Mar 03

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Consumer contracts – plain English please!

Why should consumer contracts be written in plain English?  Because most people have to deal with them on their own, without the luxury of a lawyer being able to advise them on what it means.  Think about how many contracts you’re bound by right now.  Here’s just some of the normal everyday contracts people are signed up to:

  • a home loan (if you own your house)
  • a lease (if you’re renting)
  • an employment contract
  • a mobile phone contract
  • life insurance
  • car insurance
  • home/contents insurance
  • credit card agreements

When you need to know what to do under one of those contracts, you need to be able to work out the answer yourself.  Very few of us have the money or the inclination to run off to a solicitor to work it out for us.

In a consumer contract, the consumer – that’s you – often has a very weak bargaining position.  In all the examples above, the other party is so much stronger that you probably can’t influence the terms of the contract.  You have to take what your bank offers you, for instance, or else you have to look elsewhere for your home loan.  If the terms they offer are so opaque that you can’t easily navigate your way through them, there’s not a lot you can do.

But here’s the thing – isn’t it in their interest for you to understand your own home loan?  Isn’t it in the telco’s interest for you to understand your mobile phone contract?  Wouldn’t you think your landlord wants you to know your obligations under your lease?  How are you supposed to comply with your contracts if you can’t make sense of the terms – or if the language simply puts you off reading it?

Fair Trading legislation in many countries helps to some extent, but the real problem is the mindset that legal jargon can’t be rewritten in plain English without sacrificing meaning.  This myth is wrong on two counts:

  1. If the document is difficult to read and understand, then meaning has been sacrificed already.
  2. There’s plenty of evidence that contracts can be written just as clearly in plain English.  Even judges agree, and they’re the ones who REALLY know (for just one example, look at paragraph 18 of this judgment from the Federal Court of Australia).

There’s a world out there where normal people can deal with normal contracts because they’re written in normal language.  Sadly, that’s not normal yet.



Permanent link to this article: http://wordsmadeclear.com/2012/03/03/consumer-contracts-plain-english-please/

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