The European Extrajudicial Network for the out-of-court settlement of cross-border consumer disputes (EEJ-Net)

An EU-wide complaints network to facilitate consumers' access to out-of-court settlement should encourage the confidence of European consumers in the Internal Market.

The increasing mobility of European citizens, E-commerce and the introduction of one single currency require an EU-wide consumer assistance.

Compared to the rather lengthy, formal and expensive court procedures the alternative dispute resolution through an European Extra-Judicial Networks offers flexible, low-cost and simple solutions to the particularities of cross-border consumer disputes.

Already in 1998 the European Commission published a communication on “alternative resolution of consumer disputes” in order to encourage and facilitate the swift settlement of cross-border consumer problems. The attached “Recommendation on the principles applicable to the bodies responsible for out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes” (98/257/CE), ensures that these procedures offer the parties a minimum number of quality guarantees such as independence, transparency, efficiency, legality, liberty, representation and adversarial principle.

So far about 400 alternative dispute resolution bodies (ADR) have been registered in a database. In October 2001, this database has been extended with the institution of the national contact and coordination points “Clearing Houses”. Since then these national contact points assist consumers in resolving their cross-border problems. In order to find a swift, cost-saving and efficient solution, the 17 Clearing Houses collaborate closely with each other, the European Commission and the national ministries as well as with the ADR-bodies.

All current 15 Member states as well as Norway and Iceland participate in the EEJ-Net. The Federal Republic of Germany followed the Nr. 10 (2) of the Council Resolution 25 May 2000 “to create or designate, in addition, in each Member state a central point (“Clearing House”) to provide information, guidance, practical support and practical assistance to consumers in order to facilitate their access to the relevant out-of-court bodies and schemes at national level or, where appropriate, in the country of the supplier, as well as to the contact points in the other member states”.

A notification from the German Federal Ministry of Justice dated October 26, 2001, added the German Clearing House as a new service department to the already existing supporting structure of Euro-Info-Consumers. The German contact point started its activity on January 1st, 2002.

As per a decision of the French State Secretary Mr. Renaud Dutreil dated January 22, 2004 the mission for the French Clearing House has also been committed to Euro-Info-Consumers.

Along with providing information ADR-schemes and national and European regulations for consumer protection, the German and the French Clearing House perform the task of a contact point to which consumers who want to find an out-of-court settlement to their cross-border disputes can turn to.

As almost all the employees of the European Clearing Houses speak several languages and are almost all legally trained assistants or lawyers, the contact points can easily find out whether introducing an ADR-procedure is the best way of responding to the consumer complaint or if other means of settling the dispute are more appropriate.

The first experiences throughout the EEJ-Net demonstrate how important it is that the member states accordingly to the Council Resolution of May 25, 2000 Nr 10 (3) “encourage cooperation between professional and economic organisations and consumer organisations with a view to: contributing to the activities of out-of-court bodies and the contact points”. The creation of an active cooperation between the notified ADR-bodies and the other partners of the EEJ-Net therefore represents a major opportunity for the European consumer and the Internal Market.