EDITORIAL: Stronger Bill Still Needed to Help Victims of Religious Groups

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The government is finalizing new legislation to support victims of questionable activities by religious groups, such as being coerced into making unreasonable mass donations and “reikan shoho”, or spiritual sales.

Relief legislation is being drafted in response to a public outcry against the activities of the former Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

What emerges from the government’s legislative work is, however, more worrying than reassuring as to the effectiveness of the proposed measures.

As a first legislative step in response to the problem, the Cabinet on November 18 approved a bill to revise the Consumer Contracts Act to change the rules for voiding purchase contracts related to spiritual sales.

The proposed revisions would broaden the scope of sales pitches deemed inappropriate and allow cancellations to cover purchases harmful to the interests of buyers’ relatives as well as the buyers themselves.

Inappropriate sales discussions under the new rules would also include those designed to take advantage of the anxiety of targeted consumers as well as those intended to instill fear in their minds. These changes represent a step in the right direction.

But the revisions would add a new cancellation requirement. To withdraw from a purchase contract, the buyer must show that the seller has argued that the contract was “indispensable” to avoid being at a disadvantage.

Under the current provision, the requirement is that the seller has informed the buyer that the agreement would help to avoid a disadvantageous situation “for sure”.

Why is the government trying to raise the bar on cancellation? The Consumer Agency says this would clarify what a victim would have to prove in a trial. But that could limit the scope of cases that can be considered fraudulent and malicious sales pitches.

The government should present a convincing case for this specific revision to the Diet with a willingness to adjust the revision in response to reasonable criticism.

The revision to extend the statute of limitations for rescission to 10 years is a reasonable step given that it usually takes years for Unification Church members to leave the organization and exercise their rights legal.

But the Unification Church has changed its fundraising strategy. He shifted the strategic focus from spiritual sales of goods, such as jars, seals and other items, at exorbitant prices to collecting donations, as evidenced by complaints about the group’s activities.

This will limit the range of cases eligible for judicial relief under the revised law.

That’s why lawyers involved in helping victims say proposed revisions to consumer contract law would not be enough to address this deep-rooted problem.

The challenge facing the government is to draft and enact an effective new law to regulate donations collected through questionable methods.

The government bill contains the cancellation requirements in consumer contract law, including the “essential” passage. This appears to be an attempt to clearly define the sales methods and practices that would be subject to penalties under the proposed new law.

But this approach raises doubts about whether the new law would bring relief to many victims. The law should be designed in such a way as to ensure its effectiveness while taking into account the potentially wide range of its effects, as it would cover all types of donations made by individuals to organisations, regardless of their nature.

Emphasis is placed on how to provide relief to the families of followers whose excessive donations have seriously harmed their financial means and well-being.

The question is whether the spouses and children of these followers can recover the financial damages they suffered due to excessive donations even if the followers did not leave the group.

The government’s bill would allow families to exercise the right of followers to cancel their donations to the group on their behalf as a special case of the so-called “right of obligor’s subrogation” under Section 423 of the Civil Code, which states, “A creditor may exercise the right conferred on the debtor in order to preserve his own claim” under certain conditions.

This is not a bad proposition which also takes into account the property rights of the victim. But this metric may not work if subscribers don’t have information such as how much money they donated and since when.

The government must ensure that the system will be truly effective by seeking advice from lawyers and other knowledgeable experts.

Some opposition parties that have been in talks over the legislative initiative with the government and the ruling coalition criticize the bill as “toothless”.

But the importance of providing relief to as many victims as possible and preventing further harm requires all-out bipartisan efforts to create effective legislation to help victims.

The Asahi Shimbun, November 20

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