When you sign a legal document, do you read the whole thing? And if you do read it, do you understand it – all of it? Probably not, and neither do most people. The problem is that contracts are usually written by lawyers to protect the businesses they write them for. This does not help the consumer, of course, who doesn’t have an impartial lawyer on hand to translate the contract.
We are expected to know exactly what we are signing, because we are agreeing to everything in the contract. There is often, however, a lack of understanding so many people are not aware of the real terms and conditions that they are agreeing to. The true implications of what you’ve signed then only emerges when something goes wrong. At that stage, of course, it is too late to say that you did not understand the document. The truth is that many of the agreements we sign regularly – such as insurance policies, loans or just goods that we buy – can be written more simply to make them easier to understand.
Businesses need to move away from the idea of telling people to "read the small print". Indeed, why have small print in the first place? If we wrote our legal documents in plain language, there would be no need for small print at all. (And who really wants to use a magnifying glass to read it anyway?)
It is time for South Africa to take the mystery out of consumer contracts and agreements. We constantly remind ourselves that this country has people from many different cultural and language backgrounds within its borders. But business still insists upon making their documents more and more difficult for the majority of people to understand. It really is time for change.
Thanks to Joanna Curwen for her information for this article. Joanna runs courses on good legal writing – so if you know of businesses who could benefit from these courses, pass on their details to her. Her phone number is (016) 349 2031 and her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org - also see her web site at http://www.curwen.za.com