Australian consumers are protected by a broad range of legislative acts designed to ensure that purveyors of goods and services meet their obligations. In Australia, the main piece of legislation governing consumer law is the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), which came into effect in 2011. It covers issues such as unfair contract terms, standard consumer contracts, consumer rights when buying goods and services, product safety requirements, and the rights of consumers when faced with unsolicited trades (such as door-to-door sales). The ACL also covers mergers and acquisitions.
Australian consumer law is a creative and innovative area of the law, despite the fact that it is heavily regulated. For example, the law must evolve constantly to mitigate the risks posed to consumers by new technologies and provide them with appropriate avenues for redress. As recently as March 2016, the government began a review of the ACL with a view to preventing new forms of unfair practice, protecting vulnerable consumers, stimulating effective competition, and providing accessible and timely solutions when consumer detriment has occurred.
As a consumer lawyer, you’ll represent consumers who have been disadvantaged by violations of consumer law, or defend organisations against individual and class action suits. You may also work on antitrust and corruption cases, which seek to eliminate collusion, regulate competition and guard against the exploitation of consumers. These tend to be handled by large public bodies, such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Competition (ACCC). Alternatively, you could lend your skills to an advocacy group such as the Consumer Action Law Centre.
Your graduate experience will depend largely on where you choose to practice. In Australia, consumer law cases are predominantly handled by general solicitors, who advise their clients on correct procedures and, if necessary, represent them before consumer tribunals.
Graduates who are particularly interested in consumer law would do well to apply to the competitive graduate program at the ACCC. The ACCC is an independent Commonwealth Statutory Body charged with enforcing the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. Applications for its graduate program generally open in April, with offers made in July.
Successful candidates can expect to be exposed to a range of activities, such as investigating complaints from consumers and businesses, while also completing three 14-week rotations in different departments, one of which must be interstate. While not exclusive to law graduates, the ACCC graduate program looks favourably on candidates with legal backgrounds and allows them to lay the foundations of a satisfying career in consumer law.
Given that consumer law governs the processes whereby people exchange goods and services, the flow of work tends to be relatively steady, and the variety of specialisations continues to grow. Career options include private work as a consumer lawyer, work at a regulatory body such as the ACCC, and employment within an organisation such as the Consumer Action Law Centre.