Legal framework for plain language
Organisations dealing with consumers can no longer hide behind legalese and small print. The legal framework for plain language in South Africa is growing, and now includes two wide-reaching laws: The National Credit Act and the Consumer Protection Act.
A broad approach to plain language
Taking its lead from the National Credit Act (which defines plain language in Section 64), the definition of plain language in the Consumer Protection Act is broad. It encompasses content, design, structure and readability aspects such as sentence structure and wording.
Legislative definition of plain language
'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
- the use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.'
(Section 22, Consumer Protection Act No. 68 of 2008)
How to tell whether documents comply
Testing with users is essential
The definitions of plain language in the National Credit Act and the Consumer Protection Act rely rely on an ‘ordinary consumer’ within the group of intended readers understanding the document. Therefore, we can surmise that testing documents with readers will be critical to assessing whether a document complies.
You can use your own assessment mechanisms
The National Credit Act sets out that companies may set up their ‘own evaluative mechanisms […] as long as the mechanism is fair and objective’. As yet, there have been no detailed guidelines on these mechanisms; however, Simplified offers a plain-language audit service which we believe encompasses the intentions of the legislation.
Initiatives in the financial services industry
Drive towards consumer education
The Financial Services Board is currently revisiting its consumer education policy and the Life Offices’ Association has a complementary education policy to help consumers make informed decisions about long-term insurance products. The Financial Sector Charter includes objectives to educate consumers.
A code of practice for banks
In 2000, major banks in South Africa adopted the Code of Banking Practice which set out their relationship with customers. Among other undertakings, the banks promised to:
- make information available to customers about services and products in plain language and give help on any aspect which customers do not understand
- ensure that all written terms and conditions are fair and clearly set out the customer’s rights and responsibilities in plain language
- help customers to understand the basic financial implications of the bank’s products and services
- help customers to understand how their bank account works.
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