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Helping consumers seek redress: Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) schemes or out-of-court mechanisms as they are also known have been developed across Europe to help citizens who have a consumer dispute but who have been unable to reach an agreement directly with the trader. ADR schemes usually use a third party such as an arbitrator, mediator or an ombudsman to help the consumer and the trader reach a solution.

The advantage of ADR is that it offers more flexibility than going to court and can better meet the needs of both consumers and professionals. Compared to going to court these schemes are cheaper, quicker and more informal which means they are an attractive means for consumers seeking redress.

However, these out-of-court mechanisms have been developed differently across the European Union. Some are the fruit of public initiatives both at central level (such as the consumer complaints boards in the Scandinavian countries) and at local level (such as the arbitration courts in Spain), or they may spring from private initiatives (such as the mediators/ombudsmen of the banks or insurance companies). Precisely because of this diversity, the status of the decisions adopted by these bodies differs greatly. Some are mere recommendations (such as in the case of the Scandinavian consumer complaints boards and most of the private ombudsmen), others are binding only on the professional (as in the case of most of the bank ombudsmen); and others are binding on both parties (arbitration).

The Commission has been active in promoting the development of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Two Recommendations adopted by the European Commission have established quality criteria that each ADR scheme should offer to its users. In addition, the Commission’s proposal for a European Directive on Mediation in Civil and Commercial Matters aims to ensure a sound relationship between the mediation process and judicial proceedings, by establishing common EU rules on a number of key aspects of civil procedure. Finally, the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net) provides consumers with information and assistance in accessing an appropriate ADR scheme in another Member State.

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