CAPE Town will get its own consumer tribunal next month. It will run like a court and allow people to get redress from errant companies.
The National Consumer Forum has welcomed the establishment of the tribunal, saying it’s a chance to level the playing field between consumers and businesses.

The Western Cape office of the Consumer Protector received just more than 9 000 complaints from the public last year and resolved 6 000 of them.

While thousands more are still being processed, the 20 which have resulted in stalemates between the complainants and the companies will be the first cases referred to the tribunal.

The tribunal, which will be based in the city but will move wherever it is needed in the province, is being established in terms of the Consumer Protection Act.

Panel members, or trialists, who must hear arguments and rule on the outcome, are drawn from a range of backgrounds.

They include an advocate with more than 25 years’ experience, a lawyer, a former businessman and a consumer advocacy group representative.
Advocate Ashley Searle, the director of the provincial office of the Consumer Protector, said the tribunal would operate in the same way as a court.

Unresolved disputes would be referred to the tribunal.

Before a case could be heard, subpoenas and summonses would be issued. Pre-trial hearings would have to be completed before the formal “trial” could begin.

These processes were prescribed by law.

Every consumer whose case goes before the tribunal will be represented by the Consumer Protector. The company against whom a complaint is made will be allowed to hire a lawyer.

After the case has been proved, with evidence of a transgression, the tribunal will make a decision and will have the authority to compel the company to refund the consumer, or order it to replace the product.

The tribunal could even order the company to pay compensation to the consumer.

“This legislation means that we will now be able to ensure that the rights of consumers in the Western Cape are fully protected,” said Searle.

National Consumer Forum chairman Thami Bolani said the tribunal could be the element needed to level the playing field between consumers and businesses.

But, he cautioned, it was still vital that consumers be educated about their rights and that the offices of the Consumer Protector were “highly visible” and easily accessible.

Other provinces would get tribunals in the coming months.
Gauteng already had a consumer court.

Bolani said most consumer complaints came from the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Most of the complaints received by the National Consumer Forum had been about the motor industry. The forum had been flooded with calls during the festive season about defective cars and dealers who refused to acknowledge the vehicles’ problems.

Another serial offender was the cellphone industry, Bolani said.

Many people had been locked into contracts without fully understanding the terms.

The forum had also received a number of complaints about the food industry, particularly smaller retailers.

Bolani said he was optimistic about what the tribunal could do, but that the proper enforcement of rulings was critical.

Western Cape Tourism and Economic Development MEC Alan Winde said the tribunal was in line with provincial legislation and the guidelines laid out in the Consumer Protection Act.

“The legislation has never been an issue for those responsible companies who endeavour to give the best service,” said Winde.
He said the tribunal would deal with companies that did not abide by the rules.

To contact the office of the Consumer Protector, call its toll-free number 0800 007 081.

The protector’s Western Cape office is in the Waldorf Arcade at 80 St George’s Mall.You can write to the provincial office of the Consumer Protector at Box 979, Cape Town, 8000, fax a letter to 021 483 5872 or e-mail [email protected]