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Law Talk: Dreaded cell phone contracts

Community Legal Services | News | March 22nd, 2010



You probably have a cell phone, which means you probably have a cell phone contract. You might have even tried to cancel this contract - in which case, you probably were confronted with a steep cancellation fee. Or you might have tried to change the contract, which means you probably ran into more unexpected fees.

Cell phone contracts offer little wiggle room for the consumer. And while its difficult to avoid committing to a contract when buying a plan, there are some things about cell phone contracts you should know.

The contract you signed is likely a standard form, with no room for negotiation. The key provision of this contract is that if you choose to cancel it early, you choose to pay a cancellation fee. So it is important to shop around and ask friends and family their experiences with various providers. It is also important to read the contract put in front of you.

Diligent research, however, can still lead to a monthly cell phone bill being higher than expected. This can be the result of service charges or other hidden fees. Also, service providers often make billing errors.

If you have an issue with your bill, first take it up with the service provider. If you are not satisfied with the response, you can then file a complaint with the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

Cell phone contracts can have you seeing red if you don't know your rights.

The CCTS is a non-government, not-for-profit organization that counts almost all the big cell phone companies as members. Filing a complaint with CCTS is free. It handles billing, service delivery and contract compliance issues. However, CCTS does not deal with the actual terms of a contract, plan prices, privacy/confidentiality concerns, false advertising or general issues about members not covered by the contract. Complaints to it can be made online, by mail, or by fax. Go to www.ccts-cprst.ca for more information on filing complaints.

The CCTS can suggest a company to give an explanation or apology; order it to do or refrain from doing something; and/or call for compensation of up to $1,000.

For contracts signed in Ontario, a consumer can also file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Branch of the Ministry of Consumer Services. It can attempt to mediate any dispute about the cell phone contract. If you simply want out of your contract, there are ways to avoid the fee. For example, the Consumer Protection Act, 2002 says that if the service provider made false representations about the service or product, the contract can be cancelled without penalty within one year of signing.

Also, there is certain information a contract must have, otherwise it can be cancelled any time during the first year.

The contract must include your name, the service provider's name and contact for the provider (phone, address and any other methods of contact). The contract needs to include a list of the goods and services being provided, including taxes and shipping charges. This list must also have a fair and accurate description of the goods and services. All additional fees must be listed, as well as the total fees. Details of how and when the payments need to be made must be included. Any consumer's rights beyond what the law already provides must also be outlined. And it needs to list any rules or regulations regarding trade-ins. Finally, the contract needs a date and any other restrictions or conditions that may apply.

The consumer can also cancel a contract within 30 days if the provider has not delivered the goods or services. This applies to goods or services that are substantially different from what was agreed upon. First, though, the provider has to refuse to fix the problem or its attempts at repairs must have been inadequate. If this is the case, do not withhold payments. Instead continue to pay until cancellation and seek reimbursement afterwards.

Once all other avenues have been exhausted, the final option for a consumer is suing a service provider. The Small Claims Court in Ontario, where costs are lower and you can represent yourself, is likely the best place to do this. The court handles contract disputes, misrepresentation issues and negligence cases.

This column provides legal information only and is produced by the students of Community Legal Services and Pro Bono Students Canada (UWO). If you need legal advice please contact a lawyer, community legal clinic or the Lawyer Referral Service at 1-900-565-4LRS. You can contact Community Legal Services at 519-661-3352 to book an appointment to discuss your legal issue or mediation services. Fanshawe College students may also book an appointment to attend our outreach clinic at the college. Please call us at 519-661-3352 with any inquires or to book an appointment.
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