Providing Consumers and Business With Accessible Justice

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hon John Boscawen speech to the Disputes Tribunal Referees Forum; The Holiday Inn, Featherston Street, Wellington; Friday, November 5 2010


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and thank you, Brent [Smallbone, Wellington Referee], for the introduction.  I’m very pleased to be here to talk to you today.


I’d like to begin by formally acknowledging the valuable work that the Disputes Tribunal does to provide consumers and traders with accessible justice, and I especially want to recognise the Referees and the staff who support you.


Consumer complaints are the most common type of legal complaint in New Zealand, and the Disputes Tribunals are the main avenue for resolving consumer grievances.  As Referees, your job is to ensure that people are not excluded from the justice system simply because their dispute may be at the smaller end of the scale; fairness is fairness – no matter what the degree – and you do valuable work by helping to resolve disputes in a low cost, effective and approachable manner.


Over recent years this work has been enhanced, with Judge Spiller having overseen a number of significant steps forward for the Disputes Tribunal – particularly the raising of the level of claims that can be heard by the Tribunal from $7,500 to $15,000.  This change improves access to quick resolution of disputes and redress for consumers and businesses whose claims have previously been outside the Disputes Tribunal limits.


Another initiative is the publishing of cases that Referees have identified as being of particular public interest – a move that is aligned with international best practice, and also helps improve public awareness of the Tribunal.


I understand that Principal Disputes Referee Judge Spiller has recently handed over the reins to Anne Darroch.  I am sure that, with Anne at the helm, the momentum to improve the Disputes Tribunal processes will continue and that her extensive experience as a Referee will stand her in good stead to navigate the exciting times ahead.


As Minister of Consumer Affairs I continue to support the vision of consumers transacting with confidence and being able to rely on representations made to them about goods and services. 


I have strong views on people taking advantage of others and do not want to see people being conned or experiencing harsh and unconscionable conduct.  Sadly, far too many New Zealanders have a low level of financial literacy, and the behaviour I have just mentioned is sometimes experienced by people who are less sophisticated or experienced in financial matters.  I’m sure that everyone here has, at some time or another, come across someone who for this very reason has found themselves in a difficult and distressing situation.


Financial literacy is a personal interest of mine and I hope to make a positive contribution to improving New Zealanders’ levels of knowledge.


The focus of this session today is the Consumer Law Reform, which is the top priority for my portfolio and is currently being progressed by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.


Having strong and relevant consumer legislation is vital for both consumers and businesses.


For consumers, such legislation provides confidence and successful participation in the marketplace – subsequently allowing them to contribute to a productive and innovative economy.  For businesses, effective consumer laws help to create a competitive business environment where reputable suppliers are protected from the inappropriate market conduct of competitors.


The primary objective of the Consumer Law Reform is to implement principles-based consumer law that achieves these aims for consumers and businesses.  It is this goal that drives the Consumer Law Reform project currently under progression and why the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and I are considering various improvements and enhancements to our fundamental consumer legislation – the Fair Trading Act (FTA), the Consumer Guarantees Act and the Weights and Measures Act – even though they have stood the test of time well.


Additional objectives are that the legislation is: up to date; relevant now and into the future; aligns, where appropriate, with international best practice; and, most importantly for the Disputes Tribunal, is easily accessible to those who are affected by it and is effective and enforceable.  As such, the Ministry is working hard on proposals to enhance and futureproof the legislation.


Key proposals the Ministry is considering are the introduction of prohibitions of unfair terms in consumer contracts, of unconscionable conduct, and of unsubstantiated claims.  These proposals mirror those available in Australia under its Australian Consumer Law – while consistent law between our two countries is not an aim on its own, it is certainly one thing to consider in reviewing whether we proceed down these paths.  Likewise, it is important to ensure the benefits that any changes in the law exceed the costs.


Also of interest to you may be proposals around the application of the Consumer Guarantees Act to online auctions – which, over the past few years, have significantly increased in number – and to the Carriage of Goods Act.


As you will probably be aware, the Government earlier this year released the Consumer Law Reform discussion document and invited submissions on the proposals it outlined.  The proposals drew mixed reactions and generated 113 submissions from individuals and organisations – all of which the Ministry is taking into account.


Among those submissions was one from Judge Spiller, on behalf of the Disputes Tribunal, which proposed that the Tribunal jurisdiction be extended to include section 9 of the Fair Trading Act – which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct.


Historically, only judges had the authority to rule on Section 9 cases.  The calibre of referees in this room makes a strong argument for extending Disputes Tribunal Referees’ jurisdiction to include Section 9.  I welcome the opportunity to further explore this proposal which, I see, has benefits for consumers.


I envision decisions on the Consumer Law Reform being taken in December.  This is in advance of the original timetable and would mean that legislation could be introduced to the House early next year.


Many of the proposals would have an effect on the types of cases you hear, and would open up the Tribunal to a wider range of disputes.  I am sure that, once the Government has made its decisions, you will all be able to meet the challenges and opportunities that this would provide.


Once again I wish to acknowledge and commend your contribution to providing such a valuable and valued service, and I wish Anne all the best in her new role.
Thank you.