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Consumer law and policy

[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a sixth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law.]

1. Introduction

Recalling or withdrawing consumer products from the marketplace or taking other “corrective action” regarding actually or potentially unsafe or sub-standard products are important parts of consumer law and practice. Manufacturers and other suppliers can be incentivized to monitor the ongoing safety of their products after delivery into the supply chain for consumers, and then undertake corrective action to minimize harm, by private law mechanisms (such as tort claims for negligence brought by consumers) or reputational considerations (loss of customer goodwill etc). However, especially in developing countries experiencing problems with access to justice through the courts or limited media or NGO activity with respect to consumer affairs, public regulation relating to recalls has become significant.

National laws in ASEAN Member States (AMSs) mostly now provide for regulators to require suppliers to undertake mandatory recalls, under specific legislation enacted for (higher-risk) sectors such as automobiles, health products or foods, and/or under general consumer protection laws. In the shadow of such powers, regulators can also more effectively encourage or negotiate with suppliers to undertake (semi-)voluntary recalls. Sometimes suppliers even decide to undertake (purely) voluntary recalls, even without prior consultation with regulators or knowing their extent of their mandatory recall powers.

However, AMSs still lack general consumer protection laws that oblige suppliers to notify regulators when they undertake such voluntary recalls, as required by amendments in 1986 in Australia and 2013 in New Zealand. Nor do such laws in AMSs impose a broader product accident or hazard reporting duty on suppliers, even if the latter have not yet initiated a recall, as required in Australia since 2010 as well as the EU since 2001, Japan since 2006, Canada since 2010, and the US. Both types of obligations can encourage and assist suppliers to undertake recalls more effectively, through drawing on the technical expertise and communication networks of the consumer regulators.

Especially if AMSs take the first step of amending their national consumer protection laws to require suppliers to notify regulators about voluntary recalls, but even now given the mandatory recall powers generally available to regulators, it becomes important to define what is meant “recall” or whatever broader term (like “corrective action”) may be used in the relevant legislation, and provide guidance on when and how to undertake such remedial action effectively. In many major economies that have introduced duties on suppliers to make disclosures to regulators, on top of legislation providing for the latter’s back-up powers to order mandatory recalls, guidelines have recently been published or updated that elaborate quite extensively on rather sparse legislative provisions relating to recalls. These include quite detailed guidelines or handbooks publicized recently by authorities in the EU, the US, Australia, and Japan (although only in Japanese). By contrast, there is little publically-available guidance provided in AMSs. For example, the “Guidelines on Product Defect Reporting and Recall Procedures” are issued by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore as a relatively short (undated) webpage, and anyway only relate to health products.

This Policy Digest therefore compares such recent guidance materials to identify key components and features that might be elaborated into “ASEAN Recall Guidelines” for consumer products generally. Although aimed primarily at suppliers and regulators, facilitating also evolving information-sharing platforms such as the ASEAN Product Alert website assembling national reports on some mandatory and voluntary recalls, such Guidelines aim also to benefit consumers. Accordingly, peak consumer associations or relevant NGOs should be closely consulted in elaborating such ASEAN Recall Guidelines.

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[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a fifth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law. It is highly relevant also to Japan in light of Kanebo's large-scale recall of some of its skin-whitening products across the region as well as in Japan in 2013.]

1. Introduction

Consumer goods associated with higher risks, and often also extent of harm, tend to generate public regulatory interventions. Food is one example, for which nation states have often legislation quite early on. However, national legislation and implementation is increasingly impacted by international law, particularly World Trade Organization (WTO) or bilateral and regional free trade agreements agreements insist that food safety measures be based on rational and proportionate public health risk assessments, and not constitute disguised trade barriers. This is facilitated by such agreements expressly stating such requirements will be presumed to be satisfied if the national measures are based on food standards agreed in the Codex Alimentarius, administered by two United Nations bodies. The Codex process has remained relatively unpoliticised, based instead on scientific risk assessments, partly because most countries both export and import foods but also because food is a necessity for everyone. This backdrop has also made it easier for other international and regional bodies, including ASEAN and APEC, to collaborate with national regulators and the private sector to develop shared food safety standards in Southeast Asia and world-wide.

Pharmaceuticals and, more recently and in a less interventionist way, cosmetics (goods without, necessarily, any medicinal properties) have also tended to generate regulatory regimes at the national level. At the international level, however, the WTO’s 1994 Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement does not expressly create a presumption of conformity from adhering to standards set by specified bodies, when national regulators introduce measures applicable to imports. There is no counterpart to the Codex process; different countries and regions maintain more disparate approaches to assessing and regulating non-food sectors, partly because they may not be exporting as much as importing certain types of goods.

