In March this year, following Which? study of car and travel insurance, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills announced its intention to simplify small-print terms and conditions. Which? had found that, in some cases, T&Cs were longer than two Shakespeare plays put together, making it almost impossible for consumers to understand what they’re signing up for.
According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, the definition of small print (sometimes known as fine print) is “text in a formal agreement that is printed smaller than the rest of the text, sometimes in the hope that it will not be noticed”.
Consumer laws require all relevant information to be made available to the customer but don’t specify exactly how this should be done. There’s no law against putting essential information in an extremely small font, or burying it among endless pages of technicalities.
According to the Committee of Advertising Practice, the law states that small print “may be used to clarify, but not contradict, claims either in the headline or the body copy.” If, for instance, an insurance policy says that a given situation will be covered in most cases, it’s the customer’s responsibility to look up what the exceptions are. If it simply says the situation will be covered, the small print can’t legally give exceptions.
The problem is that, even in the legitimate example, it can be almost impossible to find the exceptions.
Small Print Reform
Following delivery of their report, Which? Executive Director Richard Lloyd observed that “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.”
Business Secretary Sahid Javid agrees and has begun a consultation on how to simplify T&Cs and impose penalties for companies that abuse the opportunities of small print. However, it may not always as simple as it sounds, since large amounts of information may be legally required to be specified.
On the other hand, now that most T&Cs can be found online, they could be easier to navigate. The customer could be given a list of headings that can be clicked to find, for instance, those exceptions to the insurance policy.
At the moment, this is just a consultation, and we can only hope that it becomes more than that. As the Chartered Institute of Taxation has pointed out, though, tax legislation, which will form the T&Cs when tax goes online, runs to thousands of pages. The Government will need to lead by example.