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Update: We’ve launched a campaign to simplify terms and conditions

Some T&Cs are longer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth. So it’s no surprise that 65% of people are put off reading them by their length. Today we’ve launched a new campaign to simplify terms and conditions.

Our research found that nine in ten (90%) people have agreed to terms and conditions when buying a product or service online in the last year, but only 16% say they always read them.

So the Chancellor, George Osborne, has asked us to lead the campaign working with government and businesses to change the way they present their terms and conditions, particularly online, and help ensure there are no surprises for consumers.

Simple terms and no nasty surprises

The Consumer Rights Act, which came into force in October, is a big step forward in making T&Cs clearer by requiring terms to be fair and transparent.

Given how long some T&Cs are – with iTunes Store’s, for example, at a staggering 19,994 words – there’s a risk that important points could be hidden in the detail.

Commenting on the launch of our campaign, George Osborne, said:

‘A core part of securing a better deal for working people is improving transparency for consumers so I’m very pleased to welcome the new Which? campaign that will bring clarity to how businesses present terms and conditions, ensuring consumers know exactly what they’re signing up to. I hope businesses work positively with Which? on driving this campaign forward.’

Other campaign wins announced

The Government has also announced action on two of our big campaigns, mobile unlocking and dental costs.

Backing our campaign on mobile switching the Government has said it now expects industry to start automatically unlocking customers’ handsets at the end of their contract.

And on our campaign to make dental costs and treatment plans clearer, the Government has committed ensure that the contracts NHS England holds with dentists are enforced so that dentists who break the rules don’t get away with it.

Back to T&Cs

We don’t think that you should have to read endless pages of baffling legal jargon just to make sure there are no unwelcome surprises in a contract.

We think companies need to simplify their terms so people know what they’re getting when they sign on the dotted line. Do you think that terms and conditions need to be simpler and easier to read?

[UPDATE 1 MARCH 2016] Government review

The Government today announced that it has started a review of complicated terms and conditions, including a call for evidence. The Government hopes to reduce the risk of ‘nasty surprises’ hidden in opaque or lengthy T&Cs. This could involve fining businesses that don’t comply with consumer protection rules.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid 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.’

Our executive director Richard Lloyd said:

‘Consumers shouldn’t have to read endless pages of baffling jargon just to ensure there are no nasty surprises hidden away in the terms and conditions.’

We’re working with the Government to persuade businesses to improve their T&Cs, including bringing prominent companies around the table to address issues with T&Cs. The aim is to find an agreed approach that will ensure companies clearly display key terms upfront and to test this with consumers.

Richard Lloyd added: ‘We will be working with industry and the Government to test how T&Cs are presented, particularly online and on mobile devices, to help ensure they work better for consumers.’

Do you always read the terms and conditions?

Sometimes, it depends (74%, 15,073 Votes)

No, never (19%, 3,862 Votes)

Yes, always (8%, 1,546 Votes)

Total Voters: 20,481

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Comments

The best organisation produce a non legal summary, in addition to the long version. That would be a good step.

Stuart says:
4 December 2015

Problem with a non-legal summary is that when there’s a dispute, lawyers look at the actual words, not the non-legal summary! Better to produce a non-legal summary then throw away the complicated version and use the summary as the actual T&Cs that consumers understand.

I. Rate says:
5 December 2015

One commentator above proposed standard contracts as used in a number of industries. This would be ideal as would robust legislation. Others suggest the consumer should stipulate his own conditions but do not specify how, or simply express dissatisfaction. I sympathise with all these views. However the internet operates; in a number of business sectors, across various jurisdictions, in political systems where there is considerable scope for organizations with financial muscle to employ delaying tactics for proposed legislation and in countries where courts are corrupt. Perhaps an interim measure might be possible.

When we buy, for example, timber products we can look for FSC mark to give some reassurance they are sourced sustainably. This is a non government international scheme. It is voluntary for suppliers but in practice there is considerable financial pressure for them to comply as specifying architects etc insist on demonstrating timber is sourced sustainably. Certification is at the supplier’s expense.

Why not a similar international certification scheme for online terms and conditions? Certification would demonstrate the supplier meets standards of fairness, reasonableness, privacy, etc. Security systems could be set to filter any that were not certified.

