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Consumer Affairs
Monday, November 1, 2010
Without a guide

The formal introduction of the Consumer Protection Act 2008 looks set to be deferred from October this year to March 2011. This is not good news for consumers.

“It seems the process for rolling out the CPA has been challenging, to say the least. Key Commission posts are yet to be filled and there are no guidelines for compliance,” comments Shannon Edwards, Communication Consultant for Clarity Communications, a Cape-based communications agency specialising in plain language written communication.
Why the delay? It seems the initial deadline for compliance may have been a little unrealistic. Nomfundo Maseti, Chief Director for Policy and Regulations for the Department of Trade and Industry’s was quoted by Fin24 saying, “We thought 18 months would be sufficient, but due to unforeseeable circumstances we haven't been able to finalise the regulations.”
It appears that the drafting of the regulations hasn’t been the only reason for delays. Government only advertised positions for the Commission in August this year.
“What is even more frightening is the fact that companies are trying to comply with a very broad definition of plain language. If you wade through the Act, it is anything but plain. The sentence structure of the Act is complicated, difficult to read and does not comply with generally accepted elements of plain language. According to Martin Cutts, author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English, sentences should be between 20 and 30 words long. The sentences pertaining to plain language in the Act have anything from 80 to 132 words,” says Edwards.
Companies have invested millions of rands on resources to redraft, restructure and clarify complex documents that are the basis for their legal agreements with their clients. They have also spent a lot of money on training in order to comply with the act by the stipulated due date. “Companies have undertaken this without specific criteria to help them comply with broad legislation about marketing, advertising, and plain language, to name a few,” says Edwards.
“The reality is that with potential fines in excess of R1 million companies cannot afford to ignore the Act. In addition, the reputation and brand damage of being ‘non-compliant’ or not treating customers fairly is potentially even more significant for large companies. Many make all kinds of promises to their customers in their expensive advertising communications, only to fall short when customers battle to read, let alone understand their contracts.
“But how are companies supposed to ensure that they are fully compliant when the odds are stacked against them?”
Companies have also been promised that guidelines regarding compliance may be published for public opinion. The Department only advertised positions for the Commission recently. “They promised that guidelines would be available mid-September, but we are unsure how they would have been ready to canvas and accept public feedback on these.”
Perhaps it is a good thing that the deadline has been deferred – it is better to do something properly the first time round. And it provides companies with a little more time to get their house in order. But for those consumers who are currently prejudiced by jargon, complicated legalese and one-sided contractual terms, this isn’t great news,” concludes Edwards.

Copyright © Insurance Times and Investments® Vol:23.11 1st November, 2010
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