/ Money, Shopping, Technology

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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Ron Steel says:
2 December 2015

The infamous Sam Goldwyn of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Hollywood film producers (or should that be seducers) stated “a verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s written on”. Very true. Avoid a “he said, she said” situation. If it is a verbal agreement make a note of it and send a copy of that note, with proof of delivery, to the people who have agreed.

I did that, from my senior academic position, to someone in an even more senior position.
He dragged me before a Disciplinary.
My Professional Association legal eagle made minced-meat of the case – but it didn’t do me much good until he was disciplined on a harassment indictment brought by an external agency about his behaviour to me and others in a meeting open to the public.
He took a whacking early retirement package soon after, was offered a place as a NED on a Hospital Trust Board, and pulls in an extra £15 000 / yr for a couple of days a month.

Is this not always the same bonny lad they are not going to shaft their own and admit what a load of plonkers they were in selecting him anyway.

How true, how true.

I will keep my comment as brief as I would like the small print to be. IT STINKS

Why can we not have Government enforced Model Contracts as used in industries like Civil Engineering etc.
Any changes to the model contract are highlighted and therefore once used to the standard terms, only the changes need to be read. The number of changes allowed should be restricted, also the length of the wording of the changes.

Ellen, I think that would be an easy and immediate solution. You have my vote.

osseo says:
4 December 2015

I’ve been suggesting to ‘Which’ for years that they should campaign for such Standard Model Contracts. Good that they’re now doing something. Being a lawyer, I try to read everything online that I’m asked to agree to, but often it takes too long. Sometimes I accept without reading, and occasionally I don’t accept. One such occasion was when Microsoft upgraded Skype on my Windows 8 laptop, and required me to agree again. After having scrolled through 4 or 5 screensful I gave up. I no longer use Skype on that laptop.

It should be possible to return the following message to the company concerned.
“All transactions with the undersigned are strictly according to her/his conditions,
a copy of which will be made availble on request.”
(Please would Which? word the legal conditions for its members?)
Phyllis Styne.

JeffL says:
3 December 2015

Yes agreed, can you do that Which? ?

I answered ‘Yes’ about reading the T&C’s,and I do partly,but around three paragraphs in,I start glazing over,and losing the will to live. Out with the legalese,and in with plain English.

All could be in a more basic english and not so gobildyI agree with the print size it could and should be easily read and seen and with on strings clear and precise

Bell98 says:
3 December 2015

Absolutley Mrs Cranmer, Arial – size 10 minimum. The companies will think twice when they are posting out 40 sheets of A4 paper to every new customer. May be even a paragraph after each item in plain English summarising what the 3 paragraphs above actually mean.

John Major (the then Prime Minister) tried to initiate this years ago. It cannot be left to individual businesses or Industry groups – the government needs to lay it down in law. Let’s have standard terms defined by the government, with minimum print size and maximum page size set too. Apply crushing fines to the companies that do not comply (including EU and International).

Terms and conditions are deliberately made long complicated and usually in very small print to dissuade consumers from reading them. This allows anything to be obscured and hidden from view. It should come under the unfair contract law. When Companies lose and are faced with large legal bills they will smarten up their act.

It is almost as if they are designed to be so long and boring they know very few people will bother to read them all. If you did and then disagreed you would not be able to accept the item so the customer loses out whichever way you look at it.

The world is being taken over by lawyers, everyone is more about making lots of money rather than producing a good product or service

That is totally 100% right J A Pearson

Why is the writing so small and usually in a faded grey ink to make it hard work to read?

Any suggestions what this might mean? It’s from energy supplier Ovo:

“17. Other conditions
17.1. We can transfer any of our rights or obligations under this contract without your permission.”

I can guess but that defeats the point of having conditions.

Have you asked Ovo? Sometimes when we query what manufacturers, service providers and public authorities mean by something we don’t understand a good starting point is to ask them.

In this case, possibly Ovo are saying if they transfer their business to another company their contract terms automatically go also. If so, I don’t think this is unusual. But that is just a guess. I’d be interested to hear what Ovo say.

That’s my assumption too, Malcolm, and I cannot see any other interpretation. When my transfer is complete I will be asking several questions, and requesting that this text is clarified.

I would like to see a similar situation to the one which was introduced in South Africa in the nineties. This meant that all terms and conditions had to be in the language used and understood by the average consumer on the street. If the signatory later said that they had not clearly understood the contract they had signed, it would be deemed to be illegal as it had not been clearly explained at the time of sale. This put the onus on the seller to prove that the terms were clear and beyond misinterpretation and in type large enough to be easily read. Contracts must be capable of passing the “person in the street” test.

Excellent plan! Considering that I read many years ago that the average Daily Mirror reader has a reading age of 7 (don’t know whether that’s true, but going by their articles it probably is) that should solve the problem nicely.

Which? Legal could compile I list of suggested T&C’s to protect consumers from exploitation by energy companies based on suggestions gleaned from its members and Convo contributors and forward it to the CMA.

For example:

(1) Please arrange an appointment for your representative to read my meter for my own protection against fraudsters.
(2) I would expect to receive a prompt reply to any telephone queries I may make and not be kept hanging on for more than what I consider to be a reasonable time.

There must be many more you could add to the list. When all is said and done we are paying for a service and have a right to expect value for our money otherwise we switch.

It is impossible to read the minute script of most T&C’s. Furthermore there are numerous pages of legal jargon designed to mislead the customer or hide clauses!

Pete Middleton says:
3 December 2015

I got close to getting scammed on line for a “risk free product” read the terms and conditions a bit late,but fast enough to avoid losing money.

The Government could stipulate a maximum length on T & Cs with minimum size type, with specific headings covering most requirements/products. Any deviation from these could be shown in Red to highlight them and warn the readers.

“You grant us a non-exclusive licence to use the content you add to our website. For example, we may use this information in the Which? magazine or in marketing materials for Which?. While we will usually display your name or username when using your content in this way, you agree that we have no obligation to do so.”

I actually object to this as I regard it as a potentially unfair usage of my words to assist in the commercial part of Which? There is also the possibility of my words being used out of context with no right of redress. Is it right for a consumer body to be so high-handed? They have our email addresses why not contact us for final approval?

Thanks for the comment DT. The debates on Which? Conversation are vital in drawing real consumer views and experiences into all of the work that Which? does – this part of our T&Cs enables us to do just that. This includes sharing comments with regulators and businesses to support us in achieving change for all UK consumers. It unfortunately isn’t always possible for us to contact everyone, but we do take this very seriously, and would always act responsibly towards our users when using their comments. Thanks

Get all the solicitors to agree a standardised set of T&Cs and for companies then to have a few extra T&Cs specific to their product, thus cutting down on the reading time and allow more people to read the T&Cs.

a lot of us older ones DONOT understand the jargon they use