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Always read the fine print – here’s why

Most things you sign up for come with pages of tiny text in confusing legal language. We unravel the mysteries of “terms and conditions”.

23 April 2024 · Martin Hesse

Always read the fine print – here’s why

If you sign any contract – whether a credit agreement for furniture, an online gaming subscription, or an offer on a property – you indicate your agreement to the terms and conditions (Ts&Cs), and you're legally bound by them. For this reason, it's crucial to grasp what they mean before you sign on the dotted line.

Consumer lawyer Trudie Broekmann, of Trudie Broekmann Attorneys, explains the ins and outs of Ts&Cs, and provides some useful tips.

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Why is the text so small?

Contract terms are usually in tiny print, and you may wonder if the intention is to make you sign without reading them carefully.

Broekmann says this may be so, but there are also practical reasons.

For example, when having a contract drafted, a supplier may instruct the lawyer to ensure the terms fit onto one page.

“They do this because they don’t want to scare off customers with a long, intimidating document,” she explains. “The only way to make the contract fit onto a page is to arrange it in columns and use very small print.”

Why is the language difficult to understand?

Most lawyers are not trained in drafting contracts in plain language, so they resort to well-used, technical legal terms, says Broekmann.

“The purpose is to ensure that any judge or lawyer who later interprets the contract knows exactly what it means. The regular consumer is unlikely to understand all of this jargon, which may suit the supplier well,” she adds.

Must I read it all?

When signing up for subscriptions and making purchases online, Broekmann advises that you don’t tick the box saying you’ve read the Ts&Cs, if the site allows this omission.

“The Ts&Cs are always drafted in a way that doesn’t protect you, but does protect the supplier,” she explains. “So, your best bet is not to tick the box. If there’s an issue later, you can say you didn’t agree to the terms. That argument doesn’t always succeed, but it’s better than nothing.” 

However, as regards important contracts with significant financial implications, such as a loan or rental agreement, you must read and understand everything, Broekmann cautions.

“I recommend you sit with your lawyer and check that you’re comfortable with all the terms,” she says.

"If not, negotiate to have any problematic terms removed from the contract, or at least softened to something you can agree to,” Broekmann concludes. 

Tip: Checking the Ts&Cs of a new life insurance contract? A life insurance calculator can help you understand the financial implications.

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