From April 2011 the Consumer Protection Act came into full effect with the result that it is now against the law to use difficult-to-understand language in any business document or contract.
Business usually 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 is hard to understand for the average consumer, which is why there are specific Plain Language regulations in The Consumer Protection Act to prevent consumers from signing documents they do not understand.
Protecting the consumer
The Act’s express purpose is to make sure consumers are not treated unfairly – 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 has 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
The Consumer Protection Act defines plain language in Part D, Section 22 as follows:
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 that one won’t be permitted to word things so widely that they can be understood in several ways. The Act states that if there is any doubt about the meaning of certain words or terms and conditions, the benefit will go to the consumer. Even advertising and marketing may no longer contain any ambiguity. Advertisements won’t be allowed to exaggerate and they will have to be easy to understand, fair and honest. The Act states that service providers will have to spell out everything in words that consumers can understand. Alternatively the consumers have the right to full disclosure and information in plain and understandable language.
Therefore, don’t delay. If you have a business document or contract that has been used for generations you might have to take a second look at it to edit or reword it so that it complies with the Consumer Protection Act.
NOTE TO ATTORNEYS: See Consumer Protection Act No. 68 of 2008.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice.