18 September 2009

Namibia: Consumer Protection Legislation in Starting Blocks

CONSUMERS who feel they have had no recourse in addressing their concerns upon purchasing an item or service can finally look forward to legislation in this regard.

Several examples exist that show that Namibians have few options outside the legal process when it comes to their rights as consumers.

Recent examples include the case of a pharmacy that last year was found to be selling expired medication endangering the health of its consumers in the process; certain milk products found to contain chemicals harmful to babies; and most recently, hundreds of Namibian consumers who may have been buying counterfeit washing powder, with possible negative effects on both their skin and their clothes.

In fact, so limited are the Namibian consumer's option when faced with an infringement of their rights, that law researcher at the Ministry of Justice Henry Simon Line summarily states that: "consumers in Namibia are not protected".

At a seminar this week aimed at making proposals towards consumer protection legislation for Namibia, Line also said that Namibian consumers have been "experiencing unscrupulous and unfair trading practices, and that existing avenues to obtain redress are inadequate or completely absent".

Some of the overriding themes being investigated by the Ministry's Law Reform and Development Commission include unfair stipulations in contracts - a trap into which many consumers fall on a daily basis, quality and warranties on goods, product liability, credit agreements, debt collecting and advertising.

Line said the United Nations guidelines for consumer protection provide a valuable tool for national policy development in Namibia.

Some of the rights enshrined in this guideline include the right to basic needs, the right to safety, the right to information (such as on product labels, advertising, hidden costs, etc), the right to choice, redress, representation, consumer education, and the right to a healthy environment.

All these exist with the objectives of developing independent consumer groups, promoting sustainable consumption, and encouraging market conditions which may provide consumers with greater choice and lower prices.

Regionally, much progress has already been made in countries such as Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Mauritius and South Africa.

Providing a South African perspective on consumer rights legislation, Christine Malan, Senior Legal and Compliance Manager for the Foschini Group, highlighted various aspects of the country's Consumer Protection Act (CPA), which was signed into law in April this year, and comes into force next year.

Providing both the highs and lows of the CPA, Malan suggested that in creating Namibian legislation, it should be clearly delineated when the courts need to be used versus when a consumer tribunal, for example, would be used.

She also encouraged Namibian consumer groups and academics to get involved in the drafting process, and to ensure that over-regulation and the duplication of other laws was not made the order of the day.

She said redress mechanisms for consumers needed to be addressed, and conflict clauses needed to be neatly dealt with in the legislation.

Lovisa Indongo, legal advisor at the Namibia Financial Institutions Supervisory Authority (Namfisa) also provided a number of considerations for the Consumer Protection legislation, given the Authority's experience in the creation of the Financial Institutions and Market Bill.

While the Bill only deals with the non-banking financial institutions, some of the consumer rights highlighted by Indongo included the right to equal treatment with respect to credit and medical aid funds, the rights to privacy and confidentiality, choice, disclosure and information, fair and reasonable marketing, fair and honest dealing, the right to be informed of the terms and conditions attached.

Following intense discussion around the formulation of the legislation, the mechanisms that needed to be set in place, and other institutions that need to be involved in the process, Line noted that the Commission would consult with the relevant groups countrywide to ensure a comprehensive legislation, and that businesses would also be consulted in the process.

Ombudsman John Walters, who is currently the Acting Chairperson of the LRDC, stated that while this was only the start to what could be a lengthy law reform process, "we need to set the standard high enough where consumers can expect fair justice".

He also noted that in creating the legislation, "we need for mechanisms to be set in place easily and affordably," guaranteeing access to the consumer.

"It's poor consolation to know that our rights are enshrined in legislation, but are not adequately enforced," he said.

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