Forget law, buyer beware best advice for thin seekers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am

'Lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming said the existing Trade Descriptions Ordinance - which includes laws ensuring goods and services are offered on fair terms - did not cover situations such as slimming classes that do not yield the advertised results.'

SCMP, February 26

What a strange world it is. Step off a flight to anywhere in the United States and you find yourself surrounded by a curious species of wobbling, bobbling globs of jelly. These people have no time for medical advice, however. They are too busy watching advertisements for bacon cream cheese pretzels.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong where the junk food industry has also done its utmost to spread diabetes and heart disease but where it must struggle against one of the slimmest populations on earth, every second television ad features the bogus weight loss claims of yet another slimming salon.

If there is one reason to be dubious of the Consumer Council's proposal for all encompassing legislation to protect the consumer from sharp practice, it is that these slimming salons may then have to yield their advertised results. This can only bring us an accelerated incidence of anorexia. Let us be glad that some people do not live up to their advertised promises.

I can think of other lesser reasons for not proceeding with this Consumer Council idea. For one, the wobbling glob phenomenon now clearly faces a challenge for the title of world's fastest-growing species. It comes from lawyers who specialise in personal grievances that have found definition in law.

We will have soon an infestation of these people to rival the Plagues of Egypt if we start allowing legal redress to anyone who feels unhappy with any purchase that he or she has made.

You will tell me, of course, that these complaints need not go through lawyers. The Consumer Council has come up with the additional idea of a Consumer Tribunal to handle them directly.

Uh-huh, I see. Bad news indeed. We are to have yet another new government agency staffed by hundreds of people all busily writing memorandums at each other but peeling the onion of investigation only one layer back in any complaint brought to them because real investigation is not what civil servants do.

This is not being overly pessimistic. We already have ample experience of it in the Ombudsman, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Competition Policy Advisory Group, etc etc - lots of money spent, lots of noise generated and little if anything achieved other than the employment of yet more public relations specialists.

And we will still have the plague of lawyers. The complainant is only one party to the complaint. On the other side is the party complained about and, in the case of consumer complaints, this is invariably a retail chain or the manufacturer of a widely sold consumer product.

The directors of such enterprises will not argue their own cases. They will hire lawyers to do it. The complainants will then complain that they are at a disadvantage in hearings and demand public money (they're so poor, you know) to hire further lawyers to bring things back in balance.

And the ancient Egyptians thought a plague of locusts was bad, did they?

Oh, and by the way, although the Consumer Council intends this law to cover both goods and services, the services of these lawyers will not be covered by it. Lawyers like writing laws that give them employment but they write themselves out of the coverage of those laws first.

Bear in mind also that we are in the realm here of offences that defy definition. Just where does the black and white boundary of a 'misleading description' lie, where do we draw it for 'insufficient information', 'pressure tactic', 'bait and switch' and 'unfair terms in standard contracts'.

I'm not making these up. The bits between the quote marks come from a published Consumer Council paper on the proposed law and it introduces them as 'need urgently to be addressed'.

The only urgent need I see, frankly, is for someone to tell these people to start at the beginning. If they want legislation against unscrupulous retail practices they must define what these practices are.

A law that says that the whim of the bureaucrat is the only authority on what the law says is no law.

These lesser reasons to deem this proposed consumer law a bad idea, however, are all encapsulated in one big reason, a principle of law called Caveat Emptor, let the buyer beware.

It is an excellent principle of law. Why do we so constantly insist on subverting it?