Disputes between consumers and businesses are commonplace in Canada. These disputes often involve the purchase of low-cost goods and services. As a result, many consumers simply walk away, vowing never to buy from the business again, rather than seek redress. New changes to consumer protection laws will formalize consumer access to free mediation services in order to resolve disputes with businesses.
Ontario has several consumer protection statutes that regulate the consumer marketplace, including the Consumer Protection Act, 2002 (“CPA”). The CPA sets out various rights and obligations of consumers and suppliers, prohibits “unfair practices” such as the making of false, misleading, deceptive, or unconscionable representations, and requires specified information to be disclosed to consumers in relation to various types of consumer agreements. The CPA applies to all consumer transactions if the consumer or the person engaging in the transaction with the consumer is in Ontario when the transaction takes place, subject to the exceptions and exemptions set out in the CPA and in O. Reg. 17/05.
The CPA also provides that the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services (“MGCS”) may receive complaints about conduct that may be in contravention of the CPA or other consumer protection legislation and may mediate a complaint if the parties agree to mediation. Thousands of consumer complaints are received by MGCS each year.
Complaints received are often in respect of amounts that are less than what it would cost to hire a lawyer. They involve a wide range of alleged contraventions, from allegations of misrepresentation to allegations that a supplier failed to refund a payment made under a cancelled consumer agreement. MGCS requires consumers to first attempt to resolve their dispute by writing to the supplier. If that proves unsuccessful, consumers may submit a complaint form together with supporting documents. The ministry determines how best to respond to the complaint based on the facts of the complaint. For example, the ministry may respond by referring the complaint to another body that is better positioned to address it, providing helpful information to the consumer, or exercising its powers to conduct an investigation. Suppliers named in these complaints may also be prosecuted. In 2018, 170 convictions were secured against suppliers under the province’s consumer protection legislation.