Hull restaurants that ding diners for no-shows may be breaking the law

Some restaurants in downtown Gatineau, Que., are cracking down on no-shows this busy holiday season, but their method appears to contravene the province's Consumer Protection Act.

Several restaurateurs are asking customers who make group reservations to sign a contract agreeing to pay $10 for each diner who fails to show up, Radio-Canada has learned.

Piz'za-za, Les Vilains Garçons, CoqLicorne and Le Troquet are among about a dozen businesses that now require diners to pay a fine if they cancel their reservation or reduce the number of people at their table with less than 48 hours notice. 

"You can see it as a penalty. We see it as a compensation for a place that has not been filled," Alexandre Leblanc, president of the local merchants association said in a French-language interview.

Jonathan DuPaul/CBC

Along with his work at the Association des commerçants du secteur Aubry, Leblanc runs Piz'za-za restaurant and Aux 4 jeudis café .

"We will be understanding," Leblanc said. "But it's certain that if you book for 25 [people] and you arrive with 10, we'll have a serious discussion."

Using Leblanc's example, a person making that reservation could be fined $150.

But charging such fines is against the law, according to the Office de la protection du consommateur (OPC), the body responsible for enforcing Quebec's Consumer Protection Act.

"It is forbidden for any merchant to collect an amount as a deposit if this amount is intended to be retained as a penalty," said Charles Tanguay, a spokesperson for OPC.

Another interpretation of the law

The Association des commerçants du secteur Aubry, which represents merchants in downtown Hull, has a different interpretation of the law.

"When people have read the booking conditions and have signed, for us there is no problem [to charge a penalty]," Leblanc said. 

Lawyer Élise Thériault recommends diners refuse to sign any contract with a restaurant, and refuse pay a fee for no-shows. If they're charged a fine, she suggests they file a complaint with the OPC.

"We cannot [as a customer] waive any protection under the Consumer Protection Act and we cannot, in writing, insert in a contract something that is against the law," Thériault said.

Merchants who break the Consumer Protection Act can be fined up to $40,000.