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UK shoppers will soon be able to get their own back on dodgy Web sites via a European Commission initiative. The EC is starting a scheme to help consumers settle disputes out of court over items bought abroad – including online purchases. It will target cheaper items, such as CDs or books, and cover problems with deliveries, defective products, or products or services that do not fit their description. The European Extra-Judicial Network (EEJ-net) was launched at a Lisbon conference on Friday. The Network will link member states' Alternative Dispute Resolution schemes, such as ombudsmen and arbitration. It will work via a network of 'clearing houses' created across Europe to act as central greivance-airing points. UK shoppers with complaints would currently find it too much bother or expense to go to court over a dodgy pair of trainers bought over the Net. But the network, optimistically tipped to be working by the second half of this year, will let them make a claim to the relevant out-of-court organisation in any European country via the UK clearing house. According to the EC, the EEJ-net will reduce costs, formalities, time and obstacles such as language problems in cross-border disputes by offering consumers easy access to redress through an out-of-court system." All this sounds too good to be true, especially as UK consumer associations such as the Citizen's Advice Bureau are already overworked and underfunded. "There will be a lot of barriers to overcome - it will need substantial commitment, co-operation, resources and some financial backing," said Eileen Brennan, a principal lawyer at the Consumers Association. "There will need to be co-ordination between member states, and the clearing houses and extra-judicial bodies will all have to work together. "It is a good idea in principle, but it will take a lot to get it off the ground." ®

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