The case for consumer courts in the Sultanate

By Hassan Shad — The Oman Consumer Protection Law (Royal Decree No 66/2014) (CPL) and its Executive Regulations (Ministerial Decision No 77/2017) do not make specific provision for the establishment of consumer courts or tribunals.
However, there is nothing under the CPL that prohibits creation of consumer courts or tribunals.  In fact, the object and purpose of the CPL would be served better if consumer courts were established in Oman to adjudicate consumer complaints.
Consumer courts or tribunals are specialised forums created with the specific mandate of deciding consumer complaints and grievances.
Generally, the object and purpose behind the creation of consumer courts is to have a speedy yet equitable institutional framework for disposing of consumer complaints and grievances whilst enabling the existing courts system in a country to function effectively and adjudicate general criminal, civil and other cases that present themselves in the day-to-day workings of the justice system.
There are several practical advantages of consumer courts or tribunals. Generally, in countries where consumer tribunals or courts exist, the following were the reasons (in varying degrees) foreseen seen by the lawmakers and drafters that prompted the decision to create such courts:
1. The general court system is already burdened and in some cases overburdened with run of the mill civil and criminal cases and adding consumer cases to the existing roster of cases in those courts would further burden the courts system and make the justice system inefficient.
2. Court procedures are generally rigorous and consumers — the weaker party in the unequal contractual relationship with the trader — would be burdened further if the consumer were required to follow the typical court procedures. This would deter consumers from enforcing their rights and thus, speedy redressal of consumer grievances would stand defeated if the existing courts were left to adjudicate consumer complaints.
3. Moreover, judges are trained to adjudicate questions of law and fact whilst consumer cases, besides involving question of law and fact, typically involve technicalities and expert know-how of products and services.
It is to be noted that CPL is lex specialis or special law that has been promulgated through Royal Decree issued by His Majesty which supersedes other Omani laws that may conflict with its object, scope or purpose.
Currently, the judicial system of Oman comprises of a three tier courts hierarchy ie the Primary Court, the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court.  The courts system of Oman is well equipped to handle the entire plethora of civil and criminal cases; however, the process typically followed in respect of a product complaint involves a different trajectory than the one followed for other cases.
The process starts from the filing of a consumer complaint at Public Authority for Consumer Protection (PACP) which is vested with the authority to oversee and enforce CPL in Oman. The complaint is either resolved through amicable resolution reached between the consumer and the trader, or if the consumer does not accept PACP’s recommendations or decision, PACP may refer the complaint to the public prosecution for framing charges against the individual concerned. The public prosecution, depending upon the results of the investigation conducted, can frame charges against an individual concerned and refer the matter to court for trial. Framing of charges against an individual concerned, although it creates deterrence, does not make the consumer “whole” again ie restore him to the original position which he enjoyed before being wronged by a trader.
In some instances, consumers may also assert their rights before courts by seeking replacement or return of the product or other remedies such as compensation.
Once a consumer complaint reaches court, the disposal of the complaint may take several months depending upon the type of the product or the intricacies involved.  Often, courts refer consumer complaints to experts with the mandate to do a fact-finding and present their report to the court.
Once a complaint reaches an expert, issuance of the expert’s report may take several weeks or months and involve several meetings between the expert, the trader and the concerned consumer.  The above works to the disadvantage of a consumer in the following ways:
(i) Consumer may have to wait several months for the decision of the court as courts are already handling a plethora of civil and criminal cases.
(ii) Filing of criminal charges against the concerned trader’s employees may serve to “deter” other from committing a crime against consumers however this does not ensure speedy justice for the consumer who is looking to avail one of the remedies provided under the CPL.
(iii) Consumer may be required to bear fees for the expert referral which may be quite high.
(iv) Above all, the expert to whom the matter is referred by court may not be an expert in the truest sense of the term ie with little to no expertise to analyse the product complaint. For example, an accounting expert to whom a vehicle complaint is referred by court for analysis and report will be unable to analyse the product and present a credible report to the court, which is required by the court to reach a just and fair decision.
CPL is a manifestation of the glorious vision of His Majesty and as CPL is lex specialis with a specific purpose to ensure that the rights of consumers are protected at all cost, such purpose would be served fully well in line with His Majesty’s vision if consumer courts are set up in Oman to enforce and apply the CPL for the benefit of all consumers.  [Hassan Shad is General Manager — ARAB Advocates and Legal Consultants, Muscat]