Panama: Authority of Consumer Protection and Competition Defence
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Panama’s Authority of Consumer Protection and Competition Defence (ACODECO) plays multiple roles, including protecting consumers’ rights and defending free competition. These roles are complementary and seek a common goal, which is the consumer’s best interests.
From the first day of the current administration, 19 January 2015, the pillars on which the work of the entity’s labour body would be based were established: social commitment (understood as a permanent effort to improve the quality of the service offered), transparency and efficiency, as well as a road map that would improve the institutional performance in different areas. After examining the work carried out, with satisfaction, we share that the vision implemented at the beginning of 2015 allowed the generation of fruitful dynamic working, emphasising the most outstanding aspects: planning culture, technological development, human resources, institutional image, institutional transparency, new or expanded competencies, inter-institutional relationships, international relations, and improvement in service and infrastructure.
From the perspective of free competition, current Panamanian law provides a definite scheme of practices restricting competition, based on specific situations in which economic agents are found to be breaking the law, either through a cartel or monopolistic practices. Furthermore, Panamanian law imposes a fines scheme whereby ACODECO administratively investigates and subsequently sues before the courts that are competent to determine the existence of monopolistic practices. Once it leaves the judicial phase, the process returns to ACODECO to be sanctioned.
One of the actions that we have been promoting during the first half of 2019 is the modification of the administrative and judicial legal framework, which has led to a backlog of several court cases waiting for sentencing. In some situations, these have exceeded seven years for the first-instance ruling, and so are still awaiting the second-instance ruling before the feasibility of an appeal or even additional actions before the Supreme Court can be assessed. In terms of our goal of efficiency, this situation leaves the market in a state of helplessness, since the current applicable remedies are not appropriate or effective, and are creating greater incentives to break the law.
Our proposed legislative amendment opts for an exclusively administrative system, to investigate, decide, fine and impose corrective measures in markets that are under investigation. This reform could significantly reduce the response time to market and remedy practices that may be causing serious harm to consumers, since ACODECO investigations have a maximum duration of one year on average.
Likewise, we propose a system that gives businesses under investigation a chance to offer commitments and guarantees during the investigation, which could greatly speed up the restoration of damages.
In the first semester of 2019, the dissemination of the leniency programme continued as a legal tool to combat the cartels. Also, the corporate compliance programme was promoted at the level of interested companies and law firms. In addition, on the institution’s website, economic agents can request merger verifications online. Our strategy of communication and promotion of competition for the first semester of the year 2019 includes the following:
- disseminating a quarterly newsletter of skills in Spanish and English;
- proposing cooperation agreements with the main purchasing entities of the government of Panama;
- ensuring that, on the institution’s website, economic agents can request merger verifications online; and
- launching the guide for market studies.
Our objectives to improve the effectiveness of the application of the law in the period 2018–2019 are to apply new economic merger guidelines with a simplified procedure, and install a forensic IT lab in 2019.
We will redouble our efforts to strengthen market research, which has been weakened somewhat by the lack of information from the economic players as this is not required by law. We proposed a legislative modification in this regard, so these studies can be a true reflection of the situation in different sectors, which will serve as an important tool in the investigation of corrupt behaviour.
In short, we have very ambitious plans that involve radical reforms, ranging from how our investigations are to be conducted to improving the effectiveness of market research, all of which are simply the reflection of a fully developed agency that has accumulated experience over several years and received valuable training and feedback from consultants. Now, this enables us to think wisely about the best practices to be implemented in Panama and how to shorten the paths that we have already travelled.
The Authority is a decentralised public entity of the state, with its own legal personality, autonomy in its internal regime and independence in the exercise of its functions under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The Authority is subject to oversight by the General Comptroller of the Republic, according to the Constitution and laws.
The main objective is to protect and guarantee consumer rights and the process of free economic competition and free competition, eradicating monopolistic practices and other restrictions in the efficient functioning of markets for goods and services to preserve the interests of the consumer.
The institutional philosophy is committed to the welfare of Panamanians as consumers and producers through competitive insertion of the country into the global economy, which drives us to be proactive about transforming and changing the institutional organisation to make its management more efficient.
Within this framework of concepts and embodiments, the ACODECO is organised mainly into the National Direction of Free Competition and the National Direction of Consumer Protection (units of the organisation’s structure that report directly to the Head Office (General Administrator)), along with the support of other administrative units that make it possible to achieve corporate goals.
ACODECO’s mission is to actively promote and defend the rights of consumers and ensure fair competition.
ACODECO’s view is to be recognised nationally and internationally, in promoting free markets that benefit consumers in conformity with the values of transparency, social commitment and efficiency.