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Sean Hooker's Blog - A Train, a Tunnel and some Belgian Waffle

It is sometimes easy to lose track of time and forget how far you have come along a particular road. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that I have received so many congratulations via Linkedin on the fourth anniversary of my formal appointment as Head of Redress at the PRS.

June 2014 - We had received the authorisation to operate the scheme, we had a deadline of October 1st 2014 for when the legislation relating to letting agents went live and we had a lot of work to do.

As we all know, the rest is history and the PRS is now a thriving part of the good governance of the property market and has had both a positive effect on raising standards and protecting consumers.

I have had a very good team around me for these past four years and also support from the industry and our members. For this I am grateful and thank you all.

My anniversary coincided with me attending the very first Europe wide conference on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and this was attended by delegates from the EU and also from Norway. The ADR Assembly was being hosted by the European Commission who have done a lot of work on consumer protection and see it as a primary priority.

I therefore proceeded to make my way to Brussels for the event and was reminded of actually how close Europe is to us. I boarded the EuroStar at St Pancras and two hours later emerged in the centre of the Belgian capital. Now given that I attended the North of Tyne Letting Agent Event the week before, which was organised by Newcastle City, North Tyneside and Northumberland County councils and it took a good four hours traveling to get there, I think this clearly proves the point.

Over 400 delegates attended the event across a very wide range of sectors and all were approved bodies authorised to provide dispute resolution under the ADR Directive.

As a reminder, this was the requirement to incorporate in to our law that all traders are obliged to signpost their consumers to an approved ADR body in the event that they cannot resolve their complaint.

The Consumer Right Act 2015 laid the ground and regulations implemented the directive. We are also signed up to online directives which cover goods and services purchased by EU citizens over the internet. Between them, the law covers every trader, from those selling sweets to those selling cars and is intended that any citizen across Europe has access to redress, regardless of the country they are in or if they engage in cross border transactions via the web. Now, here’s the thing - the law does not make membership of a scheme compulsory as it is for letting and estate agents, but essentially why would a trader not use, or join, a redress scheme if they are obliged to tell their customers about it anyway?

Imagine the reaction of a customer being told by you “There is an independent body that could have helped you with your complaint, but we have opted out of using it. Thank you for your custom!” Not sure they would be back in your shop too soon!
 
Saying this, the awareness by both traders and consumers, the compliance and enforcement of the law in the country is quite poor and whilst our scheme in the property sector has been a great success, many other sectors are light years behind us.

I was therefore interested in learning about the experiences of other countries; in how effective their attempts have been in engaging in the culture of dispute resolution. The European Commission have, in support of the initiative, developed what is known as the Online Dispute Resolution platform, where consumers across Europe can raise complaints across borders and for products bought on the internet. This has been running for several years now and has had over six and half million website visits and handled 68,000 complaints. These figures sound impressive, however when you consider how many people live in the EU (about half a billion) the project has a long way to go.

Over the two days the European Commission, gathered evidence, opinion and ideas from the delegates on how to improve the awareness, effectiveness and delivery of dispute resolution and amongst the ideas discussed was setting up sectorial cross border networks that share best practice and cooperate in helping deal with disputes by citizens from one country who transact with another.

I am certainly looking to explore whether other countries have property sector dispute resolution in the same way we do and I had a good chat with the Dutch body that does that role in their country.

I also see us working within the framework of the ADR legislation to encourage and expand the benefits of the compulsory agent requirements to a wider range of property professionals. We already accept these companies on a voluntary basis but under the directive they really do need to signpost to an ADR body - and that should be us.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus aptly pointed out, “everything changes but change itself”, so it was not a big surprise that one pressing topic that came up in conversation with my fellow European’s was the question, what will happen with the UK with regards to the future of cross border ADR after Brexit? Some of the impact is kind of predictable, given what we already know, because solutions are being mooted or in the pipeline but most is still up in the air and of course there will be many unforeseen consequences. To quote or misquote Harold Macmillan, “events, Dear Boy events” are the biggest disrupter to any industry and the proverbial crystal ball has never been a scientific way of planning the future. The journey has only just begun and there is a long way to go. So in true US presidential style, here’s to four more years!

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Property Redress Scheme is approved by Government under the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015