Posts Tagged 'consumer law'

Time to end willful ignorance on tobacco packaging and lobbying

Controversy over the submissions of the Law Society on proposed plain packaging law for tobacco products continues.

It seemed, initially, that the Law Society was going to take the concerns raised by myself and a number of colleagues seriously. I was told that certain things would be looked into and a proposal was going before the Council of the Law Society in relation to lobbying. But we were also referred to as a “vested interest” (!) by the President of the Law Society who subsequently dismissed our views as “conspiracy theories” and has effectively refused to look into the issue any further.

A member of the Council of the Law Society has written an article which is distinctly dismissive of our concerns, despite the following admission:

it’s important to note that what this column knows about IP law could be written on the back of a plain cigarette packet with room for several “SMOKING KILLS” reminders, so we are not taking sides here

When they appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health & Children, the President and Director General were also at paints to point out that IP was not an area they specialised in. The problem with the submissions is that if they are examined with any reference to people who do have knowledge of IP law it is plainly obvious that the submissions do take sides.

So it is useful to add to the debate a contribution from Dr Matthew Rimmer, a leading Australian IP academic, which has been published here.

In its efforts to thwart the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products in Ireland, Big Tobacco and its allies like the Law Society of Ireland have marshalled a number of arguments, similar to those which decisively rejected in Australia. It is disappointing that the Law Society of Ireland has been promulgating a number of myths promoted by Big Tobacco. It should better than to uncritically adopt the rhetoric and the talking points of the tobacco industry … Rather than listen to Big Tobacco’s phony arguments about trade and intellectual property, Ireland should introduce the plain packaging of tobacco products to protect the common good and the public health of its people.

Financial Services Ombudsman: a preference for “talk” over rights?

Late last year the Financial Services Ombudsman made some remarkable comments about High Court judgments affecting his office. He acknowledges that powerful agencies should be accountable to the courts, but believes that judicial decisions have been inconsistent and/or incoherent. The tone of the comments is alarming, given that the Ombudsman deals with complaints made by consumers.

FSO

The Ombudsman provides a form of binding arbitration which does not impose costs (either up front or as a consequence of losing) and so it is obviously attractive to consumers. However, the sting in the tail is that a decision of the Ombudsman can only be appealed to the High Court, which would otherwise only deal with cases worth more than €75,000.

An appeal from a decision of the Ombudsman must be lodged within 21 days. The Ombudsman’s website helpfully informs visitors that parties wishing to appeal should contact the Central Office of the High Court. Appeals are not simple: they will probably involve complicated issues of fact and law. The complainant may not have had legal or professional advice during the course of the complaint but would reasonably seek at this stage.

The Ombudsman is affronted by the outcome of some of these appeals.

He said findings that he should hold an oral hearing if there was a “conflict of material fact” in a case were “not compatible” with the operation of his office. “If we have to hold an oral hearing in every such case, I hope our political establishment has the intellectual honesty to abolish the office because otherwise it is simply a charade,” he said.

This is a surprising argument: it is not “compatible” with the operation of his office to hold oral hearings, so therefore decisions saying that oral hearings might be necessary are incoherent or, at least, somehow incorrect. When dealing with these appeals the High Court is considering issues of fair procedures and the correct application of the law, not the convenience of a State body. Whether or not the holding of oral hearings is compatible with the Ombudsman’s office is a question for the executive, not the courts.

Mr Prasifka said if the logic of one judgment was followed, “potentially every one of the thousands of decisions made since we have set up is constitutionally challengeable”.

One might think that such a decision suggests that the practice or the law needs changed. Instead, the Ombudsman takes the view that these decisions are “incompatible” with his office and therefore wrong. By contrast, he believes that financial institutions should “learn” from their experience of complaints decided on by his office. He does not appear to consider the possibility of financial institutions taking the view that decisions by his office are “incompatible” with their own business (as, in fact, seems to be the attitude of certain financial institutions).

