Ageing society

Licence scheme will offer better protections for private columbarium customers

Two-week grace period will allow consumers to receive a full refund if they change their minds about buying a niche at a private columbarium

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 9:55am

Consumers will be allowed to change their mind and receive a refund within 14 days after buying a niche at a private columbarium under a new licensing scheme for operators.

The improved protection for consumers came after the Private Columbaria Ordinance took ­effect on June 30, followed by a nine-month grace period for ­operators to get ready for government supervision.

The ordinance aims to ensure private columbariums operate in compliance with government rules and in a sustainable manner.

Private operators will only be able to sell or let out niches if they are licensed. Applications for ­permits or exemptions will only begin on December 30. For those in operation before June 18, 2014, applications must be made before March 29.

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Avia Lai Wong Shuk-han, chairwoman of the Private Columbaria Licensing Board, a statutory body responsible for regulating the operation of private columbaria, said operators will face more stringent requirements to operate their businesses. S

“A cooling-off period for 14 days would be one of the licensing requirements for operators,” said Lai, who also heads the Private Columbaria Affairs Office under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

Operators will be required to state such a clause clearly in an agreement signed with customers and provide a full refund if they change their mind within 14 days of a purchase.

She said that could give better protection to consumers who regretted with their decisions later.

According to Lai, the city currently has around 150 private columbaria. Other non-government columbaria, such as Chinese permanent cemeteries, fall under alternative regulations.

For operators charging consumers neither on monthly nor yearly basis, Lai said they would also be required to submit financial plans on how they can sustain the business in the long-term.

“For example, will operators earmark part of their income as maintenance of their columbaria?” said Lai.

She said that could also prevent situations where consumers are asked suddenly to split the maintenance cost after using the service for a period of time.

A written agreement on all terms and conditions of the niche service must also be made between the columbarium and consumers.

Ip Kwok-him, deputy chairman of the board, said the duration of services stated on the agreement with customers also must not exceed the land lease period of the columbarium. Licences will not be more than 10 years in each term.

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While more than 10 government departments will be involved in the licence vetting process, Lai could not say how long the process will take. She said some departments, such as the Fire Services Department and the Environmental Protection Department, will need to conduct on-site inspections to see if the applying columbarium meets all the specific requirements.

Eddie Tse Sai-kit, Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy convenor, said he welcomed the 14-day cooling off period.

“Some agents could be misleading in promoting services of a columbarium ... consumers later might want to change their minds after getting more details,” said Tse.

But he worried that the requirement of submitting financial plans for operators could encourage the emergence of more monthly or yearly rentals. Consumers might have to face increasing rates in the long run, he said.

The city is estimated to face a shortage of 400,000 urn spaces by 2023 and the problem is aggravated by the ageing population, with about 50,000 deaths each year.

The quality of private columbaria services varies, as the Consumer Council has received complaints lodged against some private operators, including some that have denied services even after fees have been paid.

From June 30 to late October this year, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department received 12 complaints on illegal sales of niches.