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On our behalf

Sailosi Batiratu
Saturday, December 08, 2012

THERE are in all 20 of them based in Suva, Lautoka and Labasa and they exist for all of us. They are driven by a passion to provide adequate redress for consumers who may have been hard done by.

And to further their efforts to raise consumers' awareness on their rights and responsibilities, they recently held a symposium.

As manager EU projects at the Consumer Council of Fiji, Bindula Prasad, said regarding the symposium: "From our complaints handling at the council, we realised there are many consumers who are not much aware of their rights and responsibilities, and the redress mechanisms that are available in Fiji.

"For instance we have the Legal Practitioners Unit where the lawyers could be basically taken to task if consumers have grievances against lawyers who have been cheating on them.

"We also have the Dental and Medical Secretariat. There is also the Pharmacy Board that is required to deal with complaints against pharmacies or pharmaceutical products."

Bindula said consumers knew of the Consumer Council (of Fiji) but were not aware of the other consumer protection agencies or CPAs.

So how many CPAs are there?

At Bindula's count there is the Commerce Commission, Small Claims Tribunal (SCT), Weights and Measures with the Trade MInistry with the Reserve Bank of Fiji but the RBF is more a regulator. So there are effectively three.

She says the council has a 65-70 per cent success rate in dealing with complaints. They sometimes mediate successfully without documentary evidence. This happens when the service provider is as she puts it, "not too difficult".

By documentary evidence she means hire-purchase agreement, default notice, evidence of payment repossession notice and any other documents needed for the mediation of a complaint.

To better serve consumers, the council is proposing that there be a financial ombudsman or an in­d­ependent financial commission that can basically deal with issues relating to financial institutions.

"Secondly we are proposing a consumers' tribunal to deal with consumer complaints only. This would be different from the Small Complaints Tribunal even though they will be similar in structure," says Bindula. "The purpose of the consumer tribunal will be to ensure consumers have the liberty to institute complaints on their own." She says the SCT has more complaints from traders than from consumers.

She says setting up the tribunal doesn't mean consumers will come to it.

"We have to make the consumers aware, we have to raise awareness on why the consumer tribunal is important, why consumers should go to this tribunal and not to civil courts.

"Now the consumer tribunal will be speedy in nature, informal — not intimidating, non-legalistic in nature …it will be only for consumers. The fees will be nominal. Those are some of the things we are focusing on in the proposal to set up such a tribunal.

"A report has been done by our consultant from India, Shirish Deshpande, …we have had consultations, we have had workshops, on to one meetings and he has done a report which was published earlier this year.

"In his report one of the recommendations was to have that consumers' tribunal."

Describing the proposed body Bindula said: "They will basically make a decision. It will be binding on the parties.

"There will be two tribunals. There will be a consumer complaints tribunal and there will be a national consumer complaints tribunal.

"The consumer complaints tribunal will deal with any complaint below $5000.

"The national consumer complaints tribunal will have two benches, an original bench and appellate bench.

"The original bench will deal with complaints above $5000 and no upper limit. The appellate bench will hear appeals from the consumer complaints tribunal and national consumer complaints tribunal original bench."

The consumer complaints tribunal will be single-person, a qualified lawyer.

"The original bench will have three people, one chairman and two members. The chairman will be a sitting or retired magistrate. The remaining two members may or may not be lawyers as the chair is a magistrate.

"The appellate bench will have a president and two other members. The president will be a sitting or retired high court judge. The other two members do not necessarily have to be lawyers."

She said reasonable cost would be set by the chief justice who would draw up the regulations.

"At Small Claims Tribunal the filing fees is $5.75. For the consumer tribunal, it will be close to that. It may not be $5.75 but it will be reasonable."

This does not include the fees for a review, appeal or other matters the tribunals may be asked to look into.

She stressed there was nothing certain as it is all in the proposal stage.

Bindula says consumers are now more aware of their rights and responsibilities than they were five years ago.

"From our weekly features in the dailies, I think they know what to do. This is why we are receiving calls from concerned consumers regarding their rights.

"When it comes to credit purchases, they are more aware of it now because we are talking about it. Before they wouldn't have known about it in regards to buying on hire purchase, buying a motor vehicle, buying white goods.

"So from all the work by our mobile unit …symposiums, we realise people are aware that if their rights are breached, this is what they are supposed to do. So they come to the council and we try to mediate based on the evidence they provide. If we are not able to mediate, we refer them to the appropriate organisation for a solution. These are the consumer protection agencies (CPAs) like the Commerce Commission, Small Claims Tribunal, Reserve Bank of Fiji."

She said the symposium had been organised under an EU project. Its main aim was to get speakers from organisations that allowed for consumers' redress to come up with an outline of how they were providing this service. It was a mixed forum with people from the business community, NGOs, faith-based organisations, credit providers and financial institutions.

Questioned on the success of thew symposium, she said: "Now we will have to see if these institutions provide redress in a much more effective way.

"We will only be able to measure the success of these institutions only by referring matter to them and analysing how they resolve what has been brought before them. It is a difficult task. … it is not only about getting your stats right. It's about addressing a complaint and getting that particular stat right."

She said that given their small number and funding constraints they were looking into setting up consumer groups/network to be the eyes and ears of the council in rural areas.

Bindula said they would have to mobilise consumers who could speak on behalf of other consumers.

She said it was very important that those who comprised these groups were from the communities they represented.

Apart from having some qualified people she said these people must be passionate about their work.

Bindula said there would be voluntary groups to begin with where transport, training and materials would be paid for.

There is one group up and running at Lautoka. More attention will be given to forming these groups from next year.

She said they would reach out to communities in Lau and Kadavu but will this would depend heavily on funding and the council having the "right" people for these activities.

Bindula says the consultant also had a look at the 13 pieces of consumer protection legislation.

She readily admits that while having laws is good, enforcement is another matter which sometimes results in confusion that does not help the consumer at all.

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