Review of the Consumer Protection Laws

Study highlights gaps in consumer protection laws and redress

The Council through the financial assistance from the European Union commissioned a review of consumer protection laws and redress mechanisms in Fiji in August this year. The objective of the review is to assess the effectiveness of current legislations, redress and enforcement arrangements. This exercise hopes to set out options for legislative reform aimed at giving consumers, businesses and regulators a clear, simple, more flexible and affordable legal regime. The review is being conducted by Indian consultant Shirish Deshpande who has more than 30 years of experience in consumer protection and advocacy. The first phase of the review involved a desk study of the current legislations where many shortcomings were highlighted: Some of these are:

 

Small Claims Tribunal Act

• SCT Act empowers the Minister to dis-establish the SCT at any time;

• The Referees on SCT have no specific qualification thus are not adequately trained;

• Speedy and inexpensive remedy of SCT being exploited by the business sectors for it’s commercial gains; and

• SCT orders are not complied in many cases (29%) so most claimants withdraw their claims considering time and money involved in the process;

Recommendation: Set minimum qualifications for referees and provide adequate training and continuing education for them. Also work out an effective system of serving documents on respondents to avoid delays.

Second-hand Dealers Act

• Does not have provision for lodging complaints regarding second-hand goods purchase;and

• Does not mention protection in the form ofguarantee/warranty for goods purchased, and price charged except for buyer’s right to obtain a receipt.

Recommendation: Act should be supplemented by the proposed Consumer Protection Act to include protection of consumers of second-hand goods.

Fair Rents Act / Distress for Rent Act

• Both Acts are unclear on the regulatory authorities responsible for their enforcement; and

• Number of tenant complaints is significantly high and clear indication that both these laws and redress machineries are not effective; 

Recommendation: Both Acts needs to be replaced by a comprehensive piece of legislation protecting interests of both tenants and landlords.

Consumer Credit Act- 1999

• While the Act aims to provide adequate protection to the debtors/consumers from credit providers, remedy for seeking protection and compensation passes through civil court which is cumbersome, lengthy

and expensive; and

• Consumers are confused who to approach for redress as there is no proper enforcement authority;

Recommendation: To provide a simple, inexpensive and speedy redress machinery. The proposed consumer protection act should provide necessary relief.

Sale of Goods Act

• Does not have an effective, inexpensive and speedy remedy for redress of consumer complaints about goods and services bought;

• Act states the definition of ‘consumer sale’ but the definition of ‘consumer’ is not there; and

• Though the Act has numerous services, public utilities such as transport, and communication

are not mentioned.

Recommendation: Act must include a definition of a “consumer”. The implied conditions and warranties listed in the Act may be included in the proposed Consumer Protection  Act.

Real Estate Agent Act-2006

• The Act does not provide for any specific machinery to claim compensation from either registered or unregistered Real Estates Agents in case of any loss suffered; and

• Need for an effective machinery to claim compensation for consumers who suffer loss.

Money Lenders Act-1939

• Lack of awareness amongst the borrowers on their rights under the Act;

• Large number of complaints on exorbitant interest charged to borrowers; and

• While there are several breaches of Act such as exorbitant interest rates and illegal money lending no cases have been filed by the Registrar in the past 30 years.

Recommendation: The Act should be strictly implemented and the possibility of merging it with Consumer Credit Act should also be examined.

Proposed Consumer Protection Act of Fiji

• Should have a code on consumer rights and responsibilities;

• Be one-stop shop with simple, inexpensive and speedy redress machinery;

• Have a Consumer Tribunal with chairperson from judiciary (sitting or retired) and two other non-judicial members (like SCT referees), with informal and non intimidating

proceedings;

• Lawyers not permitted;

• Provide redress on complaints in 3 months;

• Nominal fees payable;

• Strict compliance of orders;

• Allow only one appeal on limited grounds; and

• Levy penalty to consumer for misuse.

Powers of Consumer Tribunal

• To order repair, replacement or refund for defective products;

• To order removal of deficiency in service or issue work order;

• To award compensation for loss or injury suffered by consumers and cost;

• To award punitive damages in appropriatecases

• To entertain class action cases;

• To grant interim relief/injunctions;

• To order withdrawal of defective products from market; and

• To order withdrawal of offending / misleading or deceptive advertisements and further direct corrective advertisements.