Overall, moreover, the United States (US) often adopts more lenient regulatory regimes compared to the European Union (EU). This is particularly noticeable with respect to cosmetics: the US relies much more on voluntary industry self-regulation (plus more threat of private lawsuits for product liability), whereas the EU favours more interventionist public regulation. Nonetheless, the EU’s 1976 Cosmetics Directive aimed to balance consumer protection with harmonized standards to facilitate cross-border trade, especially within and into Europe. Because the regulatory regime remains stricter than in the US, and EU’s cosmetics manufacturers are more likely to sell into the more regulated European markets than American manufacturers, the EU can also support European manufacturers by encouraging countries and regions in other parts of the world to “trade up” to the EU rather than laxer US regulatory approach, when developing their own laws and practices. Already, by 2004, the lists of ingredients set under the 1976 EU Cosmetics Directive had been adopted by 30 countries, including countries in South America party to the Mercosur and Andean Pact regional arrangements. Other countries, including China and India, have reproduced significant features of the EU model.

Furthermore, although this is not widely known, the EU model has been adopted in Southeast Asia through the “Agreement on the ASEAN Harmonized Cosmetics Regulatory Scheme”. This was signed in 2003 to advance the ASEAN Free Trade Area program, albeit also against the backdrop of the WTO’s TBT Agreement. Schedule A creates the ASEAN Mutual Recognition Arrangement of Product Registration Approvals for Cosmetics, allowing individual ASEAN Member States (AMSs) to agree with other AMSs to allow, without further requirements, the import of products that satisfy the regulatory requirements of the other state(s). However, any such mutual recognition agreements (anyway possible under the TBT Agreement) were envisaged as a temporary step towards harmonizing cosmetics regulation in the region. More importantly, under the 2003 Agreement (Art 2(3)) the AMSs committed to implement by 1 January 2008 the “ASEAN Cosmetics Directive” (ACD) set out in Schedule B. This closely tracks the EU Directive, including by requiring the AMSs to “adopt the Cosmetics Ingredients Listings of the EU Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC including the latest amendments”. Supported by the ASEAN-EU Programme for Regional Integration Support, by early 2008 six AMSs had started implementing the ASEAN Directive into their national laws, followed by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar a year and half later, and finally Indonesia from 2013. The ACD regime has therefore been described as “one of the first concrete instances of economic integration between ASEAN countries”.

Meanwhile, however, the EU itself replaced its Directive in 2009 with a Cosmetics Regulation, which on 11 July 2013 came into direct effect in the (now 27) EU member states, rather than having to be implemented by national legislation – sometimes not straightforwardly – as occurs when harmonisation is attempted by means of a Directive. The EU Regulation similarly attempts to enhance cross-border trade through harmonisation, expanding consumer choice while respecting public health, for example by adding new requirements to label cosmetics (such as suncreens) that include nano-particles.

Part 2 below therefore takes a closer link at key features of the ACD, including some differences that remain compared to the original EU model (and especially the US regulatory regime), as well as implementation and other challenges. As elaborated in Part 3, as well as various concrete improvements that could be made to this approach for harmonizing consumer product safety law, the model might eventually be extended to other sectors and anyway is relevant to general consumer regulators, even if the primary jurisdiction over cosmetics usually remains with health officials.

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[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a fourth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law.]

1. Introduction

Public regulation of food safety is typically an early and major priority for law reformers at the national level, given potentially high risks and degrees of harm from unsafe foods. For products that present lower risks, for which it is more difficult to mobilize political resources to regulate, product liability regimes can also incentivise manufacturers to consider food safety – especially if potential harm is extensive, liability is strict, and court systems work effectively. Further incentives can come from reputational effects, in the context of growing (social) media coverage of food safety concerns. Nonetheless, as outlined in Part 2 below, serious food safety failures continue to occur in both developing and developed countries.

General food laws have been enacted in ASEAN Member States (AMSs). As shown in a recent comparison of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, they generally impose criminal and/or administrative sanctions for food adulteration, foods injurious to health, food unfit for human consumption, insanitary facilities, and false labeling or deceptive advertising. (Indonesia’s Food Act 1996 further provides specific civil remedies for consumers harmed by unsafe food.) Yet enforcement is problematic: “Food quality and safety standards are usually strictly followed for exportable food commodities, but not always enforced for food destined for the domestic market”.

In addition, such food laws tend to fall under the jurisdiction of ministries of agriculture and/or health. To minimize conflicts of interest, namely agriculture ministries favouring suppliers rather than consumers, there is a tendency to establish independent food agencies, as in the United States (US, although the agriculture department still regulates some products) or Myanmar (within the Health Ministry). This is especially true for risk assessment functions, as in the European Union (EU) since 2002, and Japan since 2003 (for risk management if harm eventuates, Japan’s agriculture ministry still regulates farm safety while the health ministry deals with the subsequent supply chain).

