Holding companies to account when they breach the Consumer Protection Act

Suing suppliers in court at great personal risk and expense is no longer your only option.  The Consumer Protection Act aims to give you as a consumer a range of new rights and protections against dishonesty or negligence on the part of the companies from which you buy goods and services.

One important way that the Act rebalances the scales of power in your favour is by offering you a number of ways to seek compensation when you have been wronged. Suing suppliers in court at great personal risk and expense is no longer your only option.

That means the Consumer Protection Act has real teeth since consumers can explore a number of avenues for help when they believe a company has wronged them in a way that is against the new law. Suddenly, people who can’t afford thousands of rand in legal fees can hold the companies they do business with to account.

Your options

If you believe that a company has breached the Consumer Protection Act, you can look to new structures such as the National Consumer Tribunal and the National Consumer Commission for help. You can ask that your name not be disclosed when you submit a complaint to them for investigation.

Your other options include seeking arbitration for a dispute, reporting the matter to an industry ombudsman (such as the insurance or motor industry ombud’s office) or taking the matter to a criminal or provincial consumer affairs court. The Act doesn’t specify which of these options you should explore first.

Each of these options has its pros and cons and some are better suited to certain situations than others. In most cases – except for serious breaches of the Act that have resulted in severe physical injury or financial loss to you or another affected party – you should start out by trying to solve the problem with the company itself.

If you get no satisfaction from the company’s consumer complaints department or management, you might want to discuss your case with a lawyer to find out if you have recourse under the Consumer Protection Act.  Getting legal advice about which forum to use for your complaint need not be expensive if you have access to a service such as Legal & Tax.

Your lawyer’s advice should take the following into account:

  • The compensation you are seeking – it makes no sense to spend thousands of rand in lawyer’s fees because a supplier won’t repair a broken CD player worth R500.
  • The industry involved – many industries are governed by their own ombudsmen or regulators. For example, the National Credit Regulator oversees credit agreements.

The Consumer Protection Act is still untested, so it remains to be seen how quickly and easily consumers will be able to get reimbursement from companies who have broken the law. However, the legal framework is sound and we believe that the Act will offer consumers levels of protection that were unheard of until now.

This article which was written by Yusuf Boda  who is a legal manager at Legal & Tax Services, appeared on Moneyweb.

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