WT Howard Funeral Services and Coventry Funeral Homes, trading as Fitzgerald’s Funerals, have each paid $12,600 in penalties after the ACCC issued each of the businesses with an infringement notice for allegedly making a false and misleading representation about their ownership. This coincides with the release of an ACCC survey seeking further information about the experiences of consumers and businesses with the funeral services sector.
WT Howard promoted on its website that it was “proudly local and independently owned” while Coventry represented that “Fitzgeralds Funerals in Townsville North Queensland is locally owned and operated”, when in fact both WT Howard and Fitzgerald’s Funerals are owned by a publicly listed company, Propel Funeral Partners.
Propel is a publicly listed company that comprises 130 funeral home locations in Australia and New Zealand, including 31 cremation facilities and 9 cemeteries. Propel is the second largest funeral service provider in Australia, providing over 13,000 funeral services in the 2020 financial year.
Propel acquired WT Howard, which is based in Taree, in 2015 and Coventry Funeral Homes, which is based in Townsville, in 2019, but the businesses failed to remove their claims about local ownership after they were acquired by Propel.
“Businesses need to have systems in place to regularly check that the information they are providing to consumers on their websites and other promotional material remains accurate, as making misleading representations to consumers is a breach of the Australian Consumer Law,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said.
The survey is available at the ACCC consultation hub and will remain open until 17 April 2021.
“If you have organised a funeral, or you work in the funeral services industry and have concerns, please take the time to complete the survey,” Ms Rickard said.“These penalties are the first enforcement action by the ACCC in this enforcement priority area, but funeral service businesses are on notice that further enforcement action will be considered this year.”
Competition and consumer issues in the funeral services sector is a current enforcement and compliance priority for the ACCC.
WT Howard and Coventry have removed the representations from their websites and other promotional material after being contacted by the ACCC.
The payment of a penalty specified in an infringement notice is not an admission of a contravention of the Australian Consumer Law, which also sets the penalty amount.
The ACCC can issue an infringement notice when it has reasonable grounds to believe a person or business has contravened certain consumer protection provisions in the Australian Consumer Law.