The plight of the holiday couple, who bought three pieces of jewellery on the understanding that they were made of gold, has been taken up by Rob Taylour, area trading standards officer with Wiltshire County Council.
He has contacted the local consumer protection department in the Canaries. 'I wanted to test the system and see what happened,' said Mr Taylour.
He admits that the process has been slow and complicated because all correspondence has to be translated into Spanish. The problem is unresolved, but Mr Taylour is optimistic that the couple from Swindon, Wiltshire, will eventually get their money back. 'We've had good assistance from our colleagues in Spain,' he said. The trader has now told the Spanish authorities he will refund the full payment in exchange for the goods.
Shortly before Christmas, Mr Taylour arranged to send the jewellery to the Canaries, to be entrusted to his opposite number there.
He is waiting for a response and the money. 'I have every hope of success. But the case does raise the question of whether this is the most appropriate way to deal with what in Britain could be a criminal prosecution,' he said.
According to the Consumers in Europe Group (CEG), an umbrella body of more than 30 British organisations, the single market in effect ceases to exist if cross-border purchases lead to disputes.
'When it comes to anything going wrong, the protection of the single market stops at the national border,' said Virginia Graham, the senior CEG research officer. 'People do have rights, but the point is - is it worth going to the trouble of claiming them?'
One practical difficulty is that court action must generally be taken in the country where the goods or services were provided, and under the laws of that country.
CEG suggests that it may help to insist, when buying abroad, that you will buy only under English or, if appropriate, Scottish law. Detailed advice on this is given in CEG's free booklet Consumers in Europe. In any subsequent action legal costs are likely to be high, and although legal aid may be available, the rules are different in each EU country.
Ms Graham said that British consumers ought to be able to sue traders in other EU countries through the British courts. There should also be a safeguard allowing consumers to claim redress from the manufacturer and retailer. 'So if you bought something in a shop in Italy, you could go to the manufacturer's agent in this country,' she said.
Mr Taylour's experience has led him to a similar conclusion. 'We need some sort of easily accessible, European-wide small claims procedure,' he said.
Ironically, the Swindon couple, who paid in Spain by credit card, could have had all their problems speedily solved if the credit card company had accepted that it was legally liable for the loss. Under the Consumer Credit Act, card issuers have joint liability with traders when card-holders suffer from misrepresentation or breach of contract.
However, credit-card issuers have argued in the past that their liability under the Act does not extend to purchases abroad. Last month Sir Bryan Carsberg, director-general of Fair Trading, came down on the side of consumers, saying that the Act does cover purchases overseas.
But his report is now subject to further consultation. Ultimately it may take a High Court judgment to resolve the issue.
'Consumers in Europe' from CEG, tel 071-222 2662
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