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EC acts for web consumers

Net buyers take law into their own lands

The EC is pushing through a new law, dubbed Rome II, which will allow consumers to sue web businesses in their own country rather than in the country where the website or business is based.

Probably no later than this autumn consumers will be able to use Rome II to request a case against a foreign supplier is heard in their home country, rather than 'the country nearest to the event', which is the vague rule in force now.

This lack of clarity causes extra expense to consumers who must pay lawyers to act as little more than middlemen, debating over where cases should be held.

The EC has decided it will not consult the public further about Rome II, and will instead push the legislation through on a fast track.

"[Companies will] effectively have to cover themselves against the law in 15 states," said Katherine Reed, analyst at Europe-watchers Eurocolumn. "But standard contractual laws between countries are being harmonised anyway."

The E-commerce Directive, adopted 8 June 2000, allows companies to act in any way that is lawful in their own country. But under Rome II the consumer will have the choice of where to sue, so companies trading in Europe will need to act within the law of any country they sell into.

Businesses are, unsurprisingly, up in arms over the proposals.

"The mere threat of Rome II, and the legal uncertainty it promises, is already deterring some companies from opening e-commerce operations," said Thomas Vinje, partner at US law firm Morrison & Foerster.

The Consumers Association seems to think these are just crocodile tears.

"There is no conflict between the directive and the [proposed Law]," said Ajay Patel, a lawyer at the Consumers Association. "Companies are quick to jump up and complain but [I think this] is just tactical."

Providing the EC is as quick at harmonisation as it is at passing law then any confusion for businesses should soon be resolved.

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