13 January 2006
The Social and Economic Council’s Committee for Consumer Affairs (CCA) supports the European Commissions’ proposal to introduce a small claims procedure at European level. The CCA recommends, however, that the procedure should only be used in cross-border disputes, as the European Union has no authority to resolve domestic disputes. The small claims procedure will offer an alternative to existing legal proceedings at national level. The European procedure is much simpler, faster and cheaper than the procedure for settling small claims in the Netherlands via the subdistrict court.
These are the comments made in an advisory report issued by the CCA on 13 January 2006. The report was requested by the Dutch Minister of Justice, Piet Hein Donner, and the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade, Karien van Gennip, on 7 June 2005.
The CCA believes that the small claims procedure should cover both consumer and commercial disputes. In the CCA’s view, small businesses have as much trouble protecting their rights as consumers. Electronic tools
The European small claims procedure is a written procedure, unless the court deems an oral hearing necessary. According to the CCA, written procedures are particularly convenient when the relevant parties are located far away from the court. Audio, video or e-mail conferences offer important communication channels in such cases. The European Commission should furthermore investigate whether, in addition to the written procedure, cases can be dealt with entirely in electronic form, without written documents or bailiffs being required.
The CCA believes that the Dutch sub-district courts should adjudicate in the small claims procedure, as courts at this level are already familiar with consumer disputes. In keeping with the limits imposed on the competency of the sub-district court, the procedure would apply for claims of up to EUR 5,000. The Commission is proposing a ceiling of EUR 2,000.
The financial barrier to the European procedure should not be too steep, warns the CCA, but a small court registry fee should be charged in order to weed out hopeless cases in advance. Excessive interpreting and translation costs must also be avoided, as the CCA believes that the expense will undermine the success of the European procedure.
The CCA also feels it is vital for the courts to render their decisions within
six months. Domestic disputes
It is surprising that consumers do not have access to a similarly simple, fast and inexpensive procedure for domestic disputes. The Consumer Authority that is to be set up in late 2006 will, moreover, deal with both cross-border and domestic consumer complaints. The CCA will therefore be considering the desirability of a small claims procedure for domestic disputes in the Netherlands, including the relationship between such a procedure and the disputes committees. Whatever happens, the CCA believes that consumers should have easier access to the national courts as soon as possible.