If you have a dispute with a company in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU you should attempt to solve the dispute in the first instance directly with the company. If this fails you may take your case to court - the Small Claims Court is particularly useful for claims worth under 2,000 euro. Alternatively, you could use mediation services provided by a third party. These mediation services are alternative ways of resolving serious disputes without going to court. The main benefit of using alternative dispute resolution is that it is easy to use and cheaper than going to court. It is particularly useful if you have a consumer complaint with a company based in another EU country. Equally, these bodies can be used to resolve problems with particular goods and services in your home country. Organisations that provide alternative ways of resolving serious disputes are called Alternative Dispute Resolution organisations.
There is a whole range of organisations and agencies that can help you to enforce your consumer rights in Ireland and within the EU. Some organisations have a number of functions in addition to dealing with consumer complaints. Essentially, there are four main types of Alternative Dispute Resolution organisation;
An Ombudsman is an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints about bad administration, especially that of public authorities. In Ireland the Ombudsman investigates complaints made by members of the public who feel that they have been unfairly treated by certain public bodies. The Ombudsman for Children investigates complaints made by children or on behalf of children against certain public bodies, schools and hospitals. The European Ombudsman investigates complaints involving any of the EU Institutions. No ombudsman exists for complaints about administrations in other EU Member States but SOLVIT will attempt to solve any disputes you may have. The Financial Ombudsman Service will help you with complaints about financial institutions or insurance companies and pensions companies have their own ombudsman. Generally ombudsmen will take on your case only if you are still dissatisfied with an organisation, having exhausted their internal complaints mechanism.
Regulators are agencies established by law to oversee specific parts of industry to ensure that they comply with the law. In Ireland, regulators look after areas of public utilities and financial services. For example ComReg regulates telecommunications in Ireland, the Commission for Energy Regulation regulates the gas and electricity suppliers and the Central Bank regulates the financial services sector in Ireland. Regulators aim to promote competition while ensuring vulnerable consumers have sufficient services at reasonable prices.
Trade associations or professional bodies such as the Law Society or the Register of Electrical Contractors of Ireland exist to represent their industry. Some professional bodies and trade associations, such as the Advertising Standards Association for Ireland have codes of practice that they enforce. Not all trades and professions have a representative body. Even where there is a representative body for a particular trade or profession, not all of them have a code of practice to enforce.
Commissions and commissioners exist to protect your rights. These are generally statutory bodies and are set up to ensure your rights according to particular laws. For example the Data Protection Commissioner implements the Data Protection Acts and the Information Commissioner is responsible for overseeing Ireland’s Freedom of Information laws.
Alternative dispute resolution organisations are flexible and deal with disputes from both consumers and businesses. They are impartial and make all information about the organisation readily available to consumers. They must also ensure the effectiveness of their settlement procedure and encourage both sides to co-operate, yet make them aware that it is within their rights to withdraw at any time.
There are two types of alternative dispute resolution, mediation and arbitration.
Mediation: Both parties involved in the dispute agree to use a neutral third party to help solve the dispute. The terms of the agreement are decided between the parties with the help of the mediator (or Alternative Dispute Resolution body). Generally, decisions made in mediation are not legally binding but they can be made so if both parties agree to it.
Arbitration: Both parties involved in the dispute agree to go to an arbitrator to resolve issues. The decision of the arbitrator is legally binding and the process is governed by law (Arbitration Act 2010). You can represent yourself but you may benefit from legal representation if a dispute is taken to an arbitrator.
Whether you choose to avail of alternative methods of resolving your dispute is a personal choice. You are not obliged to avail of these methods of redress and have the right to take a claim to court if you so wish. Some consumer contracts however will bind you to pursue your case through arbitration. An example might include a complaint regarding a package holiday. Arbitration bodies have the power to make legally binding decisions. This means that the decision places a legal requirement on the retailer or you to act in a certain way. (i.e., to repay the money, to fix the item, to return the item, etc.). If the outcome of your alternative dispute resolution is legally binding on either party, you may not then be able to take the case to court.
The network of European Consumer Centres (ECC) helps to solve cross-border consumer problems within the EU. Each ECC first tries to mediate on behalf of the consumer with the retailer or service provider in the other EU member state. If this fails it puts consumers in touch with relevant alternative dispute resolution (ADR) organisations in Ireland and Europe.
Use alternative dispute resolution after you have exhausted all informal channels for solving the problem directly with the business or public service.
While the services of some alternative dispute resolution bodies are free, the services of others are not. If you contact an alternative dispute resolution body, clarify what the charges are before you begin an alternative dispute resolution process.
There is a range of organisations and agencies that can help you to enforce your rights in specific circumstances. If you wish to apply for the services of an alternative dispute resolution organisation in Ireland you must contact the organisation directly.
If you live in Ireland and your complaint is against a retailer or service provider in another EU Member State the European Consumer Centre (Dublin) will be able to provide you with advice on enforcing your rights.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.