The Ombudsman, however, appears to betray his true feelings by suggesting that perhaps the Ombudsman system just won’t work in Ireland because “rights are much too important”. This is an extraordinarily dismissive attitude to the rights and interests of complainants. One must wonder what is more important than rights? Perhaps bureaucratic efficiency or satisfying some particular group over the interests of individual rights holders. Bear in mind: the statement was made by the  “most powerful office of the ombudsman in the world”.

William Prasifka

The Ombudsman was subsequently interviewed on RTÉ’s This Week radio show. First, however, Padraic Kissane was interviewed and discussed his extensive experience of Ombudsman complaints. He said that he had dealt with a number of identical complaints to the Ombudsman that resulted in inconsistent decisions.

[The banks] take the view that they really have nothing to lose by getting a case referred to the Ombudsman because  … the win percentages of the Ombudsman for complainants is so low in Ireland, compared to the UK for example, and I have seen and have in my files inconsistent decisions from the Ombudsman’s office relating to the identical terms and conditions of an application and they were both within three months of each other. So it’s the inconsistency of the whole issue.

Mr Kissane refers to the “win percentage” for complainants. The win percentage for financial institutions has gone from 63% in 2009 to was 73% in 2012.

A significant issue for the operation of an office like the Ombudsman is that while it purports to be in the interests of consumers by providing a cost-effective means to pursue a complaint, the reality is that it is pitting those consumers against seasoned professionals. Not only that: consumer complaints are being arbitrated by an office that does not want to be constrained by having to respect the rights of the people who generate the complaints.

This is, in many respects, the contemporary blueprint for justice. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board is another low-cost, modern alternative to courts but one which again encourages individuals to enter a forum, alone, in which they are faced with heavyweight professionals. There are calls for the establishment of a similar body to deal with medical negligence claims. It is popular, if not populist, to essentially seek the removal of lawyers from the equation, but does that protect the interests and rights of citizens? In addition: each time a new dispute resolution forum is established the supposed failings of the courts system remain unaddressed.

One of the consumer’s rights is the right, already referred to, to appeal a finding of the Ombudsman to the High Court. Whether to do so is a serious question. Such an appeal would not be expensive and risky. Many would seek legal advice and services and might not have had those services when first dealing with the complaint. So the complainant and their lawyers have only 21 days in which to weigh up the situation and make a decision.

Given the Ombudsman’s statements about High Court decisions it might not be surprising that he does not appear to be in favour of people taking such appeals.

If anyone thinks that we’re inconsistent they should come and talk to us and in certain cases where people have come to talk to us about this we found that on a closer examination there are actually important differences between the cases and that explained by and large the different result. But look, we always seek to improve our decision making and anyone who has a concern about that is really free to come and talk to us.

I don’t know how available the Ombudsman’s staff are to people who want to “come and talk” but it would seem to be an unhelpful approach to suggest that people who have 21 days in which to decide whether to appeal a decision should first consult the other side in this manner.

Stop the madness

The Sunday Independent reported yesterday on the infamous “Kilkenny trust” that supposedly allows you to scrub a property free of bank debt, as if by magic. It was reported earlier in the Summer that certain business people, including Bill Cullen, were using the mechanism.

Given the privacy of the operation it is difficult to ascertain from news reports what has been going on but, helpfully, Karl Deeter attended a presentation about the scheme and has blogged about it here. I am not a trust specialist but, in my professional opinion, it looks mad.

I had a few questions of my own reading the post:

  • Why are they recruiting people to enter into the trust? Usually, legal and accounting mechanisms are put in place by a combination of accountants and solicitors to help their clients achieve a certain goal. It is unusual for non-professionals to go about recruiting people to join a scheme like this and, as Karl points out, the don’t seem to have professional indemnity insurance to protect clients when things go wrong. However, I note that they charge a fee themselves.
  • They get you to set up “a private trust in private”. What does the second use of the word private achieve?
  • What is meant by getting a notary to create a “Court of Record”? I’ll tell you: nothing. It makes no sense. A court of record is a court, and notaries don’t “create” courts. In fact, the only notaries in Ireland are notaries public who are only involved in transactions with an international dimension. There is no international dimension to these transactions so a notary should not be involved. The most an Irish notary public might do is verify some document or signature but, again, a notary public only does this for use abroad and a solicitor or commissioner for oaths would suffice.
  • They say that only your folio number goes into the trust. This makes no sense. A folio number is a record number for registered property and has no life or value apart from the property. You couldn’t sell or rent your folio number separately from the property, so how could you transfer it into a trust on its own?

