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European policy initiatives are like London buses. After a long wait, a whole bunch arrives together. But their timing is not so mysterious as with buses. No, Eurocrats are clearing their desks before Christmas, having laboured through the autumn to perfect their product. Now the lobbyists have to sacrifice their Christmas holiday in order to have a response ready for the beginning of negotiations in the new year. One of those which arrived in a clump this week was the alternative dispute resolution package, which has been long expected. It deals with both alternative and online dispute resolution (ADR and ODR), the first via a directive and second via a regulation. If you want an entertaining introduction, you can watch a video of the commissioner for health and consumer policy, John Dalli (from Malta), explaining the background – although you might find his dancing thumbs, which are the Michael Jackson and John Travolta of the thumb world, more alluring than what he says. So let us begin with ADR. The draft Directive aims at ensuring that quality ADR entities exist to deal with contractual disputes arising from the sale of goods and the provision of services by traders. The Directive tackles the three main problem areas. First, there are currently gaps in coverage, and so the Directive tries to ensure that ADR entities are available for all consumer disputes that arise from transactions in the Single Market. Second, there is a lack of awareness and insufficient information, which prevents consumers and businesses from using ADR entities, and so traders will be required in the future to provide consumers with information on which ADR entity is competent to deal with a potential dispute. Traders will also be obliged to inform consumers on whether or not they commit to using ADR in relation to complaints lodged against them. Finally, the Commission is worried about variable quality, since the practices of a significant number of ADR entities are not in line with core principles. So ADR entities will have to respect a number of principles, such as impartiality, transparency, effectiveness and fairness. Competent authorities in the member states will monitor ADR entities and ensure that they function properly. As for ODR, its regulation will enable consumers and traders to access directly an on-line platform which will help to resolve contractual disputes arising from cross-border online transactions, through the intervention of an ADR entity complying with the Directive. The platform will be established by the Commission, and will be directly accessible by consumers and traders, transmitting their complaints to a competent ADR entity in the appropriate member state. It will be an interactive website, accessible in all EU official languages and its use will be free of charge. Its operation will be eased by a network of ODR facilitators. All complaints handled via the platform will need to be dealt with quickly. Therefore, the regulation sets a time limit (usually 30 days) which is shorter than the normal period to resolve an off-line dispute. The platform will also provide information on ADR entities and general information on ADR as a means of out-of-court dispute resolution. These proposals exclude business-to-business ADR. However, the European Commission’s work programme for 2012 foresees a business-to-business ADR instrument being adopted by December 2012, to complement the above proposals. If you are curious as to what else was in the line of buses coming our way this week, the main one was the publication of the Commission’s audit proposals. After much lobbying by the big four, they are lighter on trying to break up the market: joint audits will now be optional rather than mandatory. However, the ban on auditors offering legal services remains, and there is mandatory rotation of auditors. Still to come in the next few weeks: a proposal for amending the Professional Qualifications Directive (2005/36/EC) and a Communication from the Commission setting out their intentions on Collective Redress, both by the end of this year, and on 25 January 2012 proposals for reform of the data protection directive (95/46/EC). Happy Christmas!