However, other government departments are also increasingly involved in food safety regulation. On the one hand, ministries of commerce or trade get involved because international treaties now require science-based, proportionate regulation of import safety, preferably based on internationally agreed standards, as outlined in Part 3 below. On the other hand, there is existing and potential scope for consumer affairs regulators to become (more) involved in food safety regulation, even though they may constitute smaller and more recently created public authorities, because:

• they often have or share responsibility for enforcing food standards set by other departments (as seen in the Consumer Protection Laws enacted in Vietnam in 2010 and Myanmar in 2013);
• consumer regulators may also be given a coordinating role, or “back-up” powers to regulate if a harmful food product falls outside the jurisdiction of other agencies (eg konnyaku jelly snacks in Japan until the Consumer Affairs Agency was established in 2009);
• consumer regulators may have powers to bring representative actions (as in Thailand) or order compensation (as in Myanmar) on behalf of consumers harmed by non-compliant foods.

Consumer regulators also develop helpful expertise in consumer behaviour and risk communication more generally, which is valuable for law-making related also to food nutrition (i.e. “healthy eating”) – a broader contemporary policy concern than food safety (i.e. avoiding food-borne illnesses). As explained by the Consumers International regional representative at the inaugural ASEAN Consumer Protection Conference, held in Vietnam over 8-9 November 2014, promoting healthy diets is a priority because adverse health effects associated with obesity are now spreading to Southeast Asia. In addition, consumer regulators can assist other government authorities in developing effective schemes for oversight of “food safety auditing” by private inspectors, already widely used in global food supply chains and likely to be further facilitated through international agreements on trade in services, yet potentially creating conflicts of interests for the auditors which may impact adversely on consumers.

Accordingly, there is a need to expand capacity in food-related health issues among consumer regulators in AMSs. They need enhanced opportunities to engage with other national regulators (with shared or primary responsibility for food safety regulation) as well as the growing numbers of international, inter-governmental or public-private partnership organisations involved in generating shared food safety standards in the region. This is especially important given that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) project, promoting free trade in goods and services by 2015, includes harmonisation of agri-food standards as a priority action item (as elaborated in Part 3).

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Chulalongkorn University’s ASEAN Studies Centre will sponsor this major international conference in Bangkok over 28-29 July 2015, with collaboration from and at the downtown venue of the Department of International Trade Promotion within Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce. The key organiser is the immediate past Dean of Law at Chula, Prof Sakda Thanitcul, assisted by Prof Luke Nottage, immediate past Associate Dean (International) at the University of Sydney Law School and a visiting professor at Chula for parts of 2015. Other speakers include Professor Geraint Howells, renowned consumer product safety law expert and presently Dean of Law at the City University of Hong Kong, as well as the following other country reporters:

1. Singapore: Mr. Lawrence Teh (lawrence.teh@rodyk.com)
2. Vietnam: Mr. Anh Thi Phuong Pham (phuonganh.p@tilleke.com)
3. Cambodia: Mr. Ly Tayseng (tayseng@hbslaw.asia)
4. Laos: Mr. Sornpheth Douangdy (Sornpheth.douangdy@la.pwc.com)
5. Myanmar: Prof. Dr. Khin Mar Yee (dr.khinmaryee.ygn@gmail.com)
6. Malaysia: Mr. Lim Chee Wee (lcw@skrine.com)
7. Indonesia: Mr. Riza Buditomo (Riza.Fadhli.Buditomo@bakernet.com)
8. Philippines: Prof. Emmanuel Lombos (emlombos@syciplaw.com)
9. Brunei: Prof. Dr. Colin Ong (onglegal@gmail.com)

Country reporters will summarise key features in their respective jurisdictions, elaborating eg from Jocelyn Kellam (ed) Product Liability in the Asia-Pacific (3rd ed 2009), but focus on new developments in private law, public regulation, enforcement and media coverage of product safety issues. The conference also draws on my research for a smaller project, focusing on free trade agreement aspects, for the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

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[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a third Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on consumer protection law.

A. Under-Enforcement of Product Liability Law for Small-Value Claims

Manufacturers can be incentivised to supply safe consumer goods due to market (reputation) mechanisms, public safety regulation, and/or private law (especially potential tort law liability if consumers claim compensation for harm caused by defective products). The first two mechanisms work better if there is a high probability or risk of harm, as public opinion is then easier to mobilize, although public safety regulation is usually only implemented when the potential harm from unsafe goods is also high. Product liability (PL) law is therefore particularly important to incentivise manufacturers of goods that present a lower probability of harm. However, because of costs associated with enforcing PL law – ultimately through the court system – it tends to work best where the harm and therefore compensation amounts are high. Strict liability PL regimes, increasingly common in ASEAN member states, aim to lessen the burden of proof on potential plaintiffs, who no longer have to prove negligence on the part of manufacturers. Accordingly, they can make more feasible this mechanism even for defective products that generate lower levels of harm and compensation amounts.

