Don't Let The Fine Print Get You: Six Points To Look Out For

15 December 2014

Fine print in contracts is something that commercial lawyers spend inordinate amounts of time creating, reading and worrying about.

For the regular person on the street, however, fine print is generally a page (or more) that’s at best given a quick glance before signing up for whatever you are buying, be it a gym membership or furniture on deferred terms. There are many reasons for not reading the fine print. By its nature (and sometimes deliberately) there’s a lot of material to take in, sometimes you’re standing at a sales counter and there‘s just no time to read it all, and in some cases the wording used means it’s impossible to quickly make sense of the actual meaning.

As lawyers our advice would always be that you need to read and understand all the terms and conditions that you are signing up for. In court it will generally be assumed that you read and agreed to the fine print because you’ve signed the contract. In most cases the only way out would be if you can prove that you signed under serious threat or pressure.

In the practicalities of everyday life, however, there will be times when you just can’t read all the fine print. At those times, look for the following six points and consider what they mean in terms of what you’re signing up for:

    • Who the contract is with. It may be that the store you are in is acting as an agent for the company actually supplying the goods or services to you.

    • In a contract for services (e.g. gym membership) can the supplier alter what they’ve agreed to supply to you, or the price, either with or without notice to you or your consent?

    • How you cancel the contract, and what your obligations will be on doing so? Are there any cancellation penalties?

    • Clauses regarding the Personal Property Securities Act/Register. Are you giving approval for the supplier to register a security interest against you?

    • Privacy and use of your personal information. Is there a box to tick to ensure that your personal details are not used for other purposes?

    • What actions or omissions constitute “default” by you? Where you’re in “default” there will most likely be penalties and costs for you to pay.

    • Where you’ve signed the contract without reading and/or understanding the fine print and later find something there that you don’t want to be bound by, what can you do?

The first question will be whether or not there’s a “cooling off” period provided for that allows you to withdraw from the contract. If this isn’t the case then you could get in touch with the company that’s the other party to the contract. Can you get them to agree to a variation to the terms and conditions? If this isn’t feasible, then you’ll need to assess whether or not you can carry on with the terms and conditions as they stand, or whether the issue is important enough that you need to cancel the contract if you can. There are likely to be cancellation penalties that you need to take into account. As mentioned above, you’re unlikely to be able to put the contract aside on the basis that you didn’t read the fine print.

The prudent approach, though admittedly not always the most practical, is to not sign until you have read all the fine print. Failing this, at least scan the fine print for the main points before you sign.


Dan Moore is a partner at Norris Ward McKinnon. With offices in Hamilton and Huntly, we have friendly, expert legal advisors ready to help you with your business and personal legal matters.