Friday 24 October 2014

Yet more rights

For three weeks I’ve been describing the variety of protections that our Consumer Protection Regulations offer us. But there’s even more of them. Some that offer us enormous protection.

One of them deserves repeating.

Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations says that it is an “unfair business practice” if a vendor causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

What does that mean?
It means lots of things but above all it means that anyone selling you something has to be VERY careful not to confuse you about your rights. They’re simply not allowed to let you leave the store either not understanding or misunderstanding what you’re allowed to do if you have a problem. For instance they’re not allowed to let you think you can’t return an item if it’s faulty. They’re not allowed to tell you, when something does go wrong, that you have no right to a remedy. We heard from a customer last week who bought a P450 cellphone from a small store called “Xuan Xuan Shop” in the African Mall in Gaborone only for the phone to go wrong within days. She quickly returned it and the owner/manager was good enough to replace it with another one but that replacement also only lasted a couple of days before freezing just like the first one. When she then took it back a second time she was told by the now grumpy and impatient owner that yes, she could have a refund, but only after he’d deducted 20% of the price presumably because he felt he was entitled to do so.

Not so fast. You’ll remember that Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says very clearly that goods sold must be “of merchantable quality”. Clearly a phone that freezes isn’t. She’s entitled to as many repairs or replacements as are required to give her a phone that does what phones are meant to do. Applying bizarre, made-up conditions such as a 20% penalty for sticking up for your rights isn’t permitted and suggesting that it is would cause a probability of confusion about her rights.

If that wasn’t bad enough the owner then tore up the original receipt the customer had been given, destroying the proof of purchase she might have been able to use if she wanted to take action against the store.

When she’d had enough she contacted us for assistance and one of our team went back to the store with her to see if we could help explain her rights to the now very aggressive owner. No such luck. Clearly Xuan Xuan Shop is a store that likes to confuse its customers about their rights and doesn’t give a damn about their legal obligations.

Related to 17 (1) (d) is Section 17 (1) (g), a shamefully underused right. It’s worth quoting in full. It says that it’s an “unfair business practice” if a company takes “advantage of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of disability, illiteracy or inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”.

If you read that carefully the implications are really quite profound. A store can’t abuse disabled people and they aren’t allowed to take advantage of someone if it’s obvious that they can’t read an agreement they’re being asked to sign. It doesn’t matter if they’re blind or illiterate, a store can’t take advantage of their situation. However it also says something else. It says that a store can’t take advantage of a customer if they don’t understand the language of an agreement and that, in itself, means two different things. Language can simply mean the type of words you use. An agreement that is full of long words that very few people understand isn’t a fair agreement.

Some while ago I saw a letter from an insurance company that demanded that the victim of an accident in a supermarket “let us have your quantum of damages for consideration”. Apart from being incredibly pompous you have to ask why the company was using bizarre language. I think it was because they wanted to confuse people.

However the word “language” can mean the national or cultural language you choose to use. All business contracts you’ll see in Botswana are written in English because that’s the language of the legal system. So what should a store do when it’s obvious to them that a customer only speaks Setswana? How can they ask the customer to sign such an agreement? It would be like asking me to sign an agreement in Mandarin, it would be a silly idea. (Bizarrely I once DID sign a contract in China and guess what language it was written in? Yes, English.)

I think it’s quite clear that Section 17 (1) (g) of the Regulations places a clear responsibility on companies to make an extra effort in these circumstances. They should be going the extra mile to explain to non-English speakers what the contracts mean. Is it too much to ask that they write explanatory notes in Setswana that they can hand out in such situations?

Or maybe certain organizations actually rely on taking advantage of their customers? Or am I being far too cynical?

The good news is that we have these protections. The Consumer Protection Regulations are a very powerful tool that can be used to protect us. All you need is to know about them. So please, tell your family, your friends and everyone else who needs to know about them.

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