Someone buys a new mattress online. A simple enough transaction. But what if they then return the product within 14 days? They have tried the mattress out for a few nights and don’t like it. The seller can’t really put it back on the market as a ‘new’ product. Cleaning it would cost money and detract even further from its newness. Besides, who’s going to foot the bill? For Charlotte Pavillon, it is issues like these that make consumer law so fascinating.
Text: Gert Gritter / Photo: © Reyer Boxem
This is a real-life example. The consumer in question had bought the mattress for around € 1,000 via the website of an online German trader and had already removed the packaging. The shop refused to give the buyer a refund, invoking European directives. The case was brought before the European Court, which ruled in the buyer’s favour.
Charlotte Pavillon, born in 1980, is Professor of Consumer Law at the UG. ‘Under the right of withdrawal, you can return a product you’ve purchased online within 14 days’, she explains. She reaches for the Dutch Civil Code and turns straight to the relevant article. ‘However, that doesn’t apply to sealed products that the buyer has opened and possibly even used, in cases where – and I quote – “health and hygiene good practice” may be compromised as a result. The Court found that mattresses do not fall under this ruling. They argued that nobody refuses to sleep on a hotel bed even though the chances are that hundreds of other people have already slept on it. So, this situation didn’t necessarily constitute the compromising of health and hygiene requirements. It’s similar to people ordering clothes online, trying them on at home and then returning them. Not that the system is failproof: there are always those people who order a dress for a special occasion, wear it for one evening and then send it back.’
Consumer law is a dynamic field. New services and products are entering the market all the time. ‘Take platforms like Airbnb and Uber, but also social media. If you use the “free” services that Facebook offers, you “pay” for them with information about yourself and your network. But what happens if you stop using Facebook?’ Pavillon is also interested in the impact that consumption has on society and on the environment. ‘In the neighbourhood where I live, delivery vans are coming and going all the time, delivering or collecting parcels. It makes you wonder what impact online shopping is having on the number of kilometres driven. Do you really need to order 10 pairs of trousers to try on and then send nine back? Perhaps we should be asking critical questions about the appropriateness of the right to return an online purchase within 14 days. Online shops are already starting to present their products more clearly on internet, but I think consumer law might also have a role to play in making consumption more sustainable.’
Pavillon sees it as her task to make both consumers and sellers aware of their rights and obligations. ‘People need better protection. That includes the self-employed: in terms of legal knowhow and negotiating powers, they are in a similar position to consumers, and that makes them easy prey for stronger, unscrupulous parties.’ She is in favour of better protecting the rights of consumers, who are often the weaker party, by increasing government funding for supervisory authorities and the courts. It is worth noting that many of the rules that offer protection against unlawful practices are EU rules. ‘They are no help if you order something from outside the EU, let’s say from the Chinese internet company Alibaba. That’s just one of the many privileges that the British will lose after Brexit. Another is mobile telephone rates: the Brits will soon be paying a lot more to make international calls.’
What is she like herself as a consumer? As you might expect, if she’s involved in a dispute, the other party is set to lose. ‘I usually win,’ she smiles. 'Whenever you make a purchase, whether it’s online or not, you should keep all the correspondence and receipts. If I buy something online myself and see that the packaging is damaged when the product is delivered (which means that the contents might also be damaged), I take a photo of the parcel straight away, preferably with the delivery person. That’s my evidence. And I take a photo when I open the package as well, just in case something turns out to be missing. I know that if there is a conflict, the court’s decision will be based on the evidence gathered.’
Pavillon has both Dutch and French nationality and is fully bilingual. Her father is French, and her mother is Dutch. Her parents live in Nice, where she also lived as a child. But she also has strong Dutch roots – Groningen roots, even. She admits, not without pride, to being a descendant of the Van Erp family, founders of the well-known Groningen-based off-licence chain. Her grandmother lived in the courtyard in the Oude Kijk in ’t Jatstraat in the centre of the city. She often visited Groningen as a child, and remembers it as a pleasant, lively place, not least because of all the students. She attended secondary school in France but decided at the age of 17 to move to Groningen to study. ‘My parents didn’t find that easy, but it helped that my grandmother was there to keep an eye on me. You could say she was my chaperone. I often went to her home to drink coffee and enjoyed four more years with her until she died.’ The fond memories bring a smile to Pavillon’s face.
Pavillon did not follow the most direct route to becoming a lawyer. Initially, she studied International Relations and International Organization at the UG from 1998 to 2004. Her placement took her to the European Integration Department within the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just as 10 new member states were joining the EU. She witnessed the process of legal harmonization at first hand, as the national laws of all those countries were brought into line with EU law. She was struck by the impact that this process had on consumers. That was when she decided to embark on a part-time degree programme in European and international law, also at the UG. She graduated in 2005 with distinction, gained her PhD in 2011 and became a full professor in 2018.
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