Nonetheless, strict liability PL law is still often difficult for consumers to invoke, even in developed countries with comparatively good access to court procedures. After all, unsafe products may often just cause consequential loss to other “consumer goods”. (Only a few countries extend strict PL law coverage to consequential losses to non-consumer goods, which tend to be more extensive. ) Even when personal injury results from the defective products, the harm suffered by each consumer may be low even if the aggregated harm is high. (Good recent examples may be Kanebo’s skin-whitening cosmetics, recently recalled throughout Asian markets, or defective foodstuffs – if consumed in small quantities. ) In such situations, each individual consumer will be reluctant to pursue claims through the court system.

Such problems are compounded in developing and even middle-income countries, where courts are under-resourced or face other generic problems, or accessing them still runs counter to prevailing social norms. This helps explain the limited impact of strict liability PL law reforms observed in South East Asia, despite some of those countries going beyond the European Union (EU) substantive law, for example by allowing consumers to claim multiple damages (i.e. more than the actual harm suffered).

The consequent under-enforcement of consumer law in this field is problematic from the viewpoint of economic efficiency as well as broader justice concerns. After all, the basic economic rationale for introducing strict liability for unsafe manufactured products is that consumers lack expertise to assess safety levels. The latter furthermore correlate only weakly with the pricing of such goods (except some that could cause catastrophic losses if risks eventuate, such as automobiles, which tend to subject to minimum public regulatory standards anyway). Even if particularly well-informed consumers are able to differentiate safety levels of various products, they may end up in the hands of third parties. The economic benefits of introducing strict liability PL law to mitigate such problems, by forcing manufacturers to “internalize” the full costs associated with putting goods into the market, is undermined if those substantive laws are inadequately enforced. This is also problematic from the perspective of justice and advancing the rule of law, a major objective particularly in developing countries and for ASEAN.

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[The following is an un-footnoted draft of a second Policy Digest (also omitting Figures) prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat conference on consumer protection law in Hanoi over 8-9 December 2014. The footnoted final version is available at: http://www.asean.org/resources/publications/item/consumer-protection-digests-and-case-studies-a-policy-guide-volume-1?category_id=382]

1. Overview

Consumer product safety failures continue to occur ASEAN states. However, many reported cases involve product sectors that already involve some public regulation (Part 2). For other product types, many states have enacted strict product liability (PL) statutes, aimed at making it easier for harmed consumers to claim compensation and thus providing an additional incentive for manufacturers to supply safe goods (Part 3). Yet PL litigation and claims remain very limited, as in Europe (Parts 4-5). The incentive effect needs to be bolstered by other measures, including improvements in access to justice (Part 6).

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[The following is an un-footnoted longer draft of one of two Policy Digests prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat conference on consumer protection law in Hanoi over 8-9 December 2014. The footnoted final version is available at: http://www.asean.org/resources/publications/item/consumer-protection-digests-and-case-studies-a-policy-guide-volume-1?category_id=382]

1. Overview
Consumer product safety is a major contemporary concern for developing, middle-income and developed economies. ASEAN, through its Committee on Consumer Protection (ACCP), has recognised this as a priority topic for international collaboration, as trade in goods accelerates through the region with its major trading partners world-wide. Part 2 of this Digest highlights the policy challenge. Part 3 shows how market and even private law incentives are unlikely to provide sufficient incentives for manufacturers to produce safe products; some minimum regulatory standards are needed. Part 4 focuses on regulatory powers to force recalls of unsafe goods, but also requirements for suppliers to notify national regulators about ‘voluntary’ recalls. It also outlines recall information disclosure efforts underway nationally, regionally (notably within the European Union, EU, but also through ACCP since early 2011), and now internationally (especially through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, since late 2012). This Digest suggests there is scope already for greater engagement by ACCP and individual ASEAN member states particularly with the OECD initiative in this field. Part 5 also urges broader information-sharing as the OECD clearing-house expands over the next few years, as well as with product safety incident reporting systems already developed particularly in the EU and the United States (US).

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My public lecture on this topic, bringing together two research fields of contemporary public interest, was presented on 24 September 2014 as part of Sydney Law School's Distinguished Speakers Program.

The session was kindly introduced by my colleague Prof Chester Brown, and ended with a commentary by NUS Asst Prof Jean Ho who kindly arrived straight from Sydney airport after her flight from Singapore.

The audio file of my presentation and Chester's introduction are available via Sydney Law School's podcast channel (specifically here), my Powerpoint slides are here (as a PDF), and a related short paper is here. Below is the abstract (with further hyperlinked references available here) and speaker/commentator bios.

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The Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, with in-kind support from the global law firm Baker & McKenzie, will fund over 2014 this project involving also my colleague specialising in Chinese law, Prof Bing Ling.

[Background] Regional economic integration is proceeding apace. ASEAN aims to completely eliminate tariffs among 6 original (out of 10) member states by 2015, as part of developing an economic, political (security) and socio-cultural “community”. Yet it has also established an ASEAN Committee on Consumer Protection, to avoid a regulatory “race to the bottom” along with this expansion of free trade. Since late 2012, ASEAN has also begun negotiating a “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” (RCEP) with Australia-NZ, Japan, China, Korea and India – leveraging off existing Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with each of those states. Consumer protection is likely to arise also in the context of RCEP, and even the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA (with negotiations already well advanced and involving many of the same states).

