We're after fines that'll dent big businesses: ACCC

A change in strategy by the industry regulator has seen bigger penalties from the courts.

Industry regulator ACCC is seeking larger fines that will undermine big business profits to stop violations of Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

And Chairman Rod Sims says the ACCC is getting the support it needs for the stronger penalties.

"We are now getting encouragement from the courts," the Chairman told the Australian Financial Review, referring to a string of recent consumer wins. "We've had both the Coles and ANZ cases where we are getting messages that the size of the company matters."

Businesses can be fined a maximum of $1.1 million for each breach of the ACL – far less than the $10 million maximum awarded for breaches of competition. But a change in strategy by the ACCC has seen companies slapped with larger fines. This was the case in the ruling against Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturer of Nurofen, for its misleading targeted pain relief products.

"We need to better describe the loss to consumers because that was what was important to the Nurofen judges," says Sims. "The court really is inviting us to put more focus on how you deter big companies, so we have both encouragement and direction ... that will allow us to seek much higher penalties."

The court initially handed down a fine of $1.75 million to the painkiller manufacturer – a small fraction of the estimated $45 million revenue generated from the products – before a $6 million fine was awarded upon appeal.

"The Nurofen judgment was saying really there is no maximum penalty if there were a lot of these things sold," Sims says. "So we are going to take full advantage of that but also we will seek a change to the law to align consumer and competition penalties."