Consumers given EC protection

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The Independent Online
UNFAIR clauses in contracts have been made illegal, thanks to a European Community directive passed yesterday which is designed to protect consumers. Gone are the days when, for example, you return your hired car to find that the piece of paper you signed when you picked up the vehicle made you liable for so many 'hidden' costs that it would have been cheaper to fly.

Baroness Denton, the Under-Secretary of State for Consumer Affairs and Small Firms, said the new rules 'will help correct the disadvantage many consumers are under in dealing with large corporations which offer their goods and services on a 'take-it-or-leave-it' basis'. They should also reassure people buying goods abroad now trade barriers have been lifted in the EC single market that their rights are protected in law.

An unfair clause is part of a contract on which the consumer cannot negotiate and has no comeback. The part that, for example, insists the customer pays upfront by buying a train ticket, but has no automatic right to a refund if the train never arrives. Or the trap for the shopper who buys a new kitchen and discovers when it is delivered months later that the price has gone up without warning.

After 1 January 1995, once all 12 member states have written the directive into national law, it will no longer be possible to draw up contracts with general waivers or disclaimers. A car park, for example, may now find that it has to make at least a token effort to protect your car and cannot merely issue tickets that waive all responsibility in case of theft or accident.

Nor will it be possible to change conditions without giving the consumer adequate warning. Quite how this will work in practice is being studied by the companies likely to be affected.

The directive is likely to demand clearer contracts that are less open to interpretation. But it will still not be possible to sue a company just because you are generally dissatisfied with the service provided or because the navy blue shoes are not quite as you imagined.

Will it make the trains run on time? No one knows. British Rail said yesterday that it was studying the directive but was sure it would still allow BR and other transport companies 'to operate the flexibility they require'.

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