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On 8 June 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Volkswagen Australia would be formally recalling Golf and other Volkswagen-made models that had suddenly lost power. The family of one driver and the driver of a truck that rear-ended her Golf vehicle are arguing before the coroner that this was a possible cause for her fatal accident. Over 300 other owners of Volkswagen-made vehicles have also reported problems. Similar concerns about some of Volkswagen’s direct-shift gearboxes had led to formal recalls of some models as early as 2009 in the USA, then in China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan. However, Volkswagen reportedly stated that Australia does not have the same gearboxes, and instead had initially undertaken a program involving its dealers. Marketing experts have criticised the recall recently commenced in Australia, suggesting that Volkswagen will have suffered extensive damage to its brands by not acting publically earlier to address consumer concerns – in addition to the estimated $170m in direct repair costs.

It will probably come as no surprise that Volkswagen conducted recalls more promptly in the USA. Toyota suffered extensive adverse publicity there relating especially to problems instead involving sudden acceleration, generating recalls of over 10 million vehicles over 2009-2011 and a recently-finalised $1.6b class action settlement. Nor should it be surprising that Volkswagen undertook a recall in Japan. Japanese consumers have become increasingly sensitive about product safety issues, especially since 2000 - when Mitsubishi Motors was found to have been conducting illegal clandestine recalls over an extended period. The delay in Australia is disturbing, especially given the increased attention otherwise being paid to consumer protection since “re-harmonisation” pursuant to the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) reforms enacted in 2010.

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Japan’s is well underway on the path to completing its first comprehensive reform of contract law since enactment of the Civil Code in 1896. A driving force has been Takashi Uchida, a prominent participant in Japan’s intense discussions over contract law theory in the early 1990s. He resigned in 2007 as Professor of Civil Law at the University of Tokyo in order to spearhead deliberations within the Legislative Council (hosei shingikai) of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), now charged with recommending specific reforms.

At the Council’s first Working Group meeting on 22 November 2009, one member reportedly suggested that deliberations should proceed “without paying too much attention to ‘the Basic Policy for the Law of Obligation Reform’ (draft proposals by [the] Japanese Civil Code (Law of Obligations) Reform Commission)” because it had been confirmed that the Working Group’s deliberations should start “from zero”. However, the Draft Proposals (DP) published in April 2009 by that semi-private Reform Commission, along with a detailed five-volume commentary written by its members, were clearly intended to frame the subsequent debate in the formal Working Group arena – and have mostly achieved that effect.

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Australia is long overdue for statutory intervention in private international law (PIL), so the recent ‘Discussion Paper 1’ (DP) from the federal Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) is very welcome. From a background in comparative and transnational business law, I strongly support legislative reform, particularly for cross-border consumer transactions and/or in relation to international arbitration. This can now draw on a wealth of experience at an international level and from our major (now mostly Asia-Pacific) trading partners. Such reforms will add tangible evidence of the Government's recently declared commitment to 'Australia in the Asian Century'.

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About the seminar:

This fourth ANJeL CLE Seminar in Tokyo, aimed especially at Australian practitioners in Japan, as well as Japanese practitioners interested in Australian law and the economy, introduces new Australian developments in labour law and consumer law, including dispute resolution aspects, comparing also some developments in Japanese law and practice. It will be followed by an informal networking opportunity.

To register and view the event flyer please click here.

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In an article published in the Zeitschrift für Japanisches Recht / Journal of Japanese Law [“Die Haftung für Nuklearschäden nach japanischem Atomrecht – Rechtsprobleme der Reaktorkatastrophe von Fukushima I” (Liability for Nuclear Damages pursuant to Japanese Atomic Law – Legal Problems Arising from the Fukushima I Nuclear Accident) (ZJapanR 31, 2011)] Julius Weitzdörfer, Research Associate with the Japan Unit of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law (and JSPS Visiting Researcher at Kyoto University Law Faculty), examines the legal challenges currently facing the Japanese judiciary, government and economy in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. The article (in German along with an English abstract) can be downloaded here, and shorter summary by the author is reproduced below (from the MPI website).

Luke Nottage (also now at Kyoto University Law Faculty, as a Visiting Scholar over October-November) then adds a broader perspective on the disasters afflicting Japan since 11 March 2011, based on his presentation at Tohoku University in Sendai over 14-15 October.

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[A version of this posting also appeared on the The Conversation blog (28 July 2011) and then the East Asia Forum blog (30 July 2011). The former is 'an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the university and research sector' involving 'content support' from the Go8, including the University of Sydney.]