Most of the rest of what they say involves banking and mortgages and Karl has pointed out that it doesn’t add up. I’m sure other solicitors and barristers would notice flaws in the proposal by reading his post (comments welcome here too). Karl reaches the sad but unavoidable conclusion:

This has all of the hallmarks of something that is either ‘too good to be true’ or perhaps ill thought out and where the absence of a challenge to date is being taken as evidence that ‘it works’ which is not how the legal system operates. The moving of an asset to a trust doesn’t mean a legal charge suddenly doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that there was never a lien or a contract between two parties, if using trusts to stop creditors was that simple we probably would have heard of it before now.

Of the people at the meeting none of them seemed highly literate financially, several disclosed that they were borrowers of sub-prime lenders and the common thread was that they were all vulnerable and perhaps willing to believe something too easily, because I have learned from experience that when a person is drowning that even if you throw them a rock and say it will float that they are willing to give it a try.

Try using the law before changing it

I have a letter in the Irish Times today which is superficially about food labelling but is really about our approach to legislation in Ireland.

Before changing the law, one should check to see what the law already is. [Existing consumer law contains] wide-ranging provisions which should be more than adequate to combat improper use of food labelling terms, without having to wait for a departmental report to be commissioned, translated into a Bill, debated, passed, signed and enforced.

Professor Dermot Walsh has an article in the same newspaper about criminal investigations and Garda powers of detention. The issue has far more serious implications for society and individuals, but is connected.

IT WAS ONLY a matter of time before the inordinate delay in bringing criminal charges in respect of the financial mismanagement in this country would spawn calls for expanded Garda powers of detention.

It is a familiar refrain in which the political and law-enforcement authorities seek cover under what can appear a superficially attractive option. The reality is that it represents at best a lazy, outdated and blunt approach to criminal investigation, and at worst an oppressive device that sacrifices fundamental values of personal liberty and due process to the voracious appetite of an autocratic State.

Before the last general election there was much discussion of what was wrong with our system of politics in Ireland. The idea of a Constitutional Convention was floated as a forum in which these problems could be discussed and solutions proposed, although it is highly unlikely that the Convention being established by the current Government will have any significant effect.

I would submit that one of the problems with our system of politics is the rush to change the law whenever an issue arises. This is perpetuated through lobbying, with organisations developing policy issues into campaigns for legislative change which, if achieved, are seen as a win. Hot topics lead to calls for someone to do something and a politician steps forward with a new law: someone has done something.

Recent Ministers for Justice went through a phase in the mid to latter part of the last decade of introducing significant criminal laws on an almost annual basis. These were announced as harsh measures to tackle gangland crime and any practical or civil liberties concerns were dismissed. The latest problem in Limerick city would fall from the national media headlines once each law was passed. Someone has done something. But did these laws have a significant effect or did they just enable the political class to surmount the latest PR hurdle? The remarkable passage of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009 is a case in point and has all the hallmarks of a pig in a poke.

Professor Walsh concludes that  something more than just amending the law is required:

Instead of proceeding blindly down the familiar road of expanding police powers of detention, the Government might be better advised to step back and consider just how effective or ineffective these measures have been over the past 40 years.

Of course, that requires more work. Work that is usually labour-intensive and expensive. Work that does not necessarily culminate in launches and press conferences. Work that involves actually using and enforcing laws before adding to them. Work that might involve lengthy study, such as that carried out by the Criminal Law Codification Advisory Committee, which is now to be abolished by Minister Shatter.

A new law is a sticking plaster, but a cheap and quick one that gets positive coverage. Someone has done something. Until we require more of our legislators, this might be the best we will get.

Battle of the Bakers: Round 2 (and an interesting update re Round 1)

Exhibit A

Exhibit A: McCambridge bread

I had assumed that the McCambridge v. Brennan brown bread case was solely one of intellectual property infringement but the judgment of Mr Justice Peart, which has now been published, shows that there is more to it (an Irish Times report of the case is here).

