Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Why the fight for plain, understandable language in contracts is important

Consumers are often challenged by the complicated language suppliers use, urging a trend toward plain and understandable language.

Plain, understandable language is a requirement for all ways suppliers use to communicate with consumers, whether it is a product label, contract, agreement, product description or advertisement.

Most consumers will be familiar with contracts where you often sign without understanding the legalese used because you are too ashamed to ask what it means. People also often still refer to the ‘fine print’, although it is not even allowed in any form anymore.

Fine print and legalese are usually designed to disguise terms that strip you of your consumer rights and therefore the Consumer Protection Act makes provision for plain and understandable language in section 22.

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What is plain language?

The CPA describes plain language as language use that people with average literacy levels and minimum experience of a product or service can effortlessly understand, including the context, comprehensiveness, consistency, organisation, form, style, vocabulary, usage, sentence structure, illustrations, examples, headings or other aids to reading and understanding.

Consumers’ right to plain and understandable language also includes that they can insist on having information explained to them in their mother tongue if the information is, for example, only available in English. Companies have to talk to you in a way that you can understand.

Why is plain language important?

The express aim of the CPA is to ensure that consumers are treated fairly. The plain language requirement is aimed at promoting the fairness of the process to enable consumers to protect their interests when they buy goods or services.

Transparency is an important part of a fair process and the emphasis of certain terms, the size of the letters and the structure of a contract must be aimed to give the consumers sufficient time to think about what the contract says and understand the implications if they sign.

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What does it mean for consumers?

No information supplied to consumers can describe things so widely that it can be interpreted in various ways. The CPA also provides that if there is any doubt about the meaning of words or terms and conditions, the benefit of the doubt will be for the consumers.

Does this only apply to contracts?

Section 22 applies to all information supplied to consumers, such as product information, product manuals and contracts. Advertising and marketing are also included and are not allowed to mislead consumers. Companies are also not allowed to exaggerate and information must be easy to understand, fair and honest.

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