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was one of the first among world leaders to visit Japan, over 20-23 April, after the nation was stricken on 3 March by the ‘earthquake-tsunami-radiation triple disaster’. But the Australian government was tactful and realistic in not placing high priority on progressing bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations. Talks had resumed in Tokyo over 7-10 February 2011 after stalling for almost a year, but a lack of progress - particularly over agricultural market access - had then prompted respective Trade Ministers to call for a high-level political summit to regain momentum. The ‘3-11’ disaster generated more urgent priorities for the Japanese government. Indeed, reversing a commitment to decide this question by end-June, in May the Kan administration announced it would defer any decision about whether to join with the nine nations (including Australia) now negotiating an expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

Nonetheless, Japan has some significant incentives to resume FTA negotiations with Australia in the wake of 3-11, although the road ahead still looks rocky.

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[Slightly updated on 2 September. A shorter version of this posting appeared in a Roundtable on "The Conversation" blog (25 August 2011). It draws on research for the project, "Fostering a Common Culture in Cross-Border Dispute Resolution: Australia, Japan and the Asia-Pacific", supported by the Commonwealth through the Australia-Japan Foundation which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.]

Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill passed the federal House of Representatives on 24 August, although a week before it had looked like foundering. The Bill received its second reading in the Senate today, but it should pass without further change or controversy. The Bill passed by the House has already attracted commentary, mostly lauding this admittedly well-intentioned legislation.

But the legislation stuck to the original proposal for implementation: sales will have to be in the plain packaging from 1 July 2012. So Philip Morris Asia (PMA) are likely to commence investor-state arbitration (ISA) proceedings after expiry of the 3-month “cooling off” period under Art 10 of the 1993 Australia – Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty, calculated from notification of the dispute on 27 June.

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This is the title of my third paper in a series of edited and updated selections of my postings to the ‘East Asia Forum’ blog (indicated with a double asterisk in the Table of Contents below) and this partly-overlapping ‘Japanese Law and the Asia-Pacific’ blog. They mainly cover developments from mid-2009 through to mid-2010, with a focus on law and policy in Australia and Japan in a wider regional and sometimes global context. The paper is freely downloadable here.

Half of the postings edited for the paper introduce some new policy and legislative agendas proclaimed by the then Prime Ministers of Australia (Kevin Rudd, in late July 2009) and Japan (Yukio Hatoyama, through the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] which he led to a remarkable general election victory in late August 2009). Both had resigned by mid-2010, indicating some of the difficulties involved in implementing ambitious reforms in both countries. All the more so, perhaps, if innovative measures are to be added to both countries’ Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in order to foster more sustainable socio-economic development in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

The remaining postings end by introducing Australia’s regime for international (and domestic) commercial arbitration enacted in mid-2010, centred on a United Nations Model Law – like Japan’s Arbitration Act of 2003. However it sets these enactments in broader context by focusing on legal professionals – lawyers, judges and specialists in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – as well as aspects of the legal education systems in both countries. Those systems will need to gel better as well for both Australia and Japan to achieve the ‘cultural reform’ needed to generate sustainable critical mass in commercial (and investor-state) arbitration activity.

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Product Safety is one major theme for the 4th Consumer Law Roundtable, hosted this year at Sydney Law School on 4 December 2009. Others include unfair contract terms and consumer credit, and this Roundtable will have an Asia-Pacific focus. Professor Michelle Tan will join us again from Japan, and keynote speakers are Professor Tsuneo Matsumoto (chair of Japan's new Consumer Commission, which he outlines here) and VUW's Kate Tokeley (considering unfair contract terms from a New Zealand perspective). A major role of the new Consumer Affairs Agency - supervised by Commission - is to collect and analyse consumer product-related accident data, which Japanese suppliers need to disclose since amendments in 2006.

Meanwhile, on 16 November the Australian Treasury initiated yet another public Consultation: "Regulatory Impact Statement - Australian Consumer Law - Best Practice Proposals and Product Safety Regime". Before being considered for a Bill, a cost-benefit analysis (RIS) has been required for these proposals, based on consumer law reform recommendations from the Productivity Commission in 2008 other than those (especially unfair contract terms regulations) which were introduced as a separate Bill in July - without the extra hurdle of such a RIS analysis. Unfortunately, the Treasury did not publicise well this latest Consultation (eg not via their http://www.treasury.gov.au/consumerlaw/ portal) and required Submissions by 30 November. They wanted to report to the Ministerial Council of Consumer Affairs (MCCA), also scheduled for 4 December - alongside, incidentally, PM Rudd's major conference on the Asia Pacific Community concept (see my revised blog on that here).

Despite this very tight deadline, I provided the following Submission in response to Part II (pp 82-98) of this consultation, regarding Product Safety (PS) re-regulation. I elaborated mainly on a few key points developed in my Submission to the first consultation on the Australian Consumer Law reform announced in February 2009. Hopefully Australia will finally join Japan and many other Asia-Pacific countries (China, Canada and the US) in adopting the new global standards for PS.

