Trading standards' powers set for review

Roger Pearson reports on the impact that a recent case involving babywalkers may have on consumer protection laws.

High Court judgment is now pending in a case which could have a major impact in consumer protection circles. It should result in new guide-lines – vital for both local authorities and manufacturers – on the action trading standards officers can take to curb sale of products they believe to be unsafe.

The legal battle between The Baby Products Association (BPA) and Liverpool City Council's trading standards department centres on the council's handling of a warning over the safety of babywalkers.

In April 1988, the council issued a press release indicating that tests had revealed some babywalkers did not comply with British safety standards. The issuing of the press release, which followed stability tests carried out under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act 1987 resulted in a blaze of national publicity.

The BPA has taken the council to the High Court accusing it of using the media unlawfully to issue a public warning and seek suspension of sales of babywalkers which were said to be unsafe. Judgment on the case has been reserved.

Michael Fordham, counsel for the BPA, argued before a court headed by Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, that the way the council had used the media was wrong and that it should have used the "appropriate statutory route" to achieve its aim of protecting the public. This, he said, would also have offered safeguards for the manufacturers.

He claimed the council issued the press release saying that producers of the babywalkers had been asked to stop supplying products which did not comply with safety standards and to arrange recall of all baby-walkers which should not be on the market.

Fordham claimed the council had no power to effect suspension of sales or give a public warning by means of press release. He argued that while the 1987 Consumer Protection Act empowered the Trade Secretary to require that public warnings be given of allegedly unsafe goods and provided for notices to be issued suspending trade in some products, it also gave a right of appeal. And, if it was later shown that warnings issued had been unjustified it entitled the manufacturers to compensation.

He claimed that by acting as it did the trading standards department had circumvented the safeguards the Act gave to manufacturers.

The provisions of the 1987 Act would be rendered "meaningless" if local authorities were permitted to use the media in the way Liverpool had, he argued.

For the council, Frances Patterson QC said that babywalkers were the largest single cause of accidents involving children's mobility aids and that the press release had been issued after extensive tests.

He claimed the action taken by the council was justified under the 1987 Act which he said was aimed at providing wider powers to protect the public from unsafe products and not to restrict local authorities in the way they handled such matters.