Companies spend a lot of advertising money setting customer expectations. It would be good to know that my reasonable expectations in response to the ‘big print’ (the advertising) should not be dashed by the small print.
I suggest the small print is invalid if any part of it undoes the legitimate expectations of a reasonable person who has entered into a contract on the basis of an advertised good or service.

This would automatically invalidate the ‘endurance’ clause in most consumer contracts. It is not unreasonable to expect the seller (who writes the contract) to take care that all parts of it positively support the message in its advertising.

Mark says:
9 December 2015

The real issue is that we all have to agree to the terms whether we like it or not. Although you could kind of get around not using skype ect, you’re certainly not going to do without gas, electricity, car insurance ect, so basically you are forced to agree. You could switch to a different provider of the services, but chances are they have a similarly ridiculous set of terms and conditions which you probably wouldn’t agree to if you actually read them. In my opinion these terms and conditions are made as long and complicated as possible, since they know almost no-one will actually read them, and anyone who does will have to agree anyway, so I think they deliberately try and hide as much in there as they possibly can.

Further, how come if you go and buy for instance a piece of software, the terms aren’t made VERY clear before you buy it. I don’t know if sometimes they might be on the back of the box (or inside, so you can’t read them upfront), but essentially once you’ve bought a copy of the software if you don’t agree to the terms, you’ve just wasted your money. You should at least be shown and made to agree with the terms at the till before you pay (not that many people would decline, because as I said, they need the product and have to agree whether they like it or not).

I have just tried to cancel the Sunday Times and Spotify offer which took place a year ago. The Sunday Times gave no warning that I would have to pay full costs from Dec 29 . Apparently in the terms and conditions it said that this would take place and the customer had to give 15 days notice to cancel (now 13 days left). They said that they were not legally obliged to give a reminder that you would be debited for full costs from your account. I have instructed them to cancel the account but will have to pay until March. Interestingly, Spotify did provide notice that I would be charged £9.99 per month unless I cancelled. My concerns are that even if the Terms and Conditions have been read the customer is unlikely to be able to remember the terms and conditions of the agreement a year later and that under Consumer Law there should be an obligation to remind customers that there will be a change to money being debited from your account.

This is a very good example of the proof of the proverb that the devil really does do his deeds in the detail of the small print.

It seems obvious that many firms make T & C lengthy and deliberately difficult in order to reduce the chance of people actually reading or understanding them. Many people within the legal profession are complicit in this process – they need to justify their existence and have no interest in common ‘justice’. I am sure key T&C could be summarised in plain English and presented as a limited number of bullet points – this is what is needed. The full, lengthy legal stuff could be presented below this and it would be a legal requirements that the summaries were not grossly misleading and should be validated by an independent body. I suspect that most T&C could be written on one side of A4 if people bothered to try – but they don’t. This is yet another ‘scam’, like so many others, on which governments of all hues should have taken action years ago. It should not be up to Which? to take action on this – it is good that you do – but is yet another example of the abdication of government’s responsibilities to ensuring justice to its citizens. Maybe this is because so many MPs have their snouts in the legal troughs, one way or another.

Most of the issues covered in T&Cs must be much the same from one firm to another. If firms could be encouraged to choose from a small range of model T&C documents, consumers would have a realistic chance to decide which of the models were acceptable to them, and holdout firms which preferred to stick to their own long and hard-to-read documents would find consumers increasingly unwilling to deal with them.

Perhaps all T&C’s should be like consumer insurance policies where all significant terms must be highlighted prior to purchase and any ambiguity is interpreted against the Company and in favour of the customer.

Could there be some standard t and cs that are generally approved and then companies would have to state where they were choosing to differ. Then we would just need to check the differences and hopefully they would be encouraged to stick with what’s acceptable generally.

tim layton says:
2 January 2016

Every company should be required by law to create a shop summary of the most important details of th contract and the most important exclusions . Other areas of interest can be linked to the summary . The company should also be obliged to keep records of the areas of greatest dispute in their terms and conditions and be obliged to update the summary so that it clearly draws attentions to the areas where most disputes arise. Some car major insurance companies are taking customers for a ride, pardon the pun. For instance Churchills/ direct line own green flag, and owns it’s own paintshops and vehicle workshops.
it increases their margins to make sure that customers use their in house services. This needs to be clearly show to all customers .in my experience clearly discourage customers from using their own car agents dealerships.