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Imagine an international regime with these institutional features:

1. Virtually free trade in goods and services, including a "mutual recognition" system whereby compliance with regulatory requirements in one jurisdiction (eg qualifications to practice law or requirements to offering securities to the public) basically means exemption from compliance with regulations in the other jurisdiction. And for sensitive areas, such as food safety, there is a trans-national regulator.

2. Virtually free movement of capital, underpinned by private sector and governmental initiatives.

3. Permanent residence available to nationals from the other jurisdiction (and strong pressure to maintain flexible rules about multiple nationality).

4. Treaties for regulatory cooperation, simple enforcement of judgments (a court ruling in one jurisdiction is treated virtually identically to a ruling of a local court), and to avoid double taxation (including a system for taxpayer-initiated arbitration among the member states).

5. Government commitment to harmonising business law more widely, eg now for consumer and competition law.

No, the answer is not the obvious one: I am NOT talking about the European Union (EU). I am referring to the Trans-Tasman framework built up between Australia and New Zealand, particularly over the last decade, sometimes through treaties (binding in international law) but sometimes in softer ways (eg parallel legislation in each country). And since both countries are actively pursuing bilateral and now some regional Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), especially in the Asia-Pacific region, can't at least some of these Trans-Tasman initiatives become a template for a broader "Asia Pacific Community"?

This question is particularly timely as the new DPJ-led government in Japan, has declared its support not only for the WTO system but also for FTAs, particularly in the Asian region. It also advocates improvements in food and consumer product safety measures. Whether or not Australia is considered part of Asia, either by Japan or itself, the two countries are continuing bilateral FTA negotiations in the context of growing involvement in regional arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region. Such developments constitute one theme at the NZ Centre for International Economic Law conference, “Trade Agreements: Where Do We Go From Here?”, over 22-23 October 2009 in Wellington. Below is an edited introduction to my four-part paper, now available in further updated form as a Sydney Law School Research Paper. Powerpoint slides are also available in PDF here.

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Tezukayama University Professor Michelle Tan (who Commented recently on my previous blog on the new DPJ government and law reform) spoke with me on this topic at the big SOCAP (Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals) conference in Sydney over 25-6 August. Key conference themes were the impact of the GFC and world-wide recession, and the new nation-wide Australian Consumer Law reforms. We emphasised the need for Australia to unify consumer nation-wide by ‘trading up’ not only to best practice from among its states and territories, but also to emerging global standards. Our presentation compared developments in consumer policy/administration generally, product liability and safety, consumer credit and unfair contract terms, collective redress and consumer ADR. (Powerpoints and a related Working Paper are here, drawing on my various Submissions to aspects of Australia's current consumer law reform program.)

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This is the grand title of a modest Sydney Law School Research Paper (No 09/71) updating and editing another collection of my blog postings both here and on the East Asia Forum. Freely downloadable via http://ssrn.com/abstract=1446523, it is based mainly on developments from the end of 2008 through to mid-2009.

Many topics are important not only within Australia and Japan, but also potentially for bilateral relations (for example, as novel dimensions to the FTA or 'Economic Partnership Agreement' already under negotiation between these two countries). Several topics (for example, the state of economics as a discipline after the GFC, neo-communitarian perspectives on comparative law and society, the legacy of the post-War Occupation of Japan) also address more broadly how we should (re)conceptualise law, economics and public policy particularly in the Asia-Pacific context.

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Compared to Australian and New Zealand legislation, Japan’s Consumer Contracts Act 2000 has quite narrow restrictions on the bargaining process leading up to the conclusion of contracts between consumers and commercial suppliers (Luke Nottage ‘Nihon-Nyujirando Shohishakeiyakuho [Consumer Contract Law in Japan and New Zealand]’ 1620 Toki no Horei 4-5, June 2000). But it adds a ‘general clause’ regulating unfair contract terms, voiding those that ‘impair the interests of consumers unilaterally against the fundamental principle’ of good faith under Civil Code Art 1(2), as well as targeting some specific types of terms. The Consumer Contracts Act also extends to all types of contracts (except employment contracts: Art 48), and defines ‘consumer’ broadly as any individual not contracting for a business purpose (Art 2).

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1. I wrote to Australia's Treasurer recently agreeing we need re-regulation of Australia’s consumer credit markets, along the lines proposed in ‘The National Consumer Credit Reform Package’.

2. I considered some improvements that could be made regarding an External Dispute Resolution scheme. But I begin by supporting a key improvement proposed in the National Consumer Credit Protection Bill: imposing responsible lending rules (focused on ‘suitability’ and repayment capacity), drawing partly on my studies of Japanese law.

