The consumer arbitration system in Spain (Sistema Arbitral de Consumo) is an instrument enabling the effective and rapid resolution of disputes between consumers and companies or professionals concerning consumer products and services. It is regulated by the royal decree 1/2007 (articles 57 and 58) regarding the new law for consumer’s defence and the royal decree 231/2008 specifically regulates the consumer arbitration system.
A large majority of consumer disputes can be solved through this system, nevertheless the cases outside the scope of arbitration are:
- When there is already a previous judicial resolution
- When the parties have no power or right to dispose of the product or service
- When there is a case of poisoning, injury, death or any evidence of a crime.
In practice the parties in conflict will voluntarily entrust an arbitration body that will impartially, independently and confidentially resolve any conflict. Even though the procedure is considered extra judicial, the final decision by the arbitration body will have the same effects as a tribunal sentence. The procedure is fast as it will not last for more than 6 months from the beginning of the arbitration.
The Arbitration bodies
The administration of the procedure will be in charge of an Arbitration board (junta arbitrale) which will designate an arbitration body (organo arbitrale). It is this arbitration body who will study the case and pass sentence.
There are at present 71 arbitration boards in Spain ranging from municipal to provincial, regional and national authority.
The procedure starts once the arbitration board has checked that the procedure is possible and that both parties accept that the conflict will be resolved in this way.
The arbitration body is composed of people specifically trained for these types of conflicts. Depending on the case, the body can be composed of a single person or by three people designated respectively by the public administration, a consumer association and a business organization.
The first step is to fill in an arbitration request form. The form can be filed with the arbitration board directly, through a lawyer or through a consumer association. The choice of the specific arbitration board can be challenging. If there are no specific requests from the parties, the administration board in charge will be the one corresponding to the consumer’s domicile.
As mentioned before the arbitration board will check first if the dispute can be resolved through consumer arbitration, as there will be cases in which the dispute will have to be resolved through the legal system. If the company or the professional is already integrated into the Spanish arbitration system, the procedure will start immediately. If the company is not integrated an acceptance request will be sent to the company. The company or the professional will have 15 days to accept the resolution through arbitration. After this time, or if the company decline the invitation, the dispute will have to be resolved by other means as the arbitration has to be accepted by both parties. If the company accepts the invitation the procedure can start.
In the second step the arbitration board will designate a mediator who will try to settle the dispute. The mediation cannot last for more than a month.
If the mediation attempt fails the arbitration board will designate the arbitration body.
3) Arbitration Body formation
A sole arbitrator will be designated if:
- Both parties agree
- The quantity in dispute is less than 300€
- The dispute is simple and straightforward
The arbiter is normally designated by the public administration unless the parties agree to a specific accredited arbiter.
For all other cases three arbiters will be designated: one by the public administration (who will act as the president) and the two others by each party. If the topic is very specialized the two parties can agree on a different president. This often happens when the dispute involves a public entity, putting in question the impartiality of an arbiter designated by the public administration.
4) The hearings
Throughout the procedure the arbiters will hear the parties after examining documents and evidence. At any time before the end of the hearing the parties will be able to submit additional evidence, documentation, reply to questions and modify or extend the claim.
The arbiters will be able to choose the evidence that they find appropriate. Any costs regarding the evidence (laboratory analysis costs for example) will be the responsibility of the party submitting the evidence.
Similarly to a tribunal sentence, the arbitration body will pass sentence that will resolve the conflict. The sentence will carry the same weight as a judicial sentence.
If the parties reach an agreement during the procedure, the arbitration body will finalize the agreement as sentence, calling it a “conciliatory sentence” (laudo conciliatorio).
As with a tribunal sentence the parties can appeal the sentence and they have two months to do so.
Arbitration in short
Going through an arbitration procedure can be an advantage as the dispute can be resolved fairly quickly. If the amount of money claimed is high it might be beneficial to get the help of a lawyer, especially if Spanish is not the native language of the claimant. As always, the work dedicated to preparing the argumentation and the evidence is of capital importance.
Consumer arbitration is becoming more and more popular especially in cases involving the travel industry. It is important to note that the arbitration system can be used in transnational conflicts within the European Union. In these cases it will be necessary to contact the “European Consumer Centre in Spain” and the procedure will be very similar.