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Law firm offering clients a fresh start makes stale promises, watchdog rules

Fresh Start Law Centre claims to be the only firm in SA that specialises in expunging clients' criminal records.
Fresh Start Law Centre claims to be the only firm in SA that specialises in expunging clients' criminal records.
Image: 123rf/Andriy Popov

Conrad Schutte wanted a fresh start, free of his ancient criminal record, so he handed over R1,895 to a specialist law firm, paid extra for its “urgent” service, and waited.

Seventeen weeks later, Schutte was still waiting, even though Fresh Start Law Centre claims on its website that the process takes “12 weeks or less” and that “We remove criminal records faster than any other company in SA”.

When he requested a refund he was ignored, so Schutte complained to the advertising watchdog, which ruled this week that the law centre’s claim was dishonest and misleading.

The Advertising Regulatory Board said Fresh Start Law Centre, where the sole director is Angela Finlay, did not respond to requests for an explanation of its poor service.

The chance to expunge a criminal record was introduced in 2009 by the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, since when Fresh Start says it has helped almost 8,000 clients.

“The law says that those convicted of a minor offence, determined by the type of sentence imposed, 10 or more years ago, qualify for the expungement of criminal records. The sentence must have been a suspended jail term, correctional supervision or a fine,” says the Fresh Start website.

“If the expungement application is granted you will no longer be considered convicted of the crime, and your criminal record will be permanently removed off the national criminal register.

“Subsequently, once the conviction is expunged by the Department of Justice you can truthfully tell employers, your family, and all other interested parties that you have not previously been convicted of a crime. Furthermore, the expunged conviction will no longer show on employer background checks.”

Schutte complained to the ad watchdog that Fresh Start’s terms, which warn there may be delays, are only available on its website after upfront payment has been made.

But the ARB said the website’s claim of a 99.95% success rate “immediately alerts a consumer to the fact that there may be exceptions”.

The website also offered a “100% money back guarantee”, said the board. “This reiterates the idea that you can reasonably either expect to get the expungement or your money back. [Schutte] has ... received neither.”

The board advised its members not to accept advertising from Fresh Start that made unqualified claims.

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