The Financial Services Authority (the FSA – the financial services regulator in the UK) has issued guidance on the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, which are intended to limit unfair terms being placed on consumers. The Regulations refer to unfair terms in the context of contracts that have not been “individually negotiated…and cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations… to the detriment of the consumer”. The Regulations also refer to the requirement that a contract be drafted “in good faith” and that it should be in “plain, intelligible language”.
The FSA states in the guidance that it is concerned at the number of unfair clauses it comes across in consumer contracts, such as rights to unilaterally alter or terminate a contract, rights to transfer obligations under a contract and contractual terms that are not in plain English. Whilst the FSA’s guidance is intended only for firms regulated by the FSA, it is a useful reminder to everyone involved in commerce as to what unfair terms are and how businesses can avoid imposing an unfair term on a consumer. The FSA can take action against businesses registered with it for unfair contractual terms, for example by obtaining a court injunction to prevent an unfair term being used any further by the business. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) can also take action in the wider market place against offending practices.
The FSA sets out that, if a business can specify a valid reason within the contract itself as to why terms might be unilaterally altered, the right to unilaterally alter the contract is less likely to be considered unfair. A right of alteration is unlikely to be valid if it is, for example, in the business’s absolute discretion or to cover “unexpected” costs. In addition, stating that the contract can be altered “for any valid reason” will not be enough. If a business does alter a term that has a significant impact on the consumer’s obligations under a contract, such as varying charges payable by the consumer, the consumer should be informed of the change as soon as possible and given the chance to terminate the contract with immediate effect, without charge or other “practical” barriers put in place by the business to prevent the contract coming to an end.
Similarly, in relation to the transfer of obligations to third parties, the business should make sure that the guarantees provided to the consumer by the third party are the same as or better than those offered by the business itself – they key is stability and certainty for the consumer. The guidance states that consumers should be adequately informed of any transfer in good time for the consumer to fully understand the impact on the contractual relationship.
This guidance, whilst useful, does not necessarily tell us anything new. It is an important reminder for businesses of the requirement to have contractual terms that do not unfairly prejudice the consumer. It is not just the risk of an injunction to prevent the future use of those terms that should be taken into consideration – in addition, businesses should remember the bad press that can come with an injunction and the knock-on effect on consumer goodwill to an offending business. At a time when margins are tight and goodwill is essential to survival in the marketplace, getting contractual terms in order is an easy way to avoid the risk of an FSA or an OFT investigation, and all the reputation damage that can come with it.