Why can't they say that in the first place?

We’ve been working with Fair Go on an item about clarity in consumer contracts. Earlier this week Fair Go interviewed people about a typical wordy clause from a banking contract. They wanted to know if the clause was readily understandable to the person in the street. Most people’s comments were along the lines of ‘it’s unintelligible’, including those of a lawyer who had a look at the text.

Watch the Fair Go video: Contracts in plain English

Here’s the clause in question for you to have a go. And be warned: it’s a single sentence of 105 words.

Here’s the original text

The customer may at their sole discretion request the bank to reverse any Direct Debits initiated by the Initiator under the Instructions by debiting the amount of the Direct Debits back to the Initiator through the Initiator’s bank where the Initiator cannot produce a copy of the Instructions and/or Confirmation to me/us that I/we are reasonably satisfied demonstrate that I/we have authorised my/our bank to accept Direct Debits from the Initiator against my/our account provided that the request is made not more than 9 months from the date when the starting Direct Debit was debited to my/our account under the Instructions by the Initiator.

Here’s our translated text

If you think we have paid a direct debit you did not authorise, you can ask us to reverse it. You have 9 months to do this. If the organisation we paid the money to can’t prove that you asked for the direct debit, we will try to get the money back from them and return it to your account.

What we noticed about the meaning of the original when doing the rewrite

Our ‘translation’ revealed that the bank doesn’t actually commit to returning the money to your account. The original text hints at that action but does not actually say it. So we used the word ’try’ in our version.

Consumers are starting to see positive changes

We work with many financial institutions, large and small, across New Zealand. The new financial regulations that have come into force over the past few years have had a very positive outcome for consumers.

Truly bad financial contracts are much less common than they were years ago. However, most, if not all, financial institutions are still working hard to rewrite their huge body of contractual material and general information.

We expect that the organisation, like most in the financial world these days, is working hard to put everything in customer-friendly language.

Get help with your wordy clauses

We love to help untangle wordy clauses. You can contact us at consulting@write.co.nz


2 responses to “Why can't they say that in the first place?”

  1. Chris Roblett says:

    This ‘plain English’ translation of a contract goes too far and leaves out a couple of important pieces of information:
    1. The clock starts running from the date the money was taken from the account and not, for example, when the customer received their bank statement showing this, or (even later) realised the money had been taken. I suggest the translated text read ‘You have 9 months from the date the money was taken from your account to do this’.
    2. The legal test for ‘prove’ appears to be ‘reasonable satisfaction’. The original text is quite unintelligible on this, but appears to be saying ‘If the organisation we paid the money to can’t prove to our reasonable satisfaction that you asked for the direct debit …’
    Both sets of additional words would be very helpful to someone like the banking ombudsman trying to resolve a dispute where the customer complains that:
    • they told the bank 90 days after they got their bank statement and the bank says that was too late
    • the bank should pay them back because the person who received the money hasn’t proved beyond all reasonable doubt (a higher test) that the customer didn’t authorise the direct debit.

    • annemarie254 says:

      Thanks for your comment, Chris. Yes, normally we work with lawyers to make sure that our plain English translation of a document still contains all the legal rigour they need. (I did type ‘all the legal rigour of the original’, but text can’t be called legally rigorous if it can be challenged in court because its meaning is unclear.) This rewrite didn’t go through the usual back and forth, as your suggested changes highlight. The work that lawyers do is essential, and we really enjoy working with them to help them put the complex meaning into clear simple language.

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