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Shining a Spotlight on Franchisee Rights: The Role of AAF in Senate Questioning

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

In a recent decision that sent shockwaves through the Australian franchising industry, Justice Beach addressed the Mercedes Benz franchisee case, exposing significant flaws in the current franchising code. The ruling raised many crucial questions about the protection of franchisees and the need for immediate reform. Justice Beach's discomfort with the rules he interpreted and enforced is evident in his remark that further consideration might be necessary. This article explores the implications of this landmark decision, its impact on franchisees across the nation and, most importantly, the role the Australian Association of Franchisees (AAF) took in getting this topic and the important questions asked at a recent senate (on 14 September 2023) as shown in this video coverage.



The Role of AAF


The AAF played a pivotal role in bringing the critical questions surrounding the Mercedes Benz dealership case to the forefront of the recent Senate discussion. As the representative body for franchisees across Australia, the AAF has been at the forefront of advocating for the rights and interests of franchisees in the face of challenges and injustices for franchise businesses.


In the case of the Mercedes Benz dealership dispute, the AAF recognised the significant implications of the court ruling on franchisees across the nation. We understood that this was not an isolated incident but rather a potential precedent that could negatively affect countless franchisees and their businesses.


To ensure that these concerns were heard and addressed, the AAF actively engaged with senators (in particular Senator David Van) and policymakers, raising awareness about the case and its implications for franchisees. They mobilised their resources and expertise to bring the issue to the attention of the Senate, ultimately leading to the questions posed by Senator David Van to Minister Katy Gallagher (representing Small Business) during the Senate session on 14 September 2023.


The AAF's involvement in this process underscores the critical role that advocacy groups and industry associations play in safeguarding the interests of their members and promoting fairness within their respective sectors. By working together with lawmakers, the AAF helped shed light on the urgent need for reform in the franchising industry, ensuring that franchisees' concerns were not ignored.


The Mercedes Benz Dealership Case In Review


In the case brought before Justice Beach, Mercedes Benz franchisees found themselves on the losing side of a legal battle. The judge ruled that Mercedes Benz had the right, without cause or compensation, to not renew dealership agreements, a provision within their standard form dealership agreements. The franchisees had argued that the goodwill they had painstakingly built over the years was now at stake. Historically, Mercedes Benz had supported the sale of dealerships at their full commercial value, creating a custom and practice argument that attempted to supersede the written contract. Unfortunately, this argument failed, leaving franchisees in a dire situation.


The Harsh Reality for Franchisees


This decision has had severe repercussions for franchisees, not just in the Mercedes Benz network but potentially for all franchise businesses. The ruling means that the goodwill value of a franchisee's business is limited to the remaining term of the current agreement. In other words, franchisees cannot sell their businesses as long-term going concerns. This reality contradicts what franchisees are led to believe when they invest in a franchise, and it is completely inconsistent with the substantial investments they are required to make.


Furthermore, the consequences extend beyond just goodwill. If a franchisor decides not to renew the agreement, the infrastructure and any stock purchased by the franchisee become nearly worthless. The franchisor, in this scenario, becomes the only potential buyer and can offer a meagre price. This decision effectively legalises the confiscation of a franchisee's business at the end of the term for resale at a profit.


The Urgent Need for Franchising Code Reform


The Mercedes Benz case highlights a glaring issue within the Australian franchising industry: the lack of protection for franchisees. It exposes the vulnerability of franchisees who invest significant time, effort, and capital into their businesses, only to be left without recourse when faced with arbitrary franchisor decisions.


Justice Beach's suggestion that further consideration and modification of the Franchising Code may be needed cannot be ignored. The existing framework fails to adequately safeguard the interests of franchisees who often find themselves at the mercy of franchisors. As David Van rightly pointed out, franchisees are not just workers; they are investors and shareholders contributing to an industry that accounts for approximately 10 percent of Australia's economy.


While a review of the Franchising Code of Conduct is underway, it is essential that the government takes this opportunity to thoroughly examine all legislation related to franchise agreements. Franchisees deserve comprehensive protection, not just under consumer law but also under the Corporations Act. This is especially crucial given the enormous financial contributions franchisees make to the Australian economy.


Furthermore, the government's commitment to establishing a designated complaints function within the ACCC is a step in the right direction. It will provide franchisees with an avenue to voice their concerns and seek redress when faced with unfair practices.


Conclusion


The Mercedes Benz dealership case and Justice Beach's remark shed light on a pressing issue within the Australian franchising industry. The lack of protection for franchisees and the potential for exploitation by franchisors are serious concerns that demand immediate attention.


While the ongoing review of the Franchising Code is a positive step, it must not be the only one. The government must conduct a comprehensive review of all legislation related to franchise agreements and franchisee rights to ensure that franchisees are adequately protected. Franchisees are not just workers; they are vital contributors to the Australian economy and deserve the same level of protection as any other investor or shareholder. It is high time to reform the franchise code and ensure that franchisees can operate their businesses with confidence and security. And the AAF are here to empower that change!


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