Getting stuff done in ’21: The Australian states focused on funeral regulation and consumer outcomes in 2021

A spotlight was shone on Australia’s funeral industry in 2021, but much of the hard work flew under the radar. No doubt this was because the media had other news to focus on, with news of COVID-19 dominating the airwaves.

The consumer watchdog released a report into the sector which identified several concerns, mainly relating to a lack of pricing transparency and unfair contracts. I’ve just blogged about the specific findings and the penalising of several funeral businesses.

And it wasn’t just the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) that was busy. Several Australian states were also looking at the regulation of the industry and how to improve consumer outcomes.

QUEENSLAND

On Friday (17/12/21), Queensland finally committed to doing something about its farcical funeral regulations, or lack of them. I have blogged previously about Queensland’s unacceptable approach to funerals. Read that here.

Queensland funeral directors will be subject to new rules from 1 July 2022. At the moment there is no regulation in Queensland, but funeral directors have the option of signing up to a voluntary code of conduct.

This is set to change. The Queensland Government hasn’t worked out what these proposed regulations will look like yet. That will happen in early 2022, but last week the Attorney General and Minister for Justice Shannon Fentiman said that from mid-2022 funeral directors will have to display an itemised price list on their website and at their premises. They will also need to display the price of their least expensive package for consumers wanting a simple funeral. Consumers will also be able to request a cost-itemised quote before entering a funeral agreement. This media release has more information. This all follows the August release of an options paper on funeral price transparency.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

I was invited to take part in a round table discussion hosted by the Hon Frank Pangallo MLC in May in regards to the development of a private members bill to be called the Fair Trading (Funeral Costs) Amendment Bill 2021. That has since morphed into the proposed draft Funeral Industry Bill 2021 and focuses on increasing professional standards and operational transparency in the funeral industry. This is an encouraging start to the regulation of an industry that has needed oversight for years. As I said when offering feedback to the draft Bill, it is my hope that by regulating the industry in some capacity, the consumer receives the benefits of a respectful, transparent, scrutinised, and accountable industry.

The proposed draft Bill would make a Code of Practice compulsory; there will be penalties for non-compliance; authorised officers will be allowed to investigate registered premises; funeral directors would be required to provide an itemised quote prior to entering into a contract, and there will be a clear contact and process for dealing with complaints.

The Bill is yet to be introduced into South Australian Parliament so that’ll be something to watch for in 2022.

NEW SOUTH WALES

New South Wales continues to lead the way when it comes to funeral legislation and regulation. Large national funeral service providers seem to have adopted the New South Wales requirements across the board, even in their interstate operations.

In August the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) released its second and final review of costs and pricing in the NSW Funeral Industry.

The report found that while the NSW funerals and crematoria markets are ‘workably competitive’, consumers often find the process of organising a funeral confusing. The report recommended that NSW Fair Trading ensure that all funeral providers comply with the existing regulation and that more comprehensive and accessible funeral information is put on government websites.

There were two recommendations worth noting because they are all about offering the consumer clear information and letting them know it’s ok to ask questions and shop around when it comes to funerals:

  • That the NSW Government’s Life events webpage be made the primary site for comprehensive information about the process after a death occurs, with other websites linking the relevant sections of the process.
  • That NSW Fair Trading develop a consumer guide that:

– encourages consumers to contact more than one funeral provider, or view the price lists of funeral websites, before agreeing to transfer the person who has died into the care of a funeral provider

– includes a checklist and questions to ask funeral providers to assist consumers quickly obtain more than one quote

– includes information about the legal requirements of conducting a funeral without the assistance of a funeral provider, as well as any forms required (e.g. the form to register the death, application for shrouded burials and application for cremation)

– The consumer guide should be published on the NSW Government’s Life events webpage and could also be provided at hospitals, aged care homes or social services organisations.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

This year WA introduced a mandatory code of practice for prepaid funerals.

Under the new rules, operators have to clearly detail the individual cost of each component in the package and any additional fees. Prices will be fixed at the time of signing so they won’t grow with inflation or future cost increases, and there will be a 30-day cooling-off period. They must also forward payments within 16 days to specified investment managers that are restricted to insurance companies, friendly societies, licensed trustee companies, or the Public Trust of WA.

No small print! I especially like that the new WA code sets out how a prepaid funeral contract needs to be presented including font size.

VICTORIA

Changes are afoot in Victoria too. Earlier this year The Department of Justice and Community Service wrote to funeral providers to gauge interest in developing enhanced funeral pricing disclosure rules. The government’s approach, and changes to the Funerals (Infringements) Regulations 2021, weren’t appreciated by some. There was scathing criticism from at least one small funeral business in regional Victoria. Read the interesting thoughts of Euroa funeral director Broderick Floyd here.

The outcome of this consultation is yet to be made public so it’s something to watch out for in 2022.

A FOCUS ON CONSUMER CHOICE

It’s great to see such a focus on the funeral sector. There is a long way to go but 2021 has planted some important seeds.

As an author of a funeral planning guide and workbook, a blogger, and a death awareness and literacy advocate, I’m keen to see consumers have the information and protections to make informed choices about their end-of-life choices. The more informed they are, the better choices they can make, particularly when grieving.

Funeral directors do an important job and play an invaluable role in the community.  With more upfront information about the funeral process, better funeral pricing information on websites, and the registration and regulation of funeral directors and brokers to increase consumer confidence and industry accountability, I am hopeful that consumers will be the big winners.

The Australian funeral industry is steeped in tradition, generally conservative, and thus reluctant to change. As Australia’s baby boomers age in large numbers, their funerals will be organised by younger family members (Gen Xers and Millenials) who are technologically savvy and adept at finding the information they need online. They are also savvier shoppers, more open to shopping around, more likely to engage a funeral arranger or broker, and are more willing to voice their concerns and complaints.

A traditional funeral industry doing what it’s always done is not the way of the future, nor will it serve the Australian consumer in years to come.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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