What is plain and understandable language? How is plain language defined in South African law?  What is the standard that one should use to decide whether a document is in plain language?

The definition of plain and understandable language

Although reference to plain and understandable language is made in various pieces of legislation, only very few expand on the meaning assigned to it.

The National Credit Act (NCA) was the first to define plain language and not surprisingly, the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) has followed this definition in section 22.

In terms of both the NCA and the CPA a notice, document or visual representation (document) is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the document is intended, with average literacy skills and:

  • minimal credit experience (in the context of the NCA), or
  • minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant product or service (in the context of the CPA),

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 document;
  • organisation, form and style of the document;
  • vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the text; and
  • use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding.

Not a very good definition, especially considering it is of plain language! How is this to be practically applied? Under the CPA, the Commission may publish guidelines for methods of assessing whether a document is in plain language. These guidelines will hopefully give us some additional clarity. When they will be published is anyone’s guess.

How does plain and understandable language impact you?

How does this affect you? It means that there is now a legal duty on many suppliers or vendors to draft their customer facing documents in plain language or to convert current documents. Consumers must understand both the terms and the importance of the terms. The bottom line is that the Consumer must be able to make an informed decision.

the consumer must be able to make an informed decision

In the past, even highly educated people often struggled to actually understand the meaning of business terms or legal agreements from suppliers or vendors. Let alone the illiterate (or partially literate) consumer who probably did not understand the terms and consequences of the contract at all. So, the purpose of the legislation requiring plain and understandable language is quite obvious. Whether you like it or not, the law often compels you to cater for the consumer who does not have in-depth knowledge of your goods or services or the law.