/ Technology

Should small print be in plain English?

Ever been caught out by small print? It’s not rare, as our Fixed Means Fixed campaign proves. New proposals suggest you should be allowed to challenge unfair terms if they’re not transparent and prominent.

So why do people get caught out by contracts? Well, far too often important terms are hidden away in reams of illegible small print. And even if you do read them, it’s difficult to know what they really mean.

There’s evidence of that in Which? Computing’s recent survey of online privacy policies, as Sarah Kidner revealed earlier this week. Even though 70% said they found Facebook’s privacy policy clear to understand, when we asked what a specific term meant, only 31% got it right.

But Facebook is free – the issue of unclear contracts can also affect your pocket if you’re signing up to a contract you have to pay for. Whether it’s for a gym, mobile phone or loan, there’s the risk that you could get caught out by unexpected charges.

Perhaps it’s just our fault for not reading contracts properly before we sign up? Yet, if the legal language is beyond most of us, how can we be expected to read all the way through and come out on the other side with a thorough and accurate understanding of all the T&Cs?

Tackling contract terms and conditions

Well, the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission have proposed to shake things up. They’re seeking views on proposals that would require contracts to be written in plain English. Not only that, they’re also proposing that contract terms, including those relating to price, should be challengeable. The only exemption would be if the terms were transparent and prominent from the get go.

And that’s our main beef with the mobile phone price rises many of you have experienced. The mobile providers have consistently pointed at terms that allow them to raise prices by RPI inflation for existing customers. However, as we’ve seen from your hundreds of comments, the great majority of you had no idea such terms existed. Are these price rise terms transparent, prominent and in plain legible language?

Plus, if something as counterintuitive as a price rise during a fixed contract is included in those terms, isn’t that even more reason to make it clear and prominent so that potential customers are aware of it before they sign on the dotted line? Remember to pledge your support for our Fixed Means Fixed campaign:

Hector MacQueen, Scottish Law Commissioner Professor, explained their proposals:

‘First, it would protect consumers from being caught out by unpleasant surprises such as unexpected charges. Secondly, by requiring terms relating to price or the main subject matter to be in plain, intelligible language, legible and readily available to the consumer […] it would help to prevent honest traders from losing out to their more unscrupulous counterparts.’

Have you ever been caught out by small print? Do you think contracts should be written in clear and transparent language?


Would it be too difficult to call an email address an email address, not an email. I presumably, if I make a comment via email on your site, wish for that email to be published, whilst I might not wish my email address to be published with that email! I found it confusing to be told that the email I might be thinking of sending to you for publication would not be published… Why bother in that case?

If companies have nothing to hide and wish their customers to fully understand their terms and conditions, why is there a need for small print? They use enough space and bold enough type advertising the product or service , why not legally compel them to use print of no less than the minimum that was used to advertise the product or service, or specify a minimum size of print for the terms and conditions. Why not launch a campaign to abolish the small print ? These companies are well aware that many customers like me read news print without the aid of glasses but have to find a magnifying glass to read small print.

Daz says:
2 August 2012

Hi Rayemond & All…
I dont think the size of the print it really the part thats in question, although in some cases yes it can be hard to read. In most cases you can request the ‘small print’ in large print or even braile.
I think the point is however that they are using bamboozling words that are beyond a large percent of the population!
Also a general comment is the sheer volume of ‘small print’ is too much. How many times have you been in a queue, maybe in a clothes shop, where they offer you a 20% discount for taking out thier store card. You are then presented with multiple pages of ‘small print’, but feel pressured that there are people waiting to be served, that are getting impatient, so rather than read it, you ‘assume’ that it will be ok, and just sign away!
Of course a lot of small print is the company trying to cover thier own back, from scam artist and the type of public that try to exploit things – like the PPI repayments!
This is a debate that could go round in circles for ages.
In summary, anything that breeches what the ad states is what should be in plain english, i.e. fixed prices in mobile contracts – this should have been clear as clearly they were not fixed prices – this should have been marked with an asterix!

Yes, contracts should be in plain English and transparent.

There should be a limit to the number of pages if not words eg those for computer software and it should NOT ALL BE IN CAPITALS LINE AFTER LINE which is known to be more difficult to read and should therefore be seen as an excuse to deliberately mislead a customer… cf: Short speeches take longer to write than long ones.

It is vital to draw attention to any terms that people might find unexpected.

Since very few people seem to read things nowadays – including even medical staff reading notes – the length of these should be limited. I suspect that some of these contracts are deliberately long knowing that people will give up/stop reading them and just sign/tick the box and so miss important points.

Daz says:
2 August 2012

Good point, they probably make the important points last in the schedule, in the hope that you will have given up by that point!
Maybe we should start reading from the back!

“And that’s our main beef with the mobile phone price rises many of you have experienced. The mobile providers have consistently pointed at terms that allow them to raise prices by RPI inflation for existing customers. However, as we’ve seen from your hundreds of comments, the great majority of you had no idea such terms existed. Are these price rise terms transparent, prominent and in plain legible language?”
Which? know full well what the score is on this.
You are scating around the issue Patrick, the law states the onus is upon the selling party to INFORM the buying party of all relevant terms & conditions of any written or verbal contract BEFORE the sale is made.
Can there be any more relevant terms or conditions in a contract, than those that effect the price to the buyer?

It matters not how long or short a contract is in length, if the seller does not inform the buyer of terms concerning price and cost, they are preventing the buyer from “making an informed buying decision” which is breaking the law.
Your “fixed means fixed” campaign is a sideshow as a result of Which? being too close to the regulator.
Why haven’t Which? complained to the advertising standards agency about mobile phone contracts being advertised as “fixed” prices, when they are not?

George says:
3 August 2012

And while we’re about it, how about a limit on the number of changes permitted during the life of the contract. My credit card statement is almost always stuffed with a leaflet of changes – nearly always to my disadvantage – taking away my right to have my data kept private and not sold-on, for example.

A bigger scam than the unjust price rises mid contract is the one perpetrated on prepay customers when the companies altered their policy and cut the time frame of your money that you added to your number to one month. this allowed the companies to steal any money left on the account at the end of each month.