New legislative amendments to the Competition Act and the Consumer Affairs Act were introduced on Monday 29th July 2019. After three years, the Courts are now able to start hearing consumer protection cases again.
What led to this?
The three-year stalemate started back in 2015. A petrol station owner cut down prices on fuel sold at its station. However, this reduction was reversed following pressure from the fuel supplier. The Competition Office ruled that the station owner and the fuel supplier breached the law.
However, in a previous case the Constitutional Court had barred the Director-General from imposing fines. In a case instituted by the Federation of Estate Agents, the Court found that it was unconstitutional for the Director-General for Competition and the Consumer Appeal Tribunal to decide cases of breaches of competition law rules. The Court held that the power to impose fines, being a criminal matter, should only be vested in an independent and impartial Court of law.
Since then, the Competition Office was unable to impose fines until the required amendments to the law were enacted. The amendments provide the clarity that was needed. However, the Competition Office is still unable to enforce decisions retroactively – therefore, any breaches flagged by the regulator during this period are likely to remain unpunished.
The MCCAA’s (Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority) competition office will now be responsible for investigating consumer rights breach cases. Meanwhile the Magistrates Court will oversee prosecutions. The Director General will henceforth have to obtain a warrant from a magistrate before inspecting the property of a person being investigated. Additionally, the person investigated will have a right to a lawyer.
The amendments have therefore instilled a degree of legal certainty. This ensures that defaulting marketing operators are prosecuted, benefitting the market, other operators, consumers and society as a whole.