Consumer rights explained

For many years, consumer association CIMAAL (Centro de Informação, Medição a Arbitragem de Conflictos de Consumo do Algarve) has helped customers with problems relating to their consumer rights. As The Resident has been receiving more and more calls and e-mails from disgruntled consumers seeking advice on consumer rights issues, we have decided to launch an advice column in conjunction with CIMAAL. Miguel Sengo da Costa, director of the organisation, spoke to us about the association and its role in helping the public.

“CIMAAL is an impartial, government-funded body that helps individuals with consumer goods issues,” he explained. The first law for consumer rights was passed in 1981, but apparently many people did not take advantage of it. “We started our association in 2000,” explains Costa, “to try to raise awareness about consumer rights.”

The lawyers at CIMAAL work as mediators – they are neither on the side of the consumer or the service provider – and an external body regulates their impartiality. Usually the public courts are the only entities in charge of solving conflicts. However, CIMAAL has been given authorisation to deal with small claim disputes. “Many small claims simply do not justify an individual getting caught up in the judicial system in place in Portugal, because it is a long process and, in that situation, people come to us.”

Costa’s cases have ranged from consumers problems with shoes to mobile phones to timeshare disagreements, and he claims that CIMAAL have a good success rate of solving such conflict. “Basically we are here to assist and mediate,” says Costa “however, if after following advice from CIMAAL, the consumer still cannot solve their conflict, then we get directly involved and then two things can happen.”

Firstly, the lawyer assigned to the case will attempt to resolve the conflict by written and spoken conversation, which works to remind both parties involved of the law and what CIMAAL can do within its jurisdiction. “A third party usually works as a way of calming a situation,” Costa commented. “If that is unsuccessful at solving the dispute, then we can go to court.”

Costa explained how CIMAAL has the authority to run small court sessions as a way of resolving conflicts once they have gone passed the mediation stage. This mini-court has one judge and CIMAAL does not have the power to enforce the law; for example, it cannot fine a company for breach of contract. However, the sessions work in the same way as a standard court – the judge’s decision is final and both parties involved have to accept it.

We asked Miguel Costa what the most important things any consumer living or holidaying in Portugal should be aware of. “Firstly, everybody should write everything down. Secondly, the consumer should know their legal rights and how they can act to ensure their rights are not ignored.”

One of the subjects we are most frequently asked about at The Resident is Portugal’s policy on refunds. Costa explained to us that “in Portugal, if a consumer wants to return unsatisfactory goods, the law reads as follows. In the first instance, the consumer who has been supplied with a faulty product – except in cases when the consumer was already aware that it was faulty (seconds etc) – can demand the repair of the goods. If this is not possible, they can ask for its replacement and, only if this is not possible, they can ask for a price reduction or an actual refund to cancel the contract agreement.

However, the law does not say that the consumer can choose which of the alternatives they want from the vendor. It is also a common understanding that the alternatives provided by the law happen in the above order.” Costa stressed that every situation is unique and advice should be sought if there is any confusion about individual consumer rights.

Our first consumer rights queries column will appear in our May 7 edition. So, if you have a consumer problem, e-mail us at [email protected]. Miguel Sengo da Costa can be contacted at CIMAAL on 289 823 135 or e-mail him at [email protected]