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All my blogs over July-October 2008, posted originally with full hyperlinks at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/], have been edited and updated as:

Nottage, Luke R., 'Economics, Politics, Public Policy and Law in Japan, Australasia and the Pacific: Corporate Governance, Financial Crisis, and Consumer Product Safety in 2008' (November 3, 2008) Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 08/134, Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1295064 (and forthcoming, early 2009, in Ritsumeikan Law Review)

Some of the individual topics focused more directly on Japanese Law, asterisked below, are also available on this USydney blog:

* 1. Taking the Australia-Japan FTA negotiations to new levels
* 2. Whaling: What can law add to science, economics, ethics and politics?
3. Australia also should ‘Rail at Australian’s Tabloid Trash’ about Japan
* 4. Consumer over-indebtedness in Japan, Australia and the US
* 5. Dodgy foods and Chinese dumplings in Japan
* 6. FDI and corporate governance in Japan
* 7. Investor-state arbitration for Indonesia, Australia and Japan
8. Rivals: China, India and Japan – economic, not Olympic?
* 9. The politics of Japan’s new Takeovers Guidelines
* 10. Tables turned in Japanese and US financial markets
* 11. Lessons from Japan for the US financial crisis
* 12. The financial crisis - and loansharks in Japan and NZ
* 13. Consequences of melamine-laced milk for China, NZ, Japan and beyond
14. Political dynasties in Japan, the US, Australia … but not NZ?
* 15. A New Consumer Agency for Japan?

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[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/]

The Kyoto Shimbun reported last Wednesday the first de facto victory by a consumer representative group in injunction proceedings regarding unfair contract terms. The same page mentioned the Education Ministry’s response to the recent death of a sixth-year elementary student, who choked on some bread provided in school lunches – basically, ‘chew well’! By contrast, Japan’s largest manufacturer of konnyaku (konjac) jelly snacks, MannanLife, halted all production after a one-year-old boy choked to death on 29 July.

But that situation is rather different. It also more directly highlights when and how a new Consumer Agency (shohisha-cho) might emerge in Japan. Ex-PM Fukuda’s Cabinet approved a Bill, but it then resigned without putting it through. It is unclear when and how PM Aso will submit a new Bill, and what line the opposition DPJ will now take, especially given the uncertainty about a possible early general election.

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[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/]

In Japanese banking, the big boys are back, as I explained last week: The Economist now confirms it. Indeed, the latter suggests that “if Japanese banks have any unique skill, it may well be in coping with crisis”. Not an obvious point, as evidenced by the collective dithering after Japan’s financial markets collapsed in the early 1990s or the almost completely unexpected 1995 Kobe earthquake. But I suppose the Japanese can be very good at responding systematically, once they establish the broad parameters of the problem.

Anyway, Mitsubishi UFJ has now proceeded to take 21% of Morgan Stanley, and is now considering further integrating its securities subsidiary (involved in US$18.3b of M&A advisory work involving Japanese companies in 2007) with Morgan’s Japanese arm (which did $17.9b). This would challenge Nomura, which did $34.2b (“Aiming to Rival Nomura”, Asahi Shimbun, 4-5 October, p 25); but the latter has also snapped up Lehman’s operations in Asia (mostly Tokyo), hoping to retain many staff to grow its own business.

And on Friday, the US government finally agreed on a public bailout plan for up to $700b, which I reviewed critically earlier in the week. Along with $85b for AIG and $29b for Bear Stearns, this amounts already to 5.8% of GDP, “well above the 3.7% of the savings-and-loan bail-out in the late 1980s and early 1990s” and significantly less than the 24% of GDP committed by Japan after 1997.

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[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/]

Australia’s Productivity Commission recommended in 2006 several ways to improve our consumer product safety regulatory regime, which dates back to the 1970s. In 2008 it published a more comprehensive Inquiry Report to strengthen our entire consumer law and policy framework. Several recommendations, like an obligation on suppliers to report serious product-related accidents to regulators, will start to bring Australia up to the higher standards expected and implemented in Japan since the 1990s. Those track the higher priority given recently to consumer protection particularly in the EU.

Japan and the EU illustrate the thesis of ANU Professors John Braithwaite and Peter Drahos that “global business regulation” can accommodate both economic deregulation of protected sectors domestically, and improved “social regulation” or a safety net for vulnerable groups of citizens. Japan also shares with the EU a greater concern about risks potentially affecting consumers or the environment. By contrast, as Berkeley Professor David Vogel has pointed out, since the 1980s the US has become much more concerned about risks to national security. Australia seems to have gone the same way. Yet such differing risk perceptions remain under-appreciated particularly in the Australia-Japan context.

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[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at http://eastasiaforum.org/author/lukenottage/]

Japan’s recent re-regulation of unsecured consumer credit provides another major example of the growing consumer voice in law and policy-making in that country since the 1990s. It also highlights another “blind spot” in the Australian media’s coverage of Japan. This is despite similar underlying problems in this country, and a belated awareness of the risks involved in consumer lending following the sub-prime loans crisis in the US.

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Japanese Law in Asia-Pacific Socio-Economic Context
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