Indeed, Peart J notes that McCambridge do not “have any proprietary rights as such over that type of re-sealable bag, its shape or indeed the shape and size of the loaf of bread inside.” The company itself accepted that it does have such proprietary rights, nor rights over the shape and colour or ingredients of the bread itself.

Notwithstanding that, Peart J agreed that the overall impression on consumers satisfied the conditions for passing off (a form of action used to protect unregistered intellectual property rights).

[I]t would take more care and attention that I believe it is reasonable to attribute to the average shopper for him or her not to avoid confusion between the two packages when observed on the shelf, especially when these are placed adjacently or even proximately so.

Peart J indicated that an injunction should be granted to prevent further passing off. However, the interesting element of the case comes next: he also considered whether McCambridge are entitled to an injunction under section 71 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 on the basis that Brennans were engaging in a misleading commercial practice.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation recently announced a planned overhaul of consumer legislation, arguably ignoring that the 2007 Act was supposed to be just that (I wrote about it here in April 2011). The 2007 Act was quite significant, but appears to have been barely used, particularly by the National Consumer Agency. Indeed, Peart J states that they held a watching brief in McCambridge v. Brennan but, strangely, adopted “a neutral position”.

(The failure of the Agency to adopt a position is reminiscent of the refusal of the Data Protection Commissioner to involve his office in the EMI v. eircom case. Ironically, he recently went on to order eircom to halt the three-strikes system which resulted from that case.)

Exhibit B

Exhibit B: Wot, no McCambridge?

Peart J decided that McCambridge were not entitled to an injunction under section 71, apparently (my interpretation) on the basis that the design of its packaging was not a commercial practice involving marketing or advertising.

Peart J was to hear the parties in relation to the exact terms of his proposed injunction, but the decision to grant an injunction has since been appealed to the Supreme Court by Brennans.

As stated, my interpretation of Peart J’s comments (at paragraph 45) is that an injunction was not available because packaging was not “marketing or advertising”. I would have thought that the European Communities (Misleading and Comparative Marketing Communications) Regulations 2007 were aimed at preventing misleading advertising and that the (quite similar) provisions of the 2007 Act were of broader application such as would capture packaging. The 2007 Act is the Irish implementation of the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive which, in the UK, was implemented by statutory instrument. Guidance from the UK’s Office of Fair Trading gives the following example of a prohibited practice:

A trader designs the packaging of shampoo A so that it very closely resembles that of shampoo B, an established brand of a competitor. If the similarity was introduced to deliberately mislead consumers into believing that shampoo A is made by the competitor (who makes shampoo B) – this would breach the [Regulations].

Of course, Peart J had decided that Brennans’ passing off was not deliberate, and so could not have found them to have intended to “deliberately mislead consumers”. Nevertheless, it appears to be a case where the views of the Consumer Protection Agency would have been of use.

InjuriesBoard.ie: “lawyer-free zone”, or competitor?

Officially, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (the “Board”) is just another boring statutory body performing a function on behalf of the State. However, the Board has often exceeded that mandate since its creation by acting as a vocal critic of the legal profession. Arguably,the Board also operates as a commercial entity in competition with lawyers, albeit a very strange form of competition where the aim is to deprive lawyers of fees rather than to earn those fees for itself.

I mentioned recently that a wide range of restrictions apply to advertising by solicitors, despite the fact that the Board advertises in a manner not dissimilar to the personal injury solicitors familiar to viewers of UK television. (An example of the latter is below; I have been unable to find InjuriesBoard.ie ads online.)

Indeed, after a few years of operating under its official name, the Board began to style itself InjuriesBoard.ie, a form of branding very much in line with what one might expect from an online claims agency.

An online claims agency like Claims.ie, perhaps? In 2010, InjuriesBoard.ie made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland under its self-regulatory code on the basis that users might believe Claims.ie was the website of the Board. It also complained that it was not clear who was running Claims.ie or from where. The complaint was upheld, though Claims.ie did not respond to it. The ASAI referred the case to the National Consumer Agency, presumably with a view to enforcement action under the Consumer Protection Act 2007.

