Consumers often face imbalances in economic terms, educational levels and bargaining power and bearing in mind that consumers should have the right of access to non-hazardous products, as well as the right to promote just, equitable and sustainable economic and social development. The phenomenal growth of consumerism worldwide has led to many jurisdictions improving their consumer protection laws. On 21 December 2018, the Zimbabwe legislature followed this wave and gazetted the Consumer Protection Bill which seeks to protect consumers of goods and services in the market place.
This is a transformational bill meant to afford the consumer with more protection. It now provides an extensive framework for consumer protection and aims to develop, enhance and protect the rights of the consumer and to eliminate unethical suppliers and improper business practices. Certain unfair business practices that were previously unregulated are now governed by the Act. In terms of the Act, consumers obtain several new rights and some of the existing rights are broadened and reinforced. Therefore, suppliers will have to evaluate whether their business practices comply with the Act and make the necessary changes.
One of the aims of the new consumer policy framework is to provide a consistent, predictable and effective regulatory framework that fosters consumer confidence in the market. The scope and field of application of the regulatory framework had to be determined. One of the greatest pitfalls in Consumer Contracts Act is the absence of a uniform definition of a “consumer”. Accordingly, to afford the required wide protection to consumers, a “consumer” must be defined broadly as an individual who purchases “goods” and “services”. This broad definition is embodied in Part 1 of the new bill thereby affording the required wide protection to the consumers.
Part II of the bill focuses on a jurisdictional approach for application as opposed to the act which had application based on dates. It also sets apart the State for application of this act. The bill allows for the establishment of a Consumer Protection Agency that will protect consumers from unjust dealings with service providers. This was not done by the consumer contracts act. This agency is also going to have a committee which will regulate and monitor its operations as afforded for by the bill the consumer agency committee will be established. The sourcing of funds of the agency is catered for in the bill.
There is availability of advocacy groups along with their accreditation and how it can be cancelled by the agency.
Part III of the bill advocates for consumer education along with a right to top quality products. It focuses on the core rights of the consumers the vitality of education and availability of the promise of high-quality products and services and warranties on products sold to consumers. This part of the bill has its roots on the things that consumers should be afforded and how they work. There is a more comprehensive description to the rights of the consumer which was never the case with consumer contracts. It was short and really didn’t give a detailed approach to rights and enforcement as set out by the consumer bill.
Part IV of the bill focuses on the enforcement of rights by accredited advocacy groups along with compliance notices and how to lodge and deal with objections. It creates the opening for appointment of inspectors and investigators. It also allows for methods of finding relief. The methods of investigation and delivery of reports upon conclusion of investigations. It allows for investigators and inspectors to have the authority to issue out summons. It affords the consumer with protection and practical ways to get justice in the event that their rights are not observed by the service providers.
Part V of the bill offers measures to ensure availability of effective consumer redress mechanism in the event of violation of consumer rights. It provides protection and recourse where consumer rights have been violated. You will find that the current mechanism (Consumer Contracts Act) has no redress mechanisms when it comes to breaches of consumer rights. Therefore the new bill is transformational in the sense that it provides a consistent, accessible and efficient system of resolution of disputes arising from consumer transaction by introducing a dispute resolution mechanism through voluntary arbitrations for quick and effective complaint resolution.
Part VI of the Bill identifies gaps in the enforcement regime of the current mechanism (Consumer Contracts Act) in response to consumer protection violations by introducing vigilant advocacy and activism through consumer protection advocacy groups responsible for enforcement of consumer rights. The advocacy group may, for example, commence or undertake any action prescribed to protect the interest of the consumer in any case or intervene in any case before any forum if the interests of consumers are not represented in that forum. Further, the bill provides mechanisms for enforcement of consumer rights through the Agency, designated consumer protection organisation or directly to the court. A person may approach any of the above bodies for the purposes of enforcement of consumer rights.
The Bill is in line with the UN Guidelines for Consumer protection which includes but not limited to the promotion and protection of the economic interests of consumers, access of consumers to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices according to individual wishes and needs, Consumer education, including education on the environmental, social and economic impacts of consumer choice and availability of effective consumer redress.
Elsewhere, the European Union has defined consumer protection laws as those capable of improved transparency and better informed transactions resulting from well designed and implemented consumer policy result, not only in better solutions for consumers, but also in improved market efficiency. The local Bill will stand to be tested once it is signed into law.