising, and assorted other matters, including a particular bugbear of mine, practices relating to shop vouchers, in respect of which the Agency recommends:

Gift vouchers are a significant element of the retail business (including certain service providers). Businesses benefit significantly from the gift voucher scheme. They have the immediate use of the money paid up front to purchase these vouchers. They also have the guarantee that consumers will have to give them their custom in order to redeem the vouchers.

In recognition of the benefits of the voucher scheme to businesses, they in turn should be flexible in the context of consumers redeeming the value of the vouchers.

The following should apply as a best practice approach:

(a) no time limit should be set for redeeming the vouchers,

(b) no exclusions should apply in relation to the circumstances when consumers may use the vouchers, such as making it a condition that the vouchers cannot be used to purchase products on special promotions or during a sale,

(c) in the event of any limitations or restrictions being applied , these should be stated clearly in the terms and conditions,

(d) in line with the EC (Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts) Regulations 1995 the terms and conditions should be fair, not biased against the consumer, be easily understood and written in clear language, and

(e) in the event that the store intends ceasing operations, provide adequate notice to customers to allow them time to redeem the vouchers.

… Having regard to the fact that the business has access to the cash from the date the voucher was issued, it would be reasonable for the recipient to expect that the period to redeem the credit note/voucher would be open ended.

Now where did I put those £20 book vouchers?