Part of the Board’s complaint related to Google adwords, which really is a matter for the courts (in fact, it is very much a live issue for the courts). The Board was correct in stating that it is unclear who is behind Claims.ie, but contact details are provided. The site appears to be run by a company called Claims Ireland Limited but there is no company registered in Ireland with that name (there are two registered business names for “Claims Ireland”). So, the operator may have some difficulties under the Companies Acts or related legislation, which is a matter for the Companies Registration Office and the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Nevertheless, the Board was the organisation to take up the complaint and its choice of forum was the relatively powerless ASAI.

When making a complaint to the ASAI, the complainant must indicate if there is a commercial or other interest in making the complaint. For consumers, the answer will be no. A practical difference in treatment is that a consumer complaint is confidential, whereas the ASAI publishes the name of corporate complainants. The ASAI does not generally entertain complaints between competitors but may do so if a consumer interest is at stake.

What was the Board’s interest: commercial or consumer? The Board’s own website says that individuals may engage an agent to conduct a claim on their behalf. (Why anyone other than a solicitor would take on that role, given the regulatory and liability consequences, is unknown.) If the Board’s complaint was not a case of staking its commercial territory, and instead was acting in the interest of consumers, why does it otherwise go to such great lengths to discourage consumers from engaging independent professionals, the identity and reputations of which are well known?

Damages for misleading commercial practices

The Consumer Protection Act 2007 was a significant piece of reform legislation which has largely gone unnoticed and under utilised.National Consumer Agency

The National Consumer Agency uses the Act as part of its enforcement function and it has been reported that the NCA has initiated proceedings under the Act against Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited arising out the infamous Sunday Tribune wrap-around published by the Irish Mail on Sunday. In 2009, Tesco unsuccessfully sought an injunction against Dunnes Stores to prevent allegedly misleading advertising, partly under the provisions of the Act (more here).

However, there are a number of aspects of the 2007 Act that consumers can rely on. I recently obtained exemplary damages under the Act on behalf of a client in a District Court action where the client had been misled. The case concerned a contract with a tradesman for goods and related installation works where the goods had been delivered but the works not completed, despite having been paid for in full. The plaintiff was forced to engage a third party to complete the works and obtained judgment against the tradesman for the cost of doing so.

Prior to being hired by the plaintiff, the tradesman represented that he was an agent of a manufacturer (which happened to be the third party later engaged by the plaintiff to complete the works). The plaintiff assumed that he could call on the manufacturer to step in if the agent failed to complete the works. The tradesman was not an agent of the manufacturer; hence the manufacturer had no liability to the plaintiff and had to be paid for completing the works.

The 2007 Act lists four categories of commercial practice:

  1. unfair commercial practices;
  2. misleading commercial practices;
  3. aggressive commercial practices; and
  4. prohibited commercial practices.

The latter two categories are more serious and engaging in them is a criminal offence. A wide range of behaviour can constitute a misleading commercial practice and, if it would encourage a consumer to enter into a contract, the 2007 Act provides remedies. Engaging in a misleading commercial practice is not an offence (unless it relates to consumer information regulations) but does give rise to a right of a consumer to seek damages, including exemplary damages.

In this instance, the trader’s representation that he was an agent of the manufacturer was a factor which influenced the plaintiff’s decision to contract with him and exemplary damages of €500 were awarded against the trader as a result, adding 18% to the total award.

The Act makes for interesting reading and covers a wide range of commercial practices. It is likely that the extent to which the Act affects everyday marketing and sales is not widely appreciated, though the NCA has published a guide.

Here are some interesting examples: it is prohibited to

  • represent that a product is able to cure an illness, dysfunction or malformation, if it cannot;
  • use advertising to encourage children to purchase a product or to persuade a parent or adult to purchase it for them;
  • persistently fail to comply with a customer’s request to cease unjustified contact.

