It’s the Law

The Consumer Protection Act
Why should you use plain language in your documents?
Well, apart from wanting people to understand you and to know you’re smart as well as trustworthy, in South Africa it’s now the law.
From April this year (2011) The Consumer Protection Act comes into full effect.
From then on, it’s against the law to use difficult to understand language in any business document.
In business, of course, everything comes with some kind of paperwork, whether it’s a contract, a letter of agreement or even an instruction booklet. These vital documents are often written in language that’s hard to understand for the average consumer which is why there are specific Plain Language regulations in The Consumer Protection Act.

Protecting the consumer
The Act’s express mission is to make sure consumers are not unfairly treated – intentionally or not.
This means that using Plain Language is more crucial than ever.
From now on, using obscure and confusing wording, especially in binding contracts, is not allowed.
Quite simply, it’s illegal!
Too many consumers have landed in big trouble, especially financial trouble, because they haven’t understood what they’ve signed.
Sometimes contracts are written in bloated, bureaucratic jargon just because that’s the way it’s always been, or because the people writing the contracts don’t know any other way to do it.
Often, though, unscrupulous businesses have used complicated language on purpose, as a way to trick consumers into paying for something they can’t afford, to sign away their rights, or to agree to unfair terms and conditions.
Defining Plain Language
If you don’t want to read the whole Consumer Protection Act yourself, here’s how it defines Plain Language in Part D, Section 22:
“For the purposes of this Act, a notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the document without undue effort, having regard to:
The context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice, document or visual representation;
The organisation, form and style of the notice, document or visual representation;
The vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the notice, document or visual representation; and
The use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.”
This means, of course, that from now on companies won’t be able to word things so that they can be taken several ways, either. If there’s any doubt about the meaning, says the Act, the benefit will go to the consumer.
Advertising and Marketing must comply, too
Advertising and marketing come under the Plain Language spotlight, too – no more terms and conditions that are clouded in confusion, no more ambiguity. Instead, advertisements won’t be allowed to exaggerate and they will have to be easy to understand, fair and honest. They’ll have to spell everything out in words that consumers can understand, because, according to the Act, from now on consumers have the right to full disclosure and information in plain and understandable language:
(1) The producer of a notice, document or visual representation that is required, in terms of this Act or any other law, to be produced, provided or displayed to a consumer must produce, provide or display that notice, document or visual representation—
(a) in the form prescribed in terms of this Act or any other legislation, if any, for that notice, document or visual representation; or
(b) in plain language, if no form has been prescribed for that notice, document or visual representation.
(2) For the purposes of this Act, a notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance and import of the notice, document or visual representation without undue effort, having regard to —
(a) the context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice, document or visual representation;
(b) the organisation, form and style of the notice, document or visual representation;
(c) the vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the notice, document or visual representation; and
(d) the use of any illustrations, examples, headings or other aids to reading and understanding.
(3) The Commission may publish guidelines for methods of assessing whether a notice, document or visual representation satisfies the requirements of subsection (l)(b).
(4) Guidelines published in terms of subsection (3) may be published for public comment.
Consumer agreements
In addition to advertisements, all written consumer agreements are subject to the Act, too:
(1) The Minister may prescribe categories of consumer agreements that are required to be in writing.
(2) If a consumer agreement between a supplier and a consumer is in writing, whether as required by this Act or voluntarily—
(a) it applies irrespective of whether or not the consumer signs the agreement; and
(b) the supplier must provide the consumer with a free copy, or free electronic access to a copy, of the terms and conditions of that agreement, which must—
(i) satisfy the requirements of Section 22; (ie: it must be in Plain Language) and
(ii) set out an itemised break-down of the consumer’s financial obligations under such agreement.
(3) If a consumer agreement between a supplier and a consumer is not in writing, a supplier must keep a record of transactions entered into over the telephone or any other recordable form as prescribed.

Advancing social and economic welfare
The Act will promote and advance the social and economic welfare of consumers in South Africa by:
(a) establishing a legal framework for the achievement and maintenance of a consumer market that is fair, accessible, efficient, sustainable and responsible for the benefit of consumers generally;
(b) reducing and ameliorating any disadvantages experienced in accessing any supply of goods or services by consumers—
(i) who are low-income persons or persons comprising low-income communities;
(ii) who live in remote, isolated or low-density population areas or
communities;
(iii) who are minors, seniors or other similarly vulnerable consumers; or
(iv) whose ability to read and comprehend any advertisement, agreement, mark, instruction, label, warning, notice or other visual representation is limited by reason of low literacy, vision impairment or limited fluency in the language in which the representation is produced, published or presented.

We can help
So, don’t delay. If you’ve got a business document or contract that needs to be edited or reworded so that it complies with the Consumer Protection Act, get in touch with the Word Nerds.
We’ll knock it into shape in no time.

So, don’t delay – contact the Word Nerds at wordnerds@wordnerds.co.za

Comments are closed.

Join the Club
The Soggies
Photobucket Announcing the annual Stamp out Gobbledegook Awards*, (or Soggies, as we like to call them). Send us your Soggies
Creative Commons
Follow me
Follow StevieGodson on Twitter
Look It Up
Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki
I Heart Madiba
Books & Reading Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory