It is one of those exasperating things in life we could all do without: chasing after someone who owes us money, or some service or product that failed to materialise. It is time-consuming, complicated and it can end up costing far more than what we are owed. No wonder many of us give up, deciding that it is just not worth the effort.
When it is impossible to resolve matters on our own, with phone calls, emails or visits in person, other options need to be explored.
Sometimes it is good to seek help from consumer groups and other non-profit organisations, who often provide assistance free of charge.
But success is not guaranteed, especially if the dispute is with someone in a different European country.
That was the case with a teacher we met in Estonia, Jelena Kapura, who has been fighting to recover 370 euros lost over the internet.
Five bottles of whisky destined for her husband’s personal collection were never delivered from a shop in The Netherlands.
Consumer groups tried to help but got no response, and the family fears legal steps would cost too much.
Jelena told euronews: “We’re very very angry about it. In fact, we’re ready to buy tickets and go to the Netherlands to meet the shopkeeper. But unfortunately we don’t have that option. We would if we could.
“We’re tired because we write emails all the time, call everywhere, do anything we can. We’re exhausted and upset over losing the money. For our family it’s a large amount, and we’re not happy about it. He got the money and runs his shop as before. We sit here in Estonia and can’t do anything.”
One alternative option in cross-border disputes is not that well-known. Just as individual countries have small claims courts, a European Small Claims Procedure was adopted in 2009. And small is the word: it is only for claims that are worth no more than 2,000 euros.
It is supposed to be a cheaper, faster and easier way of settling disputes. Experts say there may be a fee for the filing of claims abroad, though, and documents may need to be translated.
Kristina Vaksmaa, Director of the European Consumer Centre of Estonia, said: “While in the EU judicial area the small claims procedure has a very big role to play, unfortunately, at the moment in Estonia, it doesn’t work the way it should. It is still not so accessible and affordable for ordinary citizens. They’re not really informed enough about it.
“But in my opinion it’s a very necessary tool for solving cross-border customer complaints, because day after day we meet sellers who don’t cooperate, and the only way for solving the problem is going to court.”
A recent report by the network of European Consumer Centres highlighted areas needing improvement. There is the lack of awareness, with even some judges and courts not knowing about the existence of the European procedure; the possibility of expensive bills for translations; and concern about how judgements are served and enforced.
It is a message delivered loud and clear in Brussels: simplify the way that people can get their hands on what is owed to them.
Estonia is thought to have had only one case under the European Small Claims Procedure. We met the judge who dealt with it and ruled in favour of the consumer. She is hoping the new legal option will catch on.
Meeli Kaur, who is a judge at the Harju County Court, told Right On: “It’s very effective and people should use it more. There is every chance that it will work well, with much less cost. And what makes the procedure quite simple is that the consumer doesn’t have to know all the legal details, to hire a qualified lawyer.”
And that seems to be the main advantage: no lawyer needed, but also the right to file complaints in different countries.
Brussels admits there is work to be done to ensure consumers make full use of the procedure, and says the rules, including the 2000-euro limit, could be revised in the future.
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “However, the European Small Claims Procedure can’t be used in all disputes. For example, the liability of The State and administrative matters are not covered.
Employment law, as well as bankruptcy and similar proceedings, are also not included.
“The same goes for tenancy agreements, except for those involving monetary claims, and social security.
Matrimonial matters, maintenance obligations and inheritance, are also excluded.”
Italy is another country where consumer groups are keen to raise awareness about the procedure. Experts we spoke to there stress the importance of chasing up even the smallest of amounts.
We met a woman who successfully made a complaint over defective tablecloths she bought in France. The price paid was 59 euros. Anna Lo Prete, a resident of Rome, told us the amount was not enough to go to court over, but she was determined to seek help from a consumer organisation.
“I believe the client should always be treated well, not ripped off, let’s say, or brushed off in a rude manner,” she told Right On. “It was awful because they sent me away saying they didn’t believe that it was impossible to spot the problems straight away, that they were probably defective.
“It’s not about the 59 euros that I paid, it’s the principle. The client should always be believed, especially as I had the receipt and the tablecloths with me.”
It was the European Consumer Centre in Rome that managed to settle the matter. It says conciliation is still the most efficient and effective way to solve cross-border disputes, no matter what sum is involved. The emphasis in many countries is also now falling on mediation. But the threat of legal action is still needed to deter the unscrupulous.
Federico Vicari, Director of the European Consumer Centre Italy, told euronews: “The most important thing for consumers who want to live in an environment where rights are respected is to make sure they safeguard themselves.
“Giving up the protection of one’s own rights is what encourages companies that don’t act in a proper way in the market. The main advice we give to consumers is to never give up preserving one’s own rights.”
Maria Pisano, a lawyer at the European Consumer Centre Italy, added: “We don’t have the competence to get involved in legal matters, and our activity is extra-judicial. So when the consumer must take legal action, or they’re determined to go to court, we give them information about this procedure.”
And if the right path is chosen, there is more of a chance that a small claim will result in a big celebration.