A recent investigation by the BBC revealed an alarming lack of understanding of the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 amongst both consumers and businesses.

The regulations govern goods or services sold by businesses via the internet, digital TV, mail order, phone or fax and provide consumers with clear rights when buying via these methods and thus impose legal obligations on any business (that’s most of you) offering their goods or services almost anywhere other than a traditional retail shop.

As a business plying your trade online the key features of the regulations to remember are:

  1. The need to provide consumers with clear information. This includes accurate details of the goods or services you are offering but also includes and delivery and payment arrangements.
    2. This information must also be supplied in writing
    3. The consumer has a cooling-off period of seven working days during which they can return the goods.

This last point was the one raised in the recent BBC investigation re-affirming the right of the consumer to a full refund including the initial delivery charge if  they inform the supplier they want to return product before the cooling-off period begins. You need to bear this in mind in any cost projections and administrative procedures, etc.

That’s not all there are various other pieces of law that you need to abide by when selling online. The Financial Services (Distance Marketing) Regulations 2004, Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Amendment Regulations 2005, The The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 and Electronic Signatures Regulations 2002 probably all impose some sort of requirement upon your business.

Bear in mind that the various pieces online selling legislation are only part of your obligations of selling online – other laws covering more traditional methods also apply to those using the internet too. For example the Sale of Goods Act 1979 gives purchasers rights about the quality of goods they receive and their rights if they fail to reach certain standards. The Consumer Credit Act 2006 may also apply when consumers enter into an agreement for credit facilities of any kind, including when they pay for goods or services using a credit card.

The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations 1994 protect consumer’s entering into contracts with businesses and there are also many other pieces of legislation affecting the sale of specific services and / or services.

While setting up online can be simple, there is a potential legal minefield if you are new to it. The best advice is always to seek professional legal advice. It might appear costly – although many law firms  offer an initial consultation free – but may prove cost effective in the long run. You can find a local solicitor via The Law Society, their governing body.