Where will Brexit leave UK consumers?

This post has been contributed by Mr Rick Canavan, Module Convenor for Commercial law.

The leaving of the UK from the European Union (‘Brexit’) looks set to have an impact on numerous areas of law.  The impact will be felt most keenly in areas where there has been substantial and sustained legislative effort and where the EU has sought to achieve high levels of harmonisation between the laws of Member States.

Detail of a man shopping in supermarket

Sales of consumer goods are an excellent example of both.  Successive amendments and additions to the body of UK sales/consumer law have been as a result of additions and changes to the body of European consumer law.  This is no more apparent than in the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which apart from adding some much-needed clarity and simplicity for consumers, was an exercise to give legal effect to the 2011 Consumer Rights Directive.

At the time of writing, quite how Brexit will be affected is increasingly unclear but the severance of UK law from European law is expected to be achieved with a simple solution: UK law will simply mirror European law for the time being.  That will mean no imminent changes to consumer law for the foreseeable future, consumers will have the same rights as they enjoy today.  At least when they buy goods in the UK, from UK sellers.

The gap that has emerged is with goods purchased from sellers in other Member States prior to Brexit or afterwards.  Currently, a UK consumer can use the UK courts to seek redress against a seller in another Member State has failed to meet their obligations.  This is a reciprocal obligation so that a national of another Member State can use the courts in their home country to seek redress against a British seller.

As the UK government guidance published in October 2018 shows, from March 2019, in relation to sales of goods, in the event that the goods are sold by a seller in an EU Member State, British consumers will lose access to the online dispute resolution tools, and will no longer be able to seek redress in the UK courts.  Their only option will be to seek redress in the seller’s Member State.  The loss of the enforcement mechanism will affect consumers who have already bought or ordered goods, as disputes arising from that transaction will also have to brought outside of the UK.  Moreover, this will surely come to be a barrier to the future growth of (certainly higher value) consumer sales, across European borders, to UK buyers.  This could mean less choice and potentially higher costs for consumers and it will certainly represent an erosion of consumer rights and consumer confidence in cross border sales.

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