We’ve launched a campaign to simplify terms and conditions
Profile photo of Darren Shirley
Darren Shirley
Some T&Cs are longer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth. So it’s no surprise that only 65% of people are put off reading them by their length. Today we’ve launched a new campaign to simplify terms and conditions.
——————
So it’s no surprise that only 65% of people are put off reading them by their length.
So it’s
*** NO ***
surprise that
*** only 65% ***
of people
*** are put off ***
reading them by their length.

Am I being daft, or does that need editing?

Thank you for spotting – the edit has been made.

Standard t&c’s definitely a good idea. Combine with small no of specific statements where they differ. I would like Which to develop recommended t&c’s and then get companies to advertise that they are using them!

In a previous Which? article some years ago it said that it would be hard for any company to legally enforce a contract where it is possible to just click ‘accept’ and move on as nobody can be realistically expected to spend time reading such lengthy contracts. I hope that Which? still stand by this statement, as most of us do just click and carry on.
It would be good if companies were forced to make the main Ts & Cs for its service no more than one page of A4 long at a minimum of 8pt font size. That would change things for the better. Currently the pages and pages are only there to ensure that the company can’t ever be sued or have a legal case brought against it. In other words it’s all about covering themselves and not about making it easy for the user/consumer.

Preface: I am NOT a lawyer. However, how about this for an idea? Add a Code of Conduct to the new Consumer Rights Act that judges would be required to refer to in coming to a judgement – an outline of the Code being something like the following:
1. Over-riding rules in the Code of Conduct: 1(A) When a company is relying on a TandCs clause that is capable of more than one interpretation by a reasonable person, then any reasonable interpretation claimed by the consumer shall apply. 1(B) When there is a dispute over a TandCs clause then the consumer may cite in support of their case instances where the consumer’s position was jeopardised because the TandCs were NOT EASY TO READ.
2. The Code would give specific instances of what would be regarded as NOT EASY TO READ.
A. It shall be expected that all TandCs will contain a Contents List at the start of the document; otherwise the TandCs shall be regarded as NOT EASY TO READ. (TandCs by their nature are long and so this would be at the top of my list.)
B. TandCs written in font size smaller than ( specified size ) shall be regarded as NOT EASY TO READ.
C. TandCs written in unusual or difficult-to-read print or written in a complicated format shall be regarded as being NOT EASY TO READ -perhaps someone could suggest a simple technical way of defining acceptable types of font(s)? –
D. TandCs shall use only sufficient words as are necessary to convey the desired meaning and intent. Unnecessarily long wording shall be regarded as NOT EASY TO READ. It is recognised that a longer explanation can sometimes be needed. In such a case a company’s position shall be safeguarded if they can show they made a real effort to make the relevant clauses clear, for example by dividing the clause/ section into clear and transparent sub-headings.
END OF IDEA

Graham Warren says:
13 January 2016

An easy way to reduce TandCs is to make it law that they have to be no longer than two pages of A4 at 10 point font. If they are, then they cannot be enforced by the supplying company and any transaction will be governed by the statutory legislation that covers the particular area of business such as The Sale of Goods Act. The reading of two A4 sheets is not an too onerous a task for anyone to read before signing a document or pressing a button. This would force corporate lawyers, who I am convinced charge by the word, to be succinct and to use simple English when composing terms and conditions.

I am shortly opening an internet retail business and would love t and c’s to be much shorter and simpler but, in researching what wording I legally need to have and what wording I have been advised to have, my t and c’s have become longer and longer. The campaign is, quite rightly, for the consumer to be protected but please spare a thought for us honest businesses who are finding themselves needing to put more & more wording in to protect ourselves against unscrupulous consumers.

Hello everyone, an update for you: The Government today announced that it has started a review of complicated terms and conditions, including a call for evidence. The Government hopes to reduce the risk of ‘nasty surprises’ hidden in opaque or lengthy T&Cs. This could involve fining businesses that don’t comply with consumer protection rules.

