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24/11 24 February 2011
The OFT has today sent a clear warning to businesses that consumer contracts must be clear and have no unwelcome surprises buried in the small print.
In publishing its market study into consumer contracts, which found that one in five people had experienced a problem with such contracts in the last year, the OFT has set out its framework for prioritising future enforcement in this area.
The study examined when, how and why contracts may cause difficulties for people and identified the practices and contract terms which have the potential to cause people the greatest harm and which could breach consumer protection laws.
Harm can arise when a small print term alters the deal from what consumers understand it to be, or if the way the contract is presented makes it difficult for consumers to understand the deal properly, in effect hiding unfair terms in plain view. The OFT's research found that 80 per cent of these people who experienced a problem said that it came as a surprise.
Currently 70 per cent of the OFT's consumer enforcement cases relate to contract terms and conditions and the OFT is urging businesses to consider whether their customer contracts contain terms that may be detrimental to consumers. Detrimental terms include:
This does not mean that the use of these practices and terms is automatically unlawful - this will depend on the specifics of the contract and a number of other factors.
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 helps them to assess whether their contracts need reviewing to make sure that their customers are treated properly. Transparent business practices build trust in markets, allow people to shop around to find the best deal for them, stimulating effective competition and strengthening innovation and growth.'
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