Know your rights when it comes to gym contracts

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It’s that time of the year again where we’re forced to think about our health and fitness. In the height of summer some of us are keen to get our bodies ready for the beach. Many think that getting fit at the gym is the way to go. But before you sign on the dotted line of your gym contract, make sure you are familiar with the terms and conditions, in case you suffer from buyer’s remorse or find that not even halfway into the contract you’re not using the gym that often and want to cancel.

Make sure you are aware of all the charges associated with the membership. “[There could be] joining, admin, card replacement, guest visitor or early cancellation fees. I have even heard of a competitor charging a yearly maintenance fee in January. Check your debit order to ensure the same amount goes off monthly,” advises managing director Gavin Cohn of boutique gym Wellness In Motion.

In 2016 a total of 89 complaints were made against various gyms, according to the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud.

“The majority of complaints received related to requests for cancellation. We also received a few complaints with regards to the failure to disclose contract terms or unfair contract terms. There were also complaints regarding the penalty charges or where people were being overcharged,” reveals a spokesperson for the ombud.

YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS

So how does the law protect you? The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) affords you the right to cancel if you change your mind early.

“Section 14 permits you to escape a fixed-term contract by giving 20 business days’ written notice, without penalty, but the consumer remains liable to the supplier for any amounts owed to the supplier in terms of that agreement up to the date of cancellation, subject to a cancellation penalty with respect to any goods supplied, services provided, or discounts granted to the consumer in contemplation of the agreement enduring for its intended fixed term, for example, kit bags or trainer discounts,” says Advocate Neville Melville, the Ombud for Consumer Goods and Services.

The cancellation penalty must be reasonable too.

“So, for example, if a consumer cancels the agreement in month 22, a reasonable penalty would be different from a situation where the consumer cancels in month two. This may be a couple of months’ worth of fees or a different penalty.

“There is no set penalty in the CPA and this must be determined by the supplier. If the consumer feels that the penalty is unreasonable, they should take this up with the supplier,” explains Rosalind Lake, a director at global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, specialising in competition and consumer law.

When it comes to affordability, Cohn advises consumers to choose payment plans to suit them. An open-ended membership may mean a higher monthly rate, but there’s no fixed-term requirement. A 12- or 24-month contract may be cheaper but harder to get out of.

“A client should also put the cancellation request in writing and submit it to the correct party to ensure that the cancellation is effected, while also ensuring they have gone through the cancellation terms of the agreement,” adds Cohn.

CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES

If you are dissatisfied with the service and don’t want to use the CPA, then you have to rely on the law of contract and the terms of the gym contract. But this means you could have a long fight on your hands, which could end up in the small claims court.

Lake adds: “Consumers must always try and resolve their complaints with the supplier directly and should escalate to senior management if they are treated poorly. If this doesn’t work, the consumer should lodge a complaint with the consumer affairs division in their province, the National Consumer Commission or possibly the ombud.

“Keep written records of interactions with suppliers and persevere. These things always take longer to resolve than you expect.” Staff reporter

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