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By Mick Bellairs.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 13 November 2017.
For many families, the most important asset they own is a car. It allows them to engage in work, education and community activities.
As Consumer Action’s Mick Bellairs explains, that’s why it’s so critical people can access fast and free dispute resolution processes when their car turns out to be a lemon.
Whether it’s travelling to work, school, or the supermarket, having a safe and reliable car is essential for many Victorians, particularly those in regional areas. However, resolving car disputes can be a lengthy, expensive and legally complex process.
Take Thaddeus, whose new car kept breaking down. Thaddeus needs a car for his job as a nurse, but the problem is now so bad that his wife refuses to travel in the car. The car dealer won’t fix it and refuses to refund him. The standoff is now putting his job at risk.
Thaddeus is just one of over 1000 Victorians who called the Consumer Action Law Centre’s legal advice line last year about a car problem, making up 1 in 5 of calls to our legal practice.
Now Thaddeus he’s trying to navigate the justice system, paying for a technical assessment on his lemon car, and hoping to keep his job.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Victorian Government’s 2016 Access to Justice Review examined this problem and recommended that Consumer Affairs Victoria be funded to provide a compulsory conciliation service and free technical assessment for people like Thaddeus.
This recommendation will resolve the key problem in car disputes identified by Consumer Action’s legal practice: getting a free, independent expert report at an early stage. This additional oversight will promote a better industry, and good consumer outcomes.
But 12 months on, Victorians are still waiting for action.
Meanwhile, for Thaddeus, it will take months to get to a final hearing at VCAT. And when he gets there, there can be a vast power imbalance.
“Car dealers know about cars, and can be very persuasive – after all, they sell cars for a living,” according to Consumer Action Senior Solicitor Lachlan Edwards.
He says most people eventually just give up.
“It isn’t for everyday people and at VCAT, you’ve got to do everything yourself.”
Mr Edwards makes it clear that the current system is not working. “In other industries you have free, fast, and impartial Ombudsman services if you have a dispute over your phone, electricity bill or home loan. But for the other big asset in your life, the family car, there is no specialist service that can help.”
Domestic Building Dispute Resolution Victoria, the newest specialist dispute resolution service established in April 2017 for that other key asset, the family home, received over 1000 complaints in the first month of operation.
This shows when justice is truly accessible, Victorians will pursue and enforce their legal rights.
That’s why Consumer Action have launched the “Fix My Car” campaign, targeting local MPs, to get a practical solution for a problem that, for too many people, just won’t go away.
You can learn more about the campaign at consumeraction.org.au/fixmycar or email your local MP using the Consumer Action form below.