It’s time to give small claims court teeth

The Consumer Protection Act in 2012 is a nice piece of legal protection. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The Consumer Protection Act in 2012 is a nice piece of legal protection. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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 90-day 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.