The CJEU, Europe's highest court, was considering German company comtech's use of a premium rate number for its after-sales service. The company advertised a number beginning with 0180 on its website, a type of number that is usually used for support services in Germany.
A German association fighting unfair commercial practices asked the Stuttgart regional court to order comtech to discontinue using the number, saying that it is unfair to consumers. The Stuttgart court then asked the CJEU to interpret the directive on consumer rights.
Under the directive, member states must ensure that a trader provides a telephone line through which it can be contacted about contracts concluded with consumers, and that consumers must not pay more than the basic rate for that call. However, it does not define the concept of the 'basic rate'.
The CJEU said that the concept of the basic rate must be interpreted as meaning that "call charges relating to a contract concluded with a trader to a telephone helpline operated by the trader may not exceed the cost of a call to a standard geographic landline or mobile telephone line".
This reflects everyday language, it said. Both the context in which the concept appears in the directive, and the purpose of the directive, confirm that it must be understood in the ordinary sense of the term, it said.
Allowing traders to charge higher rates would be likely to discourage consumers from using the helpline to obtain information or to assert their rights including those relating to a guarantee or withdrawal, it said.
The trader can still make a profit on the helpline so long as the cost limit is respected, it said.
The UK government put a similar law in place in 2013, ensuring that calls to helplines cost no more than the basic rate.