Since we're on the topic of consumer law, this is an opportune space to advise the readers of our disclaimer. But fear not: it is a softie! This article reviews general legal information only. It cannot possibly, and by design, be used to answer a specific question since the unique facts of any consumer transaction might make a rule of law set out herein inoperative. If you have a real live kicking consumer protection issue, contact your local consumer protection agency and if none is available, then call a lawyer.

And while we're selling apples, we should also make this pitch for oranges:


Consumer law is often called consumer protection law because, on the face of it anyway, consumer law is there to protect the consumer, not the manufacturer, the distributor or the retailer. However, manufacturers, distributors and retailers benefit substantially from robust consumer protection law because happy consumers keep the economy humming.

consumer goodsConsumer goods or consumer products are those things which are acquired for primarily personal, family or household purposes. A family van would be a consumer product but that same vehicle purchased by a taxi company for use by the taxi, would not.

Consumer law is a relatively young area of the law. Since time immemorial, the common law abandoned consumers to their own contracts.

Even the Romans worshipped at the altar of pacta sunt servanda. If you bought chickens, it was up to you to recognize a good chicken from a bad chicken. As the legendary American legal philosopher Fred Rodell cautioned in 1947:

"One of the best way(s) to palm off inferior goods is to wrap them up in a respectable looking package."

But a medieval individual would be stunned by the number and variety of goods the average contemporary individual acquires: clothes washer, television set, cellphone, ghettoblaster, fridge, stove, car, clothes, food, cameras, pens, desk lamps, hand sanitizer, telephone, speakers, trophies, tape, scissors, iPods, rubber stamps, CDs, DVDs, stamps, computer monitor, USB flashdrive … and the list goes on and on. The average consumer could not begin to fix a defect on his Canon digital camera, much less comprehend the technology inside.

Many products now carry a warning to the consumer that if they break open a sealed electronic device to get a look inside the product, any warranty is void. Try telling that to a medieval farmer when he asked if he can look inside the mouth of a "for sale" work horse.

The law comes at consumer protection in three ways: federal laws, provincial laws and standards.

Standards

Standards are minimum safety or performance specifications. Also known as industrial standards, consensus standards or voluntary standards, these specifications are developed by committees which then publish the standard. That standard may be ignored by individual manufacturers -  usually at their peril - but market forces and especially government requirements often give a standard the same standing as a statutory requirement. Ignoring a standard can be the kiss of death for a manufacturer.

Historically, standards formed an important part of consumer protection law. The development of a standard for weights and measures allowed the first forays of international trade. The development of international standards on the width of train tracks or bolts and screws all fostered international trade and greatly benefited consumers by giving them a choice between competing products.

Federal Law

The grand-daddy of federal consumer law is in the oddly-named Competition Act, presumably reflecting the suggestion often made by government that what is good for consumers is good for business; aka competition.

Many consumers think of consumer law as being a provincial thing but it is not just that. This federal law is an essential tool in the arsenal of all consumers in taming retailers and suppliers constantly driven to sell-sell-sell.

For example, consider the very local problem of double-ticketing (where a merchant puts two price tags on a product to lure the consumer to the till where he/she is asked to pay the higher of the two). The Competition Act, at §54:

"No person shall supply a product at a price that exceeds the lowest of two or more prices clearly expressed by him or on his behalf, in respect of the product in the quantity in which it is so supplied and at the time at which it is so supplied, (a) on the product, its wrapper or container; (b) on anything attached to, inserted in or accompanying the product, its wrapper or container or anything on which the product is mounted for display or sale; or (c) on an in-store or other point-of-purchase display or advertisement."

old day medicine adBut that is not all: this federal law requires a merchant who advertises a sale over a specified period of time, must supply the advertised product at the sale price for the stated period (§74.05).

As the CED states:

"Among the offences prohibited by the (Competition) Act that are germane to the sale of goods are: selling products at unreasonably low prices with the effect that competition is substantially lessened; making a false or misleading representation about a product to the public; deceptive telemarketing; deceptive notice of winning a prize; pricing a product at two levels and providing the public with the product at the higher price; multi-level marketing plans and pyramid selling; and price fixing."

The Criminal Code also covers, to some extent, consumer law by creating these offences:

  • "Every one who, by deceit, falsehood or other fraudulent means, whether or not it is a false pretense within the meaning of this Act, defrauds the public or any person, whether ascertained or not, of any property, money or valuable security or any service" (§380);
  • Fraudulently misleading the public in passing off goods (§408); and
  • "Every one commits an offence who sells, exposes or has in his possession for sale, or advertises for sale, goods that have been used, reconditioned or remade and that bear the trade-mark or the trade-name of another person, without making full disclosure that the goods have been reconditioned, rebuilt or remade for sale and that they are not then in the condition in which they were originally made or produced."(§411).

Provincial Law

There is an expression attributed to Moliere who, in explaining the benefits of having a single code of law for the entire nation of France, remarked that in traversing the country on horseback, the law changed as often as one would change horses.

In Canada, provincial consumer protection law is similar from coast-to-coast but not identical. Blindfolded and armed only with a dart and a map of Canada affixed to a large cork board, this author's dart lands on the province of British Columbia, hereafter the "sample" province for this exposé on provincial law contributions to consumer law. Most of the general rights and protections afforded to residents of British Columbia are available to the residents of other Canadian provinces although those rights and protections would be extended under statutes which have a different name and structure. Look and ye shall (probably) find!

Sale of Goods

The Sale of Goods Act (SGA) covers the sale of goods but not services. It may also cover used goods and private sellers unless they opt-out.1

The most important parts of the SGA, for consumers, are the conditions and warranties set out at §16-19. The statute requires that every product sold complies with any description given (§17) and that the product is fit for the purpose for which the product is acquired and are, generally, of merchantable quality.

The statute also requires that where a consumer product is sold pursuant to the presentation of a sample:

"... there is an implied condition that the bulk must correspond with the sample in quality, … that the buyer or lessee must have a reasonable opportunity of comparing the bulk with the sample, and … that the goods must be free from any defect rendering them unmerchantable that would not be apparent on reasonable examination of the sample."


Consumer Law is presented over two web-pages. This is Page 1. To continue, see Page 2 (which also includes all references).