How does the law protect consumers who are minors?

Minors are becoming more and more important economic actors, in particular thanks to the development of new technologies. Business companies and advertisers have understood very well the profits to be made from these changes. A doctorate thesis (1) by Aurélie Nottet, an assistant at the University of Liège, analyses if the laws have been adapted in order to protect these most vulnerable consumers.

COVER conso mineurBuying online in a few clicks, paying by text message, having bank cards since adolescence, etc. Everything has been set up in our consumer society to facilitate the spending of money by minors, a sector of the population particularly subjected to advertising campaigns. Faced with this modern phenomenon, it is to the Civil Code of 1804 that one must go to find one of the main provisions in law protecting the consumer who is a minor. The Napoleonic code allows a minor to enter into a contact or incur, and thus to buy consumer goods, as long as s/he has not suffered a “loss” because of  the act of acquisition, in other words that the purchase remains acceptable in relation to his/her financial means and his/her interests (2). If the purchase is disproportionate, the parents of the minor have the right to go back to the vendor with the bought item and demand that the sum spent is reimbursed. If the vendor refuses the parents can ask that the contract is annuled by juridical process.

This concept of a ‘loss’, which is a flexible notion, is valuable and intelligent,’ stresses Aurélie Nottet, an Assistant in the University of Liège. ‘The ‘loss’ for a six year old child is not the same as that for a youth of seventeen. A minor aged six could buy a packet of sweets or an ice cream whilst one of seventeen could certainly buy him/herself reasonably priced clothes. On the other hand, when a minor returns home with a new mobile home or a computer, when the parents had not agreed to such a purchase, it is in their interest to return to the shop and try to come to an amicable arrangement with the shopkeeper. If the object has been used or damaged the shopkeeper will doubtless refuse to reimburse it and it will be necessary to commence legal proceedings.’

Parents are nevertheless rarely aware of the possibility of undertaking legal proceedings in such cases and rarely want to commit to such a process. ‘When a child goes shopping on a Wednesday afternoon and spends 300 Euros, the parents are shocked, but they won’t go so far as demanding the purchases to be cancelled as the legal case will cost them a lot of money and time,’ continues Aurélie Nottet. ‘Businesses know that and thus have no scruples in doing business with a minor, even if they sometimes have doubts if they are acting in contravention of the minor’s interests, and are thus in breach of the law. Most of the examples of jurisprudence date from a time when majority was reached at the age of 21 years, before 1990. We at the time thus had minors who are ‘older’ than today, certain of whom were already within active life. It thus occurred that parents drew on their status as lacking legal competence to demand the legal invalidity of exaggerated and extravagant acts, such as the purchase of a luxury car.’

A ban on adverts which are too pushy

The European directive which outlaws unfair commercial practices can also be used to protect consumers who are minors. Implemented into Belgian law in 2007, it in particular bans advertising which directly exhorts minors to buy or to persuade their parents to buy goods or services. ‘Direct exhortation includes the most oppressive adverts, very ‘heavy’, which address the child familiarly, such as ‘call this number quickly’ or ‘impress all your mates.’ As far as persuading parents is concerned, it for example involves formulae such as ‘ask your Mother to go and buy such or such a new doll,’ adds the author of the thesis. In 2008 the Audiovisual Council reprimanded the television channel Club-RTL, following the broadcasting of an advert encouraging children to telephone St. Nicolas via an overcharged number (3). The editor, the TVI Corporation, was obliged to broadcast an official statement detailing the breach. Read the box about advertising for Saint-Nicolas.

(1)  Le consommateur mineur. Analyse juridique de la protection d'une personne doublement vulnérable, doctoral thesis, University of Liège.

(2) Article 1305 of the Civil Code.

(3) ‘On December 6 the children’s festival with St-Nicolas will take place, and once again he has many presents for you. Ask your Mum or Dad to call with you 0900/21.XXX and you will be able to talk face to face to the wonderful St-Nicolas. If you have been very good you will certainly receive a great present. Don’t hesitate any longer and call St-Nicolas straightaway on 0900/21.XXX.’

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