When ‘timely’ service provision becomes an untimely headache
Two Consumer Protection Act words cause endless problems for those of us who are tasked with investigating or mediating consumer disputes: “reasonable” and “timely”.
Consumers can cancel contracts with a month’s notice and service providers must refund them, minus a “reasonable” cancellation penalty.
So one gym company thinks it’s reasonable to charge its members a penalty of 30% of remaining subscriptions if they cancel before the contract term is up; another thinks it’s reasonable to make that penalty 70%.
“Timely” is even more problematic.
Section 54 states: “When a supplier undertakes to perform any services for a consumer, the consumer has a right to the TIMELY performance of those services, and timely notice of any unavoidable delay in the performance of the services.”
Some online retailers, often the smaller ones run by people who began as market vendors and then expanded their operation to the worldwide web, are notoriously lax about delivery times, expecting their customers’ patience and understanding to endure months of excuses about “delays at the port” and the like.
A few years ago, a security gate company used to demand a 50% deposit when a contract to supply custom-made products was signed, and then insist on payment of the remaining 50% before work commenced.
Then, with that full payment secured, they’d take weeks or even months to finish the job.
To them, there was nothing wrong with the pace of their service provision – their customers, on the other hand, had a very different idea of what “timely” meant.
As I was writing this, “Lauren” e-mailed me about the contractor she has paid a 70% upfront payment to install bedroom cupboards in her home. He’d been “dragging his feet”, she said.
“There have been so many excuses for not pitching up or why they have made little to no progress when they have been on site for hours.
“It is affecting our daily living as all three bedrooms have wood up against the walls and furniture all in the wrong place. “But because I’ve paid him 70% of the job, I can’t tell him to pack up and leave, as I will no doubt lose that money, which I can’t afford . . .”
So here’s the advice: always, always ask a service provider to commit to a date of delivery; delivery being you receiving what you’ve paid for if that’s a product, or the completion of a job.
Contracts are two-way agreements, binding on both parties, and requiring a service provider to commit, in writing, to a delivery date, is perfectly reasonable, given that you are made to pay in full or in part upfront.
Do not sign an open-ended contract.
When you have a delivery date, or a range, as in “three to five weeks”, then at the end of those five weeks, you get to demand a refund, in terms of the CPA.
Section 19 states that: “If the supplier tenders the delivery of goods or the performance of any services at a location, on a date or at a time other than as agreed with the consumer, the consumer may either . . . agree to another delivery date or cancel the agreement without penalty.”
And if they refuse to refund you, in full, then you have a strong case for the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud ( www.cgso.org.za/complaints/) or a journalist such as myself.