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UK Government to Tackle Small Print and Tedious Contract Terms

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 (9:29 am) - Score 525
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One of the biggest consumer frustrations with signing up to any new broadband, phone or other service is the mass of small print and complicated contract terms that sit in the way, which most of us probably skip or at least skim through. But now the Government want to tackle this.

Like it or not contracts are a necessary evil and in an ideal world we should be reading through them before confirming our agreement. On the other hand some small print and contract terms can be both confusing and excessively long (a few were longer than Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’), which makes it difficult to read or even comprehend unless you’re a trained lawyer.

The reality is that most consumers simply skip the text and as a result they could end up being caught out by hidden nasties, such as extra charges or service restrictions, that they may have only been aware of had they set aside the time needed to read through everything.

As a result the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has begun asking consumers who have experienced similar issues to respond to their new Call for Evidence.

Sajid Javid MP, Business Secretary, said:

“It seems like everything we buy these days comes with the line ‘Terms and Conditions apply’. Whether it’s a train ticket, car insurance or downloading an app, we are faced with pages of small print that is difficult to navigate through.

If terms and conditions were clearer, and easier to navigate consumers would be able to easily consult them and make better informed choices before buying a product. It would make similar products easier to compare, increasing competition which could inevitably drive prices down for consumers.

In order to kick off the process, those with views are asked to respond to our straightforward call for evidence.”

The challenge in all this is the need to balance simplicity with the often complex reality of service or product delivery, particularly with solutions like Internet access that can be exposed to all sorts of different situations and network complexities.

Like it or not a certain degree of T&C complexity may be unavoidable, although there are still plenty of ways in which ISPs and other industries could make things simpler (e.g. don’t hide charges for important service features, such as new line connections or exit fees, in the small print).

Part of the Government’s consultation also includes a proposal for the creation of a new power, which could impose “civil fines” against businesses that fail to comply with consumer protection rules. The power to fine non-compliant businesses would, claims the Government, deter future breaches and strengthen fair competition.

Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. Avatar dragoneast

    Although wordy, I still find it surprising how often t&cs can still be vague and uncertain on quite important matters. They grow like topsy, so perhaps not surprising. We already have “high” level legislative and judicial intervention in this area (unfair contract terms, sale and supply of goods and services) but so far have avoided getting into the detail.

    Not at all helped, I suspect, by the Anglo-Saxon love of taking advantage. The “give us an inch and we’ll take a mile” school of thought.

    • I’ve been all over the world, there’s nothing uniquely “Anglo-Saxon” about taking advantage. It’s far worse elsewhere 🙂 , we just like to think that people over here moan more about it than others.. even though it’s a fairly universal trait.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      Perceptions, Mark! I think there’s a difference between creativity (shall we call it), the mother of progress; and gorging.

  2. Avatar DTMark

    One of the biggest culprits that I have seen is Talk Talk, whose leaflets (“inducements to purchase”) have a paragraph of key terms on the reverse at the bottom that is very nearly impossible to read.

    The letter height, width and spacing make the text so difficult to follow that I suspect people don’t bother trying.

    I would have thought that a challenge to those Terms in court ought to succeed precisely because of this, so the contract would be rendered null and void, most especially if the customer has any sight problems.

    That said, if legislation is necessary and means that such printed material becomes unlawful then that’s certainly to the consumer’s benefit.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      I tend to support the financial penalty route. Making contracts void or voidable sounds wonderful until you start to think of the implications, for the consumers too. Fine for those that look for an “out of jail” card against their Provider, but they are a small minority.

      Some of the most alert and attentive consumers I know are the frail elderly. They will find a magnifying glass when they need one! (And they actually have one too).

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