Procedures For External Dispute Resolution Under the Bulgarian Consumer Protection LawWhat is an alternative dispute resolution of consumer disputes and what are its advantages?

Procedures for external dispute resolution under the Bulgarian Consumer Protection Law.

With the latest amendments of the Bulgarian Consumer Protection Law published in issue 57 of SG on 28 July 2015, for the consumers was introduced one more procedure to resolve disputes out of Court related to obligations arising from buying goods or services (consumer contracts). Thus, besides to the conciliation committees and mediators at the Commission for Consumer Protection is added the possibility for referring the dispute to the authorities for alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

As the name of the new Section II of Chapter Nine suggests this is an alternative for the consumers, which aims to resolve disputes more quickly and cheaper out of court. Thus the Bulgarian legislator puts the basis for an easy accessible by consumers and traders online platform for solving national and cross-border disputes in accordance with Regulation (EU) 534/2013.
The changes are a result of European Commission's intent to stimulate and increase the online purchases of goods and services within the European Union by ensuring more accessible protection in case of disputes.

National dispute is "any dispute arising in connection with a contract for sale or provision of services, which at the time when the consumer orders goods or services resides in the same Member-State in which the trader is established."

Cross-border dispute is "any dispute arising in connection with a contract for sale or provision of services, which at the time when the consumer orders goods or services resides in a Member-State different from the country where the trader is established. "

From the scope of ADR are excluded, those exhaustively listed in Art. 181b cases.
For the consumers easiness a complete list of ADR bodies approved by the Minister of Economy is published on the Ministry's website and it provides information regarding the authority name, contact details, possible fees, possible languages of the procedure, the scope of the dispute, whether the procedure is attendance or not and the way for conducting it, whether there are rejection conditions of the dispute and the binding nature of the authority decision.

Except in that list, consumers can easily find which is the competent ADR body through information provided on the website of the trader itself against whom the complaint is field and also on the Commission for Consumer Protection website. In the case of cross-border disputes on the website of the European Commission is published a list of recognized ADR bodies of the EU Member-States, what's more - the European Consumer Centre at the Commission for Consumer Protection assists the consumers to gain access to the ADR body of another Member - State of EU which is competent to examine the cross-border dispute.
The authorities for ADR disputes respect in their work the expertise, independence, impartiality, transparency, efficiency, fairness, freedom and legality and shall maintain an updated website which guarantees the parties' easy access to the information and to the ADR procedure without being obliged to use the services of an attorney.
The ADR body must also give the consumer an opportunity to submit a complaint in the place where it is established, by mail, fax or other means (offline), to ensure an opportunity for information exchange between the parties via electronic means or when applicable, by mail and to provide the specified in Art. 181e information that should be easily accessible and understandable for the consumers.

Art. 181d, para 5 specifies the cases in which the ADR body may refuse to reject the dispute.

The final act, with which the ADR procedure ends can be a proposal for a decision, imposing a solution or organizing a discussion between the parties in order to help find a solution by mutual agreement.
In cases when the ADR authority resolves a dispute between the consumer and the trader by imposing a decision, the decision is binding if the parties have previously been informed of its mandatory nature and have explicitly consented it.

The law explicitly states that "when consumers and traders conclude an agreement for dispute resolution by an ADR body before a concrete dispute has arisen between them, and it deprives the consumer of the possibility of judicial remedy, this agreement does not bind the consumer."

The ADR procedure is not a prerequisite and it does not deprive the consumer of the possibility of judicial remedy.
The same principle is valid for the existing and still alternative procedure for resolving consumer disputes by the conciliation committees at the Commission for Consumer Protection as well as by the mediators on service in theon Commission and who support the voluntary settlement of disputes.
The Conciliation Committees are general and sectoral and they resolve disputes between consumers and traders only once with making a conciliatory proposal.
The General Conciliation Committees contribute to solving national and cross-border disputes between consumers and traders for the sale of goods and service contracts, including those in connection with the warranty, the right to claim for goods or services, unfair contract terms, unfair commercial practices, providing essential information, travel services and contracts concluded with consumers. They consider also disputes between consumers and traders in the sectors of the economy where there is no authority for ADR.
The Sectoral Conciliation Committees consider national and cross-border disputes between consumers and traders in the following economic sectors: energy, water supply and sanitation services, electronic communications and postal services, transport and financial services.
The seat and territory of the general and sectoral conciliation committees can be found on the websites of the Ministry of Economy and the Commission on Consumer Protection.
The principles of the activity of the committees are the same as those of ADR bodies and their duty is to promote alternative dispute resolution, to provide any information on the possible ways and competent authorities for this purpose.
A prerequisite for submission of the dispute to the relative committee is an unsuccessful attempt to resolve it directly between the parties. The consumers application and the accompanying documents can be submitted in writing, by email or online via the website of the Commission for Consumer Protection.

The conciliation proceedings are non attendance and the exchange of documents can be performed online, on the desk in the Commission for Consumer Protection, by mail or by fax.
The proceedings end with a conciliation proposal, which if confirmed by the parties has the force of an agreement between them and its failure is a reason for the dispute before the court. Moreover, the parties can make the approved agreement enforceable by the approval of the competent court.

This latest amendments of the Consumer Protection Law are a response to the requirements of Regulation (EU) 534/2013 and aim at ensure a more accessible and immediate consumer protection in case of infringement of their rights not only at national level but also within EU. This will undoubtedly stimulate the online business and the stipulation of cross-border consumer contracts.

Sabina Popova

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