Ombudsman Neville Melville gives advice to consumers about how to get the most out of the CPA

2013-09-17 00:00

CONSUMER goods and services ombudsman (CGSO) advocate Neville Melville knows what it’s like to struggle and that’s probably why he always ends up fighting for justice for the person on the street.

Melville, who has been appointed as the country’s newest ombudsman, tasked with upholding the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in the retail sector, grew up on a Zimbabwean farm with his widowed mother. He recalled his formative years of working “shoulder to shoulder” with the poor in his early days.

“I almost sound like a politician. I have walked the same path of many of them and my father died [when I was] six, and that put us in a difficult financial position. My poor widowed mother used to take a beating from many suppliers,” Melville said.

“I can see things from that point of view. Even at school, I had to work in the holidays to pay for my school uniform.”

As the ombudsman, Melville must enforce the consumer goods and services industry code of conduct, which is based on the CPA, by receiving and dealing with consumer goods complaints and investigating alleged contraventions.

Melville believes an ombudsman is the best shot at justice most consumers will get, due to the high cost of approaching the civil court. And it’s free.

“I’m really sold on the idea of alternative dispute resolution, because for the average person, the courts are courts of law and not courts of justice. People don’t have access to justice in South Africa and for just about every piece of legislation, there is an ombudsman,” Melville said.

Melville rose from his humble beginnings to graduate with a master of law from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, before working as a functionary of the National Peace Accord before the first democratic election. He went on to found the Independent Complaints Directorate police watchdog before serving as the ombudsman for banking services between 2000 and 2007.

Melville is upbeat about having “something concrete and solid” to focus on as the CGSO where his rulings must be obeyed — unlike working as a consultant advising companies for the past few years, where clients could say “thanks for your advice, but we’re not taking it”.

Mellville has braced for the challenges of the office, the biggest being consumers’ unrealistic expectations.

“Consumers see an ombudsman as an attorney for them, which is something that an ombudsman is not. An ombudsman has to be impartial and listen to both sides of the story,” Mellville said.

“Obviously, if a contravention of the [Consumer Protection] Act has taken place we will pursue that, but if the business is right, that’s the end of the line. They find that a very difficult pill to swallow sometimes,” Melville said.

However, Melville said it was quite easy to strike a balance between the rights of consumers and businesses.

“The CPA is clear. There is some space for interpretation and one has to take a common sense point of view in interpreting it and asking what is the spirit of the act? The act says that if in doubt you find for the consumer,” Melville said.

While Mellvile took up office in June, the office’s call centre had been operating for a year as a pilot project handling calls ranging from complaints about new televisions to expired food sold on supermarket shelves. The call centre fields 500 to 600 calls per month.

Mellville said most complaints over the past year were about faulty, poor quality furniture and beds. “That’s going to be my big challenge,” Melville said. However, he said complaints about misleading advertising where goods were advertised at a lower price, but sold for more had also featured.

Melville said some businesses were still struggling to come to terms with the CPA.

“Particularly in the area of returns, I think they cannot get their mind around that the law has changed,” Melville said.

However, Melville said some consumers were confused and believed they could return goods for any reason within five days. However, this only applies to direct marketing purchases.

A word of advice for consumers from Melville on how to get the most out of the CPA when buying retail goods and services:

“If anyone makes a particular promise or says a product is good for a certain purpose and when you get home it is not like that, make a note of it, and secondly, keep an invoice. Check your till slip and make sure you do get the special price because sometimes the bar code hasn’t been changed. You are entitled to the lowest price.”

Melville said most complaints to his office came as a result of businesses’ poor complaints resolution processes, including leaving consumers waiting for an unreasonable period of time for answers, and rude and unhelpful staff. “Companies should focus on complaints as much as sales. Great companies should view complaints not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to put things right.”

The ombudsman’s office can be contacted at 086 000 0272 or e-mail

info@cgso.org.za

• Send your comments and consumer complaints to Witness Crusader at consumer@3i.co.za

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