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The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) is Australia’s consumer watchdog. It is responsible for ensuring compliance with competition, fair trading, and consumer protection laws under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

The ACCC has extensive powers to protect consumers, including the ability to impose penalties of up to $10 million per offence.

Every year the ACCC sets out what issues and industries it intends to focus on to ensure compliance. That may be by:

  •  implementing new or amended legislation;
  • initiating investigations into particular industries; or 
  • taking appropriate enforcement action.  

ACCC Chair, Rod Sims, recently announced the ACCC Compliance and Enforcement Priorities for 2020. This article outlines some of the key priorities. 

1. Franchises

The ACCC will investigate franchise industry practices that are impacting franchisees. It will enforce protections where there has been a significant breach of the small business protection provisions provided by the Competition and Consumer Act

2. Digital Platforms

Personal data collection and misuse has been a prevalent concern amongst both individuals and businesses. Accordingly, the ACCC wants to ensure that consumers are not being misled over the collection and use of their personal data.

Investigations have already been launched and the ACCC is working closely with its overseas counterparts; one matter against Google is already before the Court. 

3. Consumer Guarantees

The ACCC has received 25,000 reports from consumers regarding issues with motor vehicles or white goods, the ACCC’s two most complained about sectors.

Where a product is broken or does not work, consumers are having difficulty enforcing their consumer guarantees, such as return or repair. As a result, the ACCC will focus on consumer guarantee enforcement and compliance initiative

4. Essential Services

The pricing and selling practices of essential services, including the energy and telecommunications sector, will continue to be a strong ACCC focus this year. The regulatory body will use enforcement action to address misleading and deceptive selling practices and anti-competitive conduct in these sectors.

5. Misleading Claims in Food Marketing

The ACCC has been paying increasing attention to misleading claims made about health or nutritional benefits of food products.

In 2018, the Court ordered Heinz in 2018 to pay $2.25 million in penalties for making a misleading health claim about products for young children. In the wake of this case, the ACCC is focusing on claims about health or food nutritional content – either on the product itself and/or in its associated marketing, that have the capacity to cause substantial consumer detriment.

6. Enduring Priorities

While the ACCC has set clear priorities for 2020, there are some areas that will always remain a focus of its compliance efforts. These include:

  • cartel conduct – where businesses collude to drive up the profits of cartel members while maintaining the illusion of competition;
  • anti-competitive conduct – a continued focus on anti-competitive agreements and practices, and the misuse of market power;
  • product safety – ensuring products do not pose serious harm to consumers;
  • vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers – unfair and misleading business practices that impact these consumers; and
  • conduct impacting Indigenous Australians – enforcing consumer rights and protecting Indigenous consumers living in remote areas.

7. Button Battery Safety

The hazards associated with button batteries, also known as coin cell batteries, will be addressed by the ACCC this year. These batteries are used in personal and household products, such as children’s toys, hearing aids, lights, watches, remote controls, digital thermometers and bathroom scales. 

Button batteries cause significant injury if swallowed by children.

Last year a Button Batteries Taskforce was established. It is expected to release a Draft Recommendation for public comment, outlining proposed regulatory options available under the ACL to address the hazard associated with these batteries.

8. Funeral Services Sector

Consumers can be particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged when dealing with the funeral services sector. Given this, and the significant market power held by certain leaders in the industry, the ACCC has set its sights on anti-competitive conduct and misleading and deceptive practices in this industry.

The ACCC will focus on:

  • misuse of market power and exclusive dealing;
  • lack of transparency around fees and services;
  • unfair contract terms; and 
  • unconscionable conduct in relation to consumers.

Adhere to the ACL or Risk Penalties

Given the ACCC’s broad enforcement powers and the significant penalties that may be imposed, businesses should prioritise Consumer Law compliance if they have not done so already. 

By way of example, the following penalties have been imposed on companies recently by both the court and the ACCC:

  • Meriton Property Services Pty Ltd was ordered by the Federal Court to pay penalties of $3 million for manipulating Trip Advisor reviews, in breach of the ACL;
  • Training college Empower Institute was ordered by the Court to pay $26.5 million in penalties for engaging in unconscionable conduct; and 
  • Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd was ordered by the Court to pay $6 million in penalties by the Court for making misleading representations about its Nurofen Specific Pain products.

This is in addition to the substantial reputational harm a company may face if found to be infringing the Australian Consumer Laws.

Key Takeaways

Australia’s key consumer watchdog, the ACCC, has set its priorities for 2020. While there are enduring areas of focus, such as anti-competitive behaviour, this year the ACCC will focus its attention on a number of key areas, including the funeral and energy sectors, privacy, consumer safety and consumer protections. 

If you are not adhering to the Australian Consumer Law, you put your business, and possibly yourself, at risk of significant reputational damage and financial penalties. 

If you believe you are affected by the 2020 priorities and want to know more about your obligations under Competition and Consumer law, contact LegalVision’s regulatory lawyers to discuss your concerns by calling 1300 544 755 or complete the form on this page. 

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