Private complaint schemes

11.25 In addition to consumer remedies provided by legislation, there are private complaint schemes in a number of industries. These schemes are funded by industry members but operate independently of them. Examples include the Australian Banking Industry Ombudsman and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.[52]

11.26 The Minister for Customs and Consumer Affairs has released benchmarks for industry-based customer dispute resolution schemes to guide industry in developing and improving these schemes.[53] The benchmarks suggest key practices that should be adopted by an industry when developing a dispute resolution scheme such as observing the principles of procedural fairness and making determinations publicly available.

11.27 Codes of conduct, such as the Supermarket Scanning Code and the Electronic Funds Transfer Code, are another self-regulation mechanism. These codes set out the respective rights and obligations of consumers and traders, provide a process for the investigation and resolution of complaints and, where a complaint is proved, suggest appropriate sanctions.

11.28 There is a move away from codes of conduct to consumer charters. While codes of conduct aim to establish minimum general standards of service, charters are more detailed performance criteria focusing on the outcome for the consumer.[54] Consumer charters are intended to be a formal accountability mechanism and may impose penalties on organisations for non-compliance. They will be mirrored by the Service Charters being developed in the federal public sector.[55]

11.29 Private complaint schemes are inexpensive and informal and thus readily accessible to consumers, including young people. The proliferation of these schemes is potentially confusing for consumers who may not be able to identify the appropriate avenue for a particular complaint. However, this problem can be avoided if organisations ensure that their schemes are widely and appropriately publicised. They are a useful adjunct to consumer protection laws. However, they should not be seen as a complete alternative to statutory safeguards as any recommendations they make are unenforceable at law. The schemes should be tailored to meet the needs of young clients.

Recommendation 56 Organisations should take the needs of children into account when developing complaints schemes, codes of conduct and consumer charters.

Implementation. The ACCC, the Office for Small Business and the Consumer Affairs Division of the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism should develop and promote guidelines to ensure these schemes are responsive to children.

[52] See para 11.33.

[53] Dept of Industry, Science and Tourism Benchmarks for Industry-Based Customer Dispute Resolution Schemes Dept of Industry, Science and Tourism Canberra 1997.

[54] See S Smith ‘Customer charters: The next dimension in consumer protection?’ (1997) 22 Alternative Law Journal 138, 140.

[55] See para 9.9.