Business Secretary Sajid Javid 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.’

Our executive director Richard Lloyd said:

‘Consumers shouldn’t have to read endless pages of baffling jargon just to ensure there are no nasty surprises hidden away in the terms and conditions.’

We’re working with the Government to persuade businesses to improve their T&Cs, including bringing prominent companies around the table to address issues with T&Cs. The aim is to find an agreed approach that will ensure companies clearly display key terms upfront and to test this with consumers.

Richard Lloyd added: ‘We will be working with industry and the Government to test how T&Cs are presented, particularly online and on mobile devices, to help ensure they work better for consumers.’

Nice, , although I believe it when I see it
Like everything we seem to need to be in near collapse burdened down by countless pages of absolute rubbish which are nothing more than the biggest get out of jail free system perhaps ever seen before anything gets done, , which brings to mind the latest news on UK air pollution yet again and the lack of movement on the same
Are we now to pay the EU or Brussels or whoever gets the money in the form of a fine for having EU vehicles as a result of a flawed EU test regime and an even more flawed punishment regime with the now known complete lack of punishment of those who ignore and even cheat the systems
How on earth can anyone suggest in the wake of the VW and NEDC goings on that there is the remotest possibility of there being clean air anywhere in the EU let alone densely populated UK

Let’s be honest about this and admit that a large proportion of the nation will never read any terms and conditions no matter how simple they are.

As you may be aware India has a consumer system and courts designed for a population where literacy and familiarity with the law is not taken as the fundamental basis. In India its tough for companies but good for consumers. You can go on-line now and review consumer cases all over India which give all the pertinent details. The concept of unfair terms and conditions is very well understood, as is confusing legalese.

So perhaps a searchable database of decided consumer cases would actually do more to empower consumers and their champions. The big mismatch between businesses and consumers is we consumers do not have the data to challennge as normally we act individually and may have no idea that there are 1000 other claimants with the same problem/fault.

As in all cases I would suggest that looking and reporting on how other countries deal with this problem would be useful. The Scadinavians and Germans are quite good at being clear.

T&Cs is a ruse just so that the legal profession make more money from the unsuspecting public. The company s might gain a little but the legal people make thousands

And from other countries:

Germany
New Agreement “Safe Harbor” – what is planned the week is not going well for Facebook: On Monday, the Landgericht Berlin grumbled the social network an administrative fine of EUR 100 000 on?. Now tells the Bundeskartellamt that it would investigate the Internet giant. Both methods have a cause: the terms and conditions that the company provides to its users.

Test.de has done a lengthy piece on the terms and conditions of 19 on-line firms and their use of your data. Well worth a translated read to see what Spotify, deezer , google , amazon, etc etc are up to.

One under appreciated item is that with expanding companies they can pass information within the Group. Google with many many dozens of companies will have a very large dossier on individual consumers who use Group services. Google has bought 170 companies and as of the middle of last year these were live:

A – Alphabet / Android / AdSense / Analytics / Ara / AdMob / Alerts
B – Blogger / Boston Dynamics / Books
C – Calico / Cardboard / Capital
D – Drive / DeepMind / Design / DoubleClick
E – Earth / Express
F – Fiber / Fi / Flights / FeedBurner / Firebase / Finance
G – Google / Gmail / Glass / Groups
H – Hangouts
I – Images / Ingress / Inbox / Invite Media
J – Jump
K – Keep
L – Life Sciences / Local / Loon
M – Maps / My Business / Makani
N – Nest / News / Nexus / Now
O – Offers
P – Plus / Play / Photos / Picasa / Pixate / Patents
Q – (Nexus) Q
R – Refine / reCaptcha
S – Search / Shopping / SageTV /Stackdriver / Skybox / Skia / Scholar
T – Translate / Tango
U – N/A
V – Voice / Ventures / VirusTotal / Video
W – Wallet / Wing
X – X Labs
Y – YouTube
Z – Project Z / Zagat

Steve says:
2 March 2016

I was recently sent an email by my bank titled “Important Changes to your terms and Conditions”.
The attachment was over 30 pages long. So all of that is “important”? They are clearly relying on you not reading it.