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Role of Office of Public Counsel

1. The Office of Public Counsel has a mandate to protect and promote the individual and collective interests of domestic consumers of utility services.

2. The post is structurally separate and distinct from the Fair Trading Commission to ensure that the Office is able to act independently and provide effective representation of consumer interests.

3. The primary role of the Office is to represent the interests of domestic telephone, electricity, water, gas and transport consumers in utility regulation matters before the Fair Trading Commission and in appeals from decisions of the Commission. Domestic consumers are a vulnerable market who need robust and impartial representation of their interests.

4. The Office will also assist individual consumers taking proceedings before the Fair Trading Tribunal on matters related to the proposed Consumer Guarantees Act. The Consumer Guarantees Act will replace the Sale of Goods Act in respect of consumer transactions and will detail the rights and remedies of consumers in consumer contract transactions. Although the Fair Trading Commission will enforce the provisions of the proposed Consumer Protection Act, the proposed Consumer Guarantees Act will not be enforced by the Fair Trading Commission but will rely on action being taken by private consumers.


Utility Regulation

5. The work of the Office in utility regulation matters includes the following:

(a) ensuring that the interests of domestic consumers are taken
into account in the price control review process, at rate hearings and in any determinations on quality of service;

(b) assisting domestic consumers in presenting arguments at price control reviews or rate hearings;

(c) representing domestic consumers at hearings before the Commission relating to complaints on billings and standards of service; and

(d) advising and educating domestic consumers on the provisions of the Utilities Regulation Bill.

6. The establishment of this department will therefore ensure that the
information presented at reviews and hearings before the Commission are more effectively and critically examined and that the consumer's view is fully taken into account in any determinations made by the Commission.

7. The Office of Public Counsel will also aid in the streamlining of utility regulation hearings before the Commission, by promoting compliance with procedural rules and encouraging objectors on similar topics to combine their submissions.

8. Although it is expected that the quasi-judicial adversarial method of rate-setting will change with the introduction of incentive compatible mechanisms, such as price caps, the Office of Public Counsel will continue to play a role in representing domestic consumer interests in the consultative process.


Consumer Protection

9. The role of the Office of Public Counsel in consumer protection matters includes:

(a) advising and educating consumers generally on matters relating to the proposed Consumer Guarantees Act; and

(b) representing individual consumers bringing civil claims under the Consumer Guarantees Act before the Fair Trading Tribunal where Public Counsel deems this necessary or desirable.

10. The Office of Public Counsel will be unable to represent every individual bringing a claim before the Fair Trading Tribunal, as this would require the allocation of greater financial resources to the Office. It is expected therefore that Public Counsel will represent individual consumers in matters that are of general public interest or significance and would set a useful precedent.

11. Public Counsel will be expected to assume a high level of responsibility and public accountability. The officer is a legally qualified officer appointed by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission and must be an attorney at law of not less than 10 years standing.