Lawyers and doctors to stay self-regulating

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

Doctors, lawyers, accountants, estate agents and other regulated professionals will not be subject to proposed government measures that aim to expand consumer protection legislation.

The move applies to members of 22 professional bodies and means that everyone - from midwives and social workers to engineers and Chinese medicine practitioners - will continue to be policed under existing sector-specific regimes.

Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, the secretary for commerce and economic development, said professional services were already governed by regulatory bodies that were mostly established by statute and had comprehensive measures to control members' conduct and safeguard consumer protection. Financial services, including Mandatory Provident Fund schemes, and property transactions were also exempt for the same reasons.

'There are also codes of practices setting out the standards expected of them. If there are breaches in terms of service standards and quality, the professional bodies themselves already have mechanisms and systems to deal with consumer complaints,' Lau said. 'There are also very transparent sanctions and measures in place to deter its professional members from engaging in any practices in contravention with the standards set out by the professional bodies.'

A Consumer Council report two years ago into proposed legislative changes to enhance consumer protection suggested that existing sector-specific regimes should remain if a significant level of expertise and specialised knowledge was needed for enforcement and if a similar degree of protection was available under the regulatory regime.

With incidents of consumer complaints against unscrupulous sales practices, there had been hopes of tough new measures to ensure adequate consumer protection when buying any product or service.

An academic, who did not want to be quoted until he had studied the proposed legislative changes, said the argument that professional services were already governed by regulatory bodies did not hold water. 'In reality, none of them has consumer protection as an objective. They are often used as a union with no power to order compensation and no consumer protection function.' he said. 'They discipline members for professional misconduct.'

In 1992, for example, complaints were made to the Medical Council that two Chinese University lecturers in surgery, Dr Andrew van Hasselt and Dr Liu Kwok-chung, had advertised their skills and disparaged those of other doctors. The Medical Council in 1993 found no reason to pursue the complaint further.

Several years ago, some unscrupulous legal firms used middlemen to seek clients in hospitals with offers of 'no win, no pay' deals to help them claim compensation. Law Society regulations forbid registered solicitors from touting for business or using 'ambulance-chasing' tactics employed in other countries, but the society has no power to investigate people unconnected with law firms.

Generally, professionals with their own regulators are subject to certain codes of conduct that govern what they can and cannot do. For example, accountants are not allowed to overstate or exaggerate their functions or capabilities in advertisements. Disciplinary action is taken when there are breaches.

There is no scale for fees, but consumers can complain if they feel they have been overcharged. The accounting profession is governed by the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants. An accountant said, depending on the nature of the service, there might be a case for self-regulation or government regulation.

The proposals

Amend the Trade Description Ordinance, which prohibits false descriptions on goods, to cover services

Criminalise misleading omissions, aggressive sales tactics and bait-and-switch practices

Criminalise the accepting of payments without the intention or ability to supply goods or services

Make the new offences punishable by a fine of up to HK$500,000 and up to five years' imprisonment

Introduce a cooling-off period of at least seven days for time-sharing agreements and transactions made during unsolicited visits to consumers' homes or offices

Introduce a compliance-based mechanism to examine consumers' complaints and seek undertakings from businesses that they will cease an offending act

Exclude from the amendments property sales and professional services such as those offered by lawyers, doctors, accountants and social workers