Archived—Project Summaries 2007-2008 - Consumers Council of Canada (CCC)

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1. Nanotechnology and Its Impact on Consumers

$59,500

Nanotechnologies are the most rapidly developing technologies of the 21st century. Consumers are particularly vulnerable to this emerging technology as they are unaware that nano-engineered materials are present in consumer products and can impact all aspects of their lives. Nano-materials can currently be found in cosmetics, clothing, sports equipment, toys, appliances, electronic equipment, drugs, medical devices, and food. However, little is known about the potential risks of these products to consumers or whether existing risk assessment methods can be used. Moreover, consumers are faced with labels and advertising using such terms as "nano-tex", "nanocide" and "nanoclusters" that have not been defined and are not understood by consumers.

The goal of the Consumer Council of Canada in this project is to improve the capacity of consumer organizations to educate consumers and advocate on their behalf to ensure that the policy, regulatory and standards decisions that will be made to manage this new emerging technology address the concerns and needs of consumers.

The methodology would consist of the following:

  • A comprehensive literature review of the principal scholarly research and expert opinion through web and document searches in order to identify:
    • the consumer products that are on the market that contain products of nanotechnology and the type of particles being used;
    • what is known about the impact (benefits and risks) directly to the health of consumers or indirectly through unintended release into the environment of nanotechnology particles included in products used by consumers;
    • any gaps in the knowledge base;
    • what, if any, regulatory or standardization initiatives are in place, underway or proposed nationally and/or internationally to evaluate and manage the benefits and risks for consumers associated with nanotechnology; and
    • how consumers or those representing consumers are or can be involved in developing public policy as the technology expands.
  • This literature review will bring together the data that will form the foundation of the inventories and analysis to be produced. It will also provide consumers with an understanding of the magnitude of the issue and potential use of the nano-materials in other consumer products as the technology develops.
  • Prepare a critical evaluation of the findings of the literature review and prepare a report and fact sheets suitable for distribution to key groups including consumers and consumer associations, government, the standards system, industry and other stakeholders.

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2. Research on Consumer Protection, Civil Enforcement and Consumer Advocacy

2007-08 $70,500
2008-09 $58,500

Ontario's new Consumer Protection Act was proclaimed in July 2005. The Ontario Act mirrors similar legislation in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. The various pieces of legislation greatly expand the civil remedies available to consumers when businesses fail to live up to their statutory and contractual obligations. Used to their potential, these remedies not only help individual consumers, but act as a deterrent to marketplace misconduct. In this sense, civil remedies represent potentially effective civil enforcement of the various consumer protection statutes. However potentially effective, civil remedies are, unfortunately, by and large inaccessible to the very people most vulnerable to sharp business practices. Many seniors, non-English/French-speaking community members, and low-income people with limited education may lack the confidence, skills or language to pursue their rights in Small Claims Court or to negotiate equitable settlements. Such persons are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer or paralegal to help them out. Furthermore, consumers resorting to Small Claims Court can expect delays and frustration as the courts are backlogged.

The research will determine whether legal aid remedies for consumers experiencing difficulty with businesses are needed, feasible and likely to be effective. The project goals are to conduct research across Canada on ways to:

  1. Make civil remedies more useful/available to low-income and vulnerable consumers by helping them gain access to no-cost or low-cost counsel through community legal clinics.
  2. Make civil remedies more effective as a systemic deterrent to marketplace misconduct by making them more readily useable for a greater number of people, by investigating the use of class actions and legal aid consumer advocacy program within community legal clinics.
  3. Help consumers and business avoid litigation by promoting negotiated settlements — with the ancillary benefit of supporting provincial justice policy on managing legal conflicts out of court.
  4. Provide the many provincial consumer protection branches with a meaningful, helpful referral option for the many consumers that are now told to pursue legal action.
  5. Engage community legal clinics as an "early warning system" on marketplace scams and widespread problems emerging in the marketplace.
  6. Investigate the feasibility of using the network of local community legal clinics and student legal aid service societies across Canada as a channel for the distribution of educational materials.

The project will accomplish its research goals through direct consultations with legal aid clinics and other service providers, Small Claims Court judiciary and government agencies across Canada and internet research and surveys. A series of discrete tasks have been developed to attain each of the six project goals.

More specifically, CCC will undertake the following tasks:

Task 1 — Needs Assessment and Analysis of data and reports
The research methodology will consist of a survey of the target groups and persons in order to establish and assess vulnerable consumer needs with limited phone follow up. According to CCC, this will identify who are the most vulnerable consumers and their issues and needs. It will identify systemic barriers to consumers' legal remedies, determine how many consumers are affected — and how severely — by these barriers and identify potential strategies to lowering those barriers.

The survey will involve: Small Claims Court judiciary, Legal Aid Programs, individual community legal clinics such as the advocacy centers for the elderly, community legal education programs where such programs exist, law school student legal aid societies, pro bono law programs (inside and outside government), consumer services officers and investigators in government consumer protection branches, crown counsel in the legal services branches of government ministries that deal with consumer protection issues, government policy analysts, law societies and provincial community legal clinic associations.

The research will also review government complaint data and conduct an analysis of clinic reports on trends in client needs at legal aid offices across Canada, including a review of research conducted by the Department of Justice, Canada.

Task 2 — Consumer Advocacy Organization
The researcher will canvas by way of questionnaire and telephone follow-up, consumer advocacy organizations across Canada, the US, UK and Commonwealth jurisdictions on the issues facing vulnerable consumers.

Task 3 — Consumer Measures Committee
The researcher will liaise with the Consumer Measures Committee co-chair through the Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada to advise them of ongoing research efforts and possibly seek input.

Task 4 — Evaluation Committee
The researcher will establish a steering committee of the CCC and liaise with that committee.

Task 5 — Advocacy tools
The researcher will determine how legal aid programs have been employed to support consumer legal advocacy for the most vulnerable consumers across Canada and compare this with other jurisdictional experiences. For example, various forms of consumer legal advocacy are conducted by legal clinics and legal aid programs in the United States — initial contacts would be the National Association of Consumer Affairs Administrators and the US Legal Aid Commission.

Task 6 — Report
Develop a report with recommendations outlining effective programs of assistance.

Task 7 — Promotion
Promote recommendations to interested legal aid clinics across Canada for adoption. Work with clinics to fine tune the approaches to local and regional needs.

Task 8 — Evaluate Uptake
Conduct a survey to measure uptake, establish a method of evaluation of the recommendations and determine the effectiveness of the recommendations.