Ministers to resist consumer ruling

THE Government is planning to ignore a European Union proposal which allows consumer organisations to take legal action in cases where individuals cannot afford to, writes David Nicholson-Lord.

Ministers were accused yesterday of denying consumers an important weapon against 'weasel words'

and small print in contacts by which companies seek to evade their obligations. The Consumers' Association argues that so-called 'representative' actions, in which individual cases can be taken up in the courts by agencies or pressure groups, are a vital defence against unscrupulous companies.

Some timeshare companies, for instance, stipulate the 'exclusive jurisdiction of the Isle of Man' in their contracts - meaning that dissatisfied customers can only sue them in an Isle of Man court.

Rebecca Evans, a lawyer with the association, said most consumers were deterred by the risk and expense of court action. The association has campaigned for representative actions to be allowed under United Kingdom law.

The directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts, which allows representative actions and is due to take effect next year, is being resisted by the Department of Trade and Industry. According to the DTI, it would produce a 'major change in UK law'.

Stephen Locke, director of policy at the association, described the Government's reaction as an 'idiotic and ultimately doomed' effort to wriggle out of its obligations.

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