Consumer Protection Law
The area of European Union consumer protection law is one that continues to expand rapidly at an EU level. The rise in EU cross-border trade and internet shopping has contributed to providing businesses with numerous opportunities to sell their products and services. At the same time, companies doing business in the EU Member States are required to keep up with complex consumer and product safety laws.
The European Commission is continuously striving for a high level of consumer protection, the effective enforcement of common consumer protection rules and harmonisation of these rules for a smoother functioning of the Internal Market. With global product safety scandals adding further pressure on the European institutions to provide harmonised solutions, businesses have to keep abreast of an ever expanding body of rules designed to balance their interests with those of their customers.
Van Bael & Bellis specialises in all aspects of European Union consumer protection law. We have a proven track-record in advising clients on a wide range of issues such as the laws concerning the sale of goods, including food products, warranties, misleading and comparative advertising, product liability, food safety, unfair terms in consumer contracts, distance selling, electronic commerce, electronic communications, storage and signatures, the legal framework concerning collective interests of consumers, sales promotions and unfair trade practices.
In the realm of sales promotions (a subject that is not regulated at the Union level) Van Bael & Bellis has a long history of advising on this topic and other marketing laws, and has provided companies with regular advice on specific projects relating to promotional campaigns, misleading and comparative advertising, prize draws and competitions, and online marketing for the 30 EEA countries plus several other European countries.
The law concerning the sale of goods
Van Bael & Bellis advises its clients on all aspects concerning the selling of consumer goods. The Member States have all been required to implement Directive 99/44/EC on certain aspects relating to the sale of consumer goods, revolutionising the after-sales services which sellers have to offer consumers purchasing all types of goods, from the smallest consumer items to household goods, vehicles and their accessories. Van Bael & Bellis has been closely following the implementation process of this EU law, providing advice to trade organisations, multinational companies and producers importing products into the EEA. We routinely clarify provisions of the EU law and national legislation, review companies’ standard terms and conditions for compliance, and draft companies’ commercial warranty policies. The Directive is currently undergoing a review process, and we at the firm are closely following this for our clients. The food sector requires special attention because of the recent implementation or current revision of the main legal framework, especially as regards labelling and nutritional and health claims.
Misleading and comparative advertising
Another area of the firm’s expertise comprises the laws on misleading and comparative advertising. While misleading advertising is any advertising that deceives or is likely to deceive the persons to whom it is addressed or whom it reaches, the Union law requires Member States to ensure that adequate and effective means exist for the control of misleading advertising in the interests of consumers as well as competitors and the general public. On the other hand, comparative advertising, which explicitly or by implication identifies a competitor or goods or services offered by a competitor, although permitted, must comply with strict conditions laid down in the EU law.
The food area is a particular area of concern: misleading and comparative advertising is under the constant scrutiny of the European Commission, which has set itself the ambition of guaranteeing a high level of protection for the consumer, on the basis of specific and very restrictive conditions.
Van Bael & Bellis has frequently advised clients on legal provisions in this area, and has become involved in detailed discussions with Member States’ officials on the national application of such provisions.
Other important areas of consumer protection
With the systematic integration of consumer concerns into all the relevant EU policy areas, companies can no longer afford to ignore the impact of the rules and their enforcement. Among the other consumer protection rules of importance to companies doing business in Europe, Van Bael & Bellis specialises in the laws on product liability; unfair terms in consumer contracts; distance selling; electronic commerce; electronic communications, storage and signatures; and the legal framework concerning collective interests of consumers.
Van Bael & Bellis has advised a number of multinational companies on the EU Directives concerning unfair commercial practices, misleading and comparative advertising and unsolicited communications. In particular, the firm has advised clients on online marketing (including distance selling, advertising and sales promotions, general information requirements, the conclusion of contracts and the placing of orders), the processing of personal data in the electronic communications sector, requirements for tailor-made sales campaigns and marketing opportunities, the regulation of sales promotions and the regulation of consumer competitions.
Van Bael & Bellis has advised on the above-mentioned issues and national case law developments in this field in the EEA States and Switzerland, San Marino, the Vatican City, Andorra, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. The wide range of territories covered reflects the large number of jurisdictions in which our lawyers are qualified.
Direct marketing is undoubtedly an area of growing importance for multinational companies, and Van Bael & Bellis has used its pan-European expertise to analyse the impact of the EU laws on commercial communications and direct marketing by, among others, e-mail, fax, telephone, text messaging, Bluetooth and postal mail.
The restrictions placed by EU law on unsolicited communications are closely tied to consent from recipients (either individuals or businesses). The EU rules are further complicated by the fact that a margin of discretion has been left to Member States when implementing them. The rules in this area form an intricate web, and Van Bael & Bellis has regularly advised multinationals, on the manner in which direct marketing can be operated without risk.
The firm has been able to provide clients with comprehensive, practical advice on the do’s and don’ts of direct marketing legislation in the different EEA States and Switzerland. We are expert in detailing companies’ obligations and customers’ rights in relation to sending advertising material via different channels of communication, to both consumers and businesses, and – additionally – providing information on the applicable sanctions in each country covered.
Food law is a specific area with very particular rules, including those concerning applicable liability, rules for advertising, and a strict focus on quality and safety.
For all these reasons, a special expertise is required linked with a deep knowledge of the sector itself.