The Quebec Liberals this week announced Bill 60, proposed legislation that would strengthen (or “modernize“) consumer protections particularly where it concerns long-term service contracts like cellphones. The bill has already (and unsurprisingly) gained the support of the Union des consommateurs, and others. Cellphone providers have stayed silent for the most part, though their advocacy group says the bill is redundant because the industry is already looking to self-regulate (those who buy this please raise your hands).
The full text of the bill is online (PDF). It hasn’t been debated in the National Assembly yet, so it could very well be changed significantly before it becomes law.
Here are some of the highlights:
- Changes to contracts must come with 60 days’ notice and the consumer has the ability to cancel the contract without penalty if the changes involve “an increase in the consumer’s obligations or a reduction in the merchant’s obligations”
- Such changes can’t affect “an essential element of the contract” like the nature of the service offered
- Fixed-term service contracts can’t be unilaterally cancelled by the provider
- Consumers can’t be required to pay penalty fees beyond simple interest charges for missed payments
- Merchants are required to fully explain existing warranties before asking customers if they would like extended warranties
- If you buy an item second-hand that’s still under warranty, manufacturers can’t require that you prove the previous owner abided by the warranty’s conditions
- Gift certificates and gift cards cannot have expiry dates, and must come with written explanations of how to check the balance on them. They also cannot be subject to fees
- Contracts must come with various things in writing, including the total dollar value of “inducements” (like free cellphones)
- Contracts cannot be automatically renewed
- You can’t be charged for service while the device you use to access that service (assuming it was provided with the contract) is being repaired
- Consumers can unilaterally cancel contracts and pay back the value of any inducements provided at contract signing (or 10% of the remainder of the contract, or $50, depending on the circumstance)
- Advertisements must include the full cost of services, less taxes (though it’s hard to see how this would be enforced since cellphones, cable, Internet and other services come with different plans)
- In case a company breaks any of these provisions, the government or a recognized consumer advocacy body can seek an injunction forcing the provider to comply
- The bill also contains some minor provisions dealing with travel agents
A lot of these are common sense (no one should be allowed to unilaterally change a contract without the other side’s consent, and companies shouldn’t get free money out of gift cards). Others will probably be criticized because they allow loopholes that lead to abuse (for example, if I know Rogers is about to change their contract, can I get a three-year free iPhone deal and then cancel the contract a week later without paying a penalty and get a free iPhone?). Still others are open to interpretation (we could expect arguments about whether a certain change really increases the obligation of a consumer).
Others sound like they could be downright annoying, like being forced to sit down while a Best Buy employee reads out the complete text of a manufacturer’s warranty to you.
But all in all, it’s a good bill, and provides some valuable protections for consumers against abusive contracts. Law-abiding businesses should be able to point out loopholes that might be exploited against them, but let’s hope the lobbyists don’t start torpedoing parts of this bill just because it might cut down on their bottom line.