It’s time to give small claims court teeth

Business Daily (Kenya) - - EDITORIAL & OPINION - jenny@we­baraza.com

Mine has been a sorry jour­ney with cars in Kenya. I have lost count of the me­chan­ics, and the bills, as ev­ery re­pair led to an­other, un­til I sim­ply gave up on own­ing a car, and moved to rent­ing.

Since then, it’s been as­ton­ish­ing how the ‘other peo­ple’s cars’ that I rent don’t re­quire the long tail of re­pairs that mine did.

Mine was like a domino ef­fect. A sim­ple mat­ter would turn crit­i­cal when a me­chanic de­cided to drain the sump and got grit into it, which then made the en­gine seize. I dis­cov­ered that elec­tron­ics are not nec­es­sar­ily a bless­ing, with my main board re­placed three times on elec­tronic glitches we could never re­solve. I had a whole new (re­con­di­tioned) en­gine put in, and that went badly too.

Be­cause, the core prob­lem was, I am not a me­chanic. It’s quite pos­si­ble for a me­chanic to tell me any­thing, and that’s an ‘any­thing’ with money at­tached to it.

For sure, I can hear when the spark plugs need re­plac­ing. I know that clunk on bumps when my sus­pen­sion is on the way out. But there it all ends for me.

In fact, bushes are some­thing I had never even heard of be­fore my Nairobi car jour­ney, and it still es­capes me, re­ally, what they do. And yet, some­how, I ended up with a car where ev­ery new me­chanic told me my bushes needed re­plac­ing, seem­ingly re­gard­less of the very few weeks since they were last re­placed. The sum was a stonk­ing five-year bushes bud­get.

Yet, strangely, in three years of rent­ing, I don’t seem to have had a car that needed its bushes re­plac­ing, so I’m net ahead these days. No bushes bud­get, and some­one else’s car main­te­nance jour­ney, for the price of a monthly rent.

How­ever, it is just pos­si­ble that across mul­ti­ple me­chan­ics and garages, through years of chronic car is­sues, I may not be the only soul in this, my city, who suf­fered a car main­te­nance dis­or­der.

For when our leg­is­la­tors turned to the mat­ter of draw­ing up our Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act in 2012, they gave us a whole sec­tion of leg­is­la­tion on car re­pairs.

It’s a ro­bust start­ing point. When that re­pair is done its un­der au­to­matic war­ranty for 90 days, or 5,000km, and that’s the case whether the re­place­ment part is new or old.

The war­ranty isn’t just for the part either, it’s for the labour too. If it all fails or doesn’t last the 90day course, the me­chanic is li­able for the cost of tow­ing you in, and for the re­fund of the orig­i­nal re­pair and labour cost.

It’s a nice piece of le­gal pro­tec­tion. But it brings one straight up against the nor­mal wall of en­force­ment.

I have tried to imag­ine my­self wav­ing a hard copy of the Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act un­der the nose of any one of the me­chan­ics that worked on my own car, and wit­ness­ing the de­ri­sion that fol­lows. And we have no small claims court that can deal with tiny breaches like charg­ing me for ‘no new bushes’.

The Act did set up a Kenya Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee (Ke­co­pac) that was sup­posed to deal with con­sumer com­plaints. It fi­nally opened in April 2014, to a de­gree of fan­fare and new of­fices in Nairobi, and quickly went af­ter pay-tv con­sumer abuses, never to be heard of again, fol­low­ing a bid for funds from the Trea­sury to op­er­ate.

As it was, that Act was re­ally the first in Kenya to deal with con­sumer pro­tec­tion, and be­lieve me, as a car owner, I needed some ‘pro­tec­tion’: a few rules, a bit of penalty, around re­pair­ing gen­uine main­te­nance is­sues com­pe­tently and fairly.

But the truth is we need more: we need to find a way to turn that writ­ten act into some rules that ev­ery­one keeps and has to keep, or that neat leg­is­la­tion is only fit for a com­edy store: as in, how much can I make a garage owner laugh with my piti­ful as­ser­tion that legally he has to re­fund my re­pair bill?

There’s prob­a­bly no cap on the laugh­ter. And no real pro­tec­tion, un­til I can take that law some­where and have it en­forced with any me­chanic.

We need to ind a way to turn that writ­ten act into some rules that ev­ery­one keeps and has to keep

JENNY LUESBY

is a jour­nal­ist and en­tre­pre­neur

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