Unscrupulous traders employ a variety of tricks to try and shirk their obligations in consumer contracts. Consumers often play their part by handing over their money in good faith. It will only be fair to expect equal value or a refund if such value is not obtained. However some businesses believe they have rights to take peoples’ money for little or no value at all. There are many unfair and exploitative practices that traders employ. However the law does not allow businesses or anyone at all to enrich themselves at the expense of other people without justification. The Consumer Contracts Act Chapter 8:03 protects consumers from all manner of unfair business practices that are used against them.
Last week we looked at the simple and general disclaimers that shopkeepers often display in their shops to try and wiggle out of their obligations to give value for money received. A consumer contract is a legally binding verbal or written agreement between the supplier of the goods and services and the purchaser who pays money for them. Every time you buy anything you enter into a consumer contract with the seller and you are automatically protected by the law. Whether or not you choose to use the law is up to you but it is always there to protect you when you need it. However you cannot run to the protection of the law when the consumer contract is for the purchase of illegal goods. You cannot sue your street corner weed supplier if he cheats you and sells you a strange concoction of dehydrated pressed leaves of an unknown plant species.
When Consumer contracts are unfair.
When they generally result in unequal exchange in terms of the values exchanged. In plain language this is when you are cheated of your hard earned money. We talked about being deceived into buying fake goods that are passed off as genuine goods. However why should anyone be allowed to keep your genuine US Federal Reserve minted notes when they gave you a fake IPhone 6 of unknown origin in return? To be fair counterfeit goods should be paid for with counterfeit money. Surprisingly many unscrupulous traders see nothing wrong with keeping people’s money even if they have not given any value for it. A shockingly large number of traders have an unwritten policy to never return money once it is receipted no matter the extent of their fault. At best they may tell you to take something else of equivalent value to the returned item. The favourite Zimbabwean ruse used to dodge refunding customers is saying ‘’our system doesn’t allow that blah blah’’. This however means absolutely nothing from a legal point of view and is typically designed to confuse and discourage customers from pressing further to get their money back. Imagine the average 67 year old grandmother being told about ‘’our system is down’’. Merely mentioning that phrase is the usually the last word in arguments as people are not expected to argue with computers so they back down dissatisfied but sufficiently intimidated. Contracts are unfair when they are unreasonably oppressive to the other party and they impose unfair obligations, liabilities or limitations. When a contract makes it impossible to protect the interests of one of the parties it is manifestly unfair. Generally a consumer contract should not be contrary to commonly accepted standards of fair dealing. Written contracts must be expressed in readily understood terms and language to avoid deliberate vagueness usually used to exploit consumers.
What is not unfair?
A consumer contract is not unfair merely because it might have been concluded on more favourable terms with another party. Simply put it is not cheating to find cheaper goods and services elsewhere. It is also not unfair just because neither party benefits.
The aggrieved party can sue the other party through either a summons or court application which we have previously discussed. It is vital to know the other party’s contact details. The court will order relief as it deems fit if the unfairness is proved.
Miriam Tose Majome a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on email@example.com