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Small print imperils immortal souls

[26 March 2011] As part of its remit to enforce the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the OFT says that ‘jargon-free language is of no value to consumers unless it is in legible print’. A new market study of consumer contracts has found that one in five people experienced a problem with these in the last year, leading the OFT to remind businesses that consumer contracts must be clear and have no unwelcome surprises buried in the small print.

Heather Clayton, Senior Director of the OFT's Consumer Group, said:  ‘On the one hand, we all know that people don't read the small print of contracts. On the other, small print is a necessary fact of life and consumer law isn’t there to protect the careless or the over-hasty. This report reconciles the need for small print with the real life behaviour of consumers and sets out the OFT's expectation that consumers should be free to focus on the main elements of the deal, confident that there will be no unwelcome surprises in the small print. This report gives clear guidance to businesses and it will help them to assess whether their contracts need reviewing to make sure that their customers are treated properly. Transparent business practices build trust in markets, and allow people to shop around to find the best deal for them, stimulating effective competition and strengthening innovation and growth.’

British retailer Gamestation last year made the news when it revealed that it had legally acquired the souls of thousands of online shoppers by inserting a clause in its small print that included the statement: ‘By placing an order via this website, you agree to grant us a non-transferable option to claim, for now and ever more, your immortal soul.’ The term was inserted as a joke, but to make the serious point that too many people are unaware of the small print. (The company did not enforce its ownership rights, instead emailing customers nullifying any claim to their souls.) You can read the OFT’s report and find out more about the market study at www.oft.gov.uk/consumer-contracts

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