A number of other prohibitions might be particularly relevant in light of current economic conditions:

  • a representation that the trader is about to cease trading or move premises, if the trader is not;
  • a representation that describes a product as “gratis”, “free”, “without charge” or anything similar, if a consumer has to pay anything other than necessary and reasonable costs;
  • operating, running or promoting a competition or prize promotion without awarding the prizes described or reasonable equivalents;
  • explicitly informing a consumer that if the consumer does not purchase a product, the trader’s job or livelihood will be in jeopardy.

The maximum penalties for breaching these prohibitions, on a first summary conviction, are a fine of €3,000 or imprisonment for up to 6 months (or both). Subsequent convictions for offences under the Act carry maximum penalties of €5,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment (or both).

Unfair advertising actions are not just for big business

[Updated 5/4/11 re. Cork Independent] What can a business do if a competitor engages in unfair advertising? The Competition Acts 2002 and 2006 deal with anti-competitive practices but these mostly involve cartel operations and abuse of dominance.

In the past, trade mark and passing off actions have been used to stop comparative advertising, but this had the unsatisfactory result of often blocking any form of comparative advertising, rather than just unfair comparative advertising. Most businesses are still very cautious when it comes to comparative advertising, but the trade mark problem was resolved somewhat by the ECJ decision in the O2 bubbles case: a competitor can use another’s trade mark once it does not confuse the public.

The European Communities (Misleading and Comparative Marketing Communications) Regulations 2007 updated Irish advertising law and supplement the unfair marketing provisions in the Consumer Protection Act 2007 and the non-statutory ASAI Code. A summary of the Regulations and available remedies is available here. The Regulations are not widely known among Irish SMEs, but that is changing fast.

Last year, Tesco sought an injunction under the Regulations against Dunnes Stores. The Irish Times reported:

Tesco had sought to stop Dunnes from running allegedly misleading price comparison advertisements in the run-up to the lucrative Christmas shopping spree. Tesco claimed Dunnes promotional advertisements made direct and unexplained comparisons with Tesco’s standard prices and misled customers by failing to compare like with like. Dunnes argued that its advertising campaign, in which it highlighted its lower prices, was incapable of misleading consumers.

Tesco failed to get an injunction because the High Court cannot grant a temporary injunction in this type of case (ironically, this is due to an earlier Supreme Court judgement in a case taken by Dunnes Stores). Miss Justice Laffoy’s decision does not mean that Tesco has lost or that Dunnes’ ads were not misleading: it only means that Tesco must pursue their complaint to trial of the full action.

Remedies under the Regulations can also be sought in the Circuit Court, where costs are lower. Recently, the Cork News took a case against rival paper the Cork Independent under the Regulations. As reported by the Phoenix (28(11) p.7 (11/06/10)):

THE freesheet Cork Independent was forced to admit in the Cork Circuit Court recently that it had been boasting false circulation figures to advertisers and was ordered by Judge Con Murphy to publish corrective figures. … The Cork Indo had been boasting circulation increases of 10,000 up to 65,000 in a series of full page adverts for the best part of two months up to January last. But the Cork News argued that the Cork Indo’s actual print run was only 43,000 for certain parts of the same period.

Judge Murphy ordered the Cork Indo to inform its advertisers via the newspaper of its real circulation figures last November and also ordered both papers to publish its current circulation figures.

[Update: There have been further developments in the dispute about circulation figures between the two newspapers, with the Cork Independent successfully defending a circulation challenge from the Cork News. The exact nature of the challenge is unknown.]

Tesco v. Dunnes Stores was an intensification of an existing battle between two enormous companies, but the Cork newspapers case suggests smaller Irish companies are now paying more attention to the legislative rules applicable to advertising, especially when it comes to advertising by competitors.

[Incidentally, an advertisement published by a solicitor can neither reflect unfavourably on other solicitors nor suggest specialist knowledge superior to other solicitors, which removes any real possibility of comparative advertising.]


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Hello. #westlimerick #glenastar

West Limerick hills on a Summer evening. #nofilter

If ever passing through Newcastle West, stop for a stroll around the Castle grounds. Lovely on a day like today.

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A snap for Editor_Tupp @tupp_ed

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