An appraisal of plain language in the South African banking sector

  • Eleanor Cornelius University of Johannesburg
Keywords: banking sector, compliance, language services, legal practitioner, language practitioner, model for plain language


The Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (CPA) came into full force in April 2011. An important corollary of this Act, and the National Credit Act 34 of 2005, is the obligation that consumer documents must be in plain language. It has long been debated whether it is possible to make legal documents available in plain language for lay consumption. The aim of this study is to investigate the successes and failures of the plain language project five years after the CPA became operational. This study relies on data collected through focus group interviews with bank employees in both language units and legal divisions. Findings indicate that, in general, both legal and language practitioners concur that legal documents can be simplified under certain conditions, although consensus has not been reached about the degree of simplification and the types of legal documents that can be simplified. Interviewees experience difficulty with the vagueness of the plain language obligation. Findings also show that legal practitioners are concerned about prejudicing the legal status of documents and are reluctant to deviate from traditional styles of drafting. According to the language practitioners interviewed, legal practitioners use this as an excuse to avoid plain language, and lack of clear enforcement measures for non-compliance results in window-dressing and paying lip service to the intent of the plain language obligation. Findings also reveal that the location of the language services unit in the institution has a marked effect on the successful implementation of plain language in the banking sector. Banks prefer a combination of approaches to plain language, but no testing is done on real consumers. Among others, poor coordination, outsourcing, lack of (ongoing) training, limited use of indigenous languages and the absence of dedicated plain language style guides impact success. Based on the findings of this study, a model for plain language in the financial services and other industries is proposed.

Author Biography

Eleanor Cornelius, University of Johannesburg
Department of Linguistics, Senior lecturer