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The perils of the fine print

The other day my house caught fire. My lawyer said, “Shouldn’t be a problem. What kind of coverage do you have?” I said, “Fire and theft.” The lawyer frowned. “Uh oh. Wrong kind. Should be fire OR theft.”

— Alan King on an Ed Sullivan retrospective

Working at Watkins Tapsell for over twenty years has taught me the importance of understanding the ‘fine print’ and never being afraid to ask what you may consider to be a ‘stupid question’.

As Alan King points out so succinctly with his humour, some contracts DO contain clauses which are misleading and difficult to understand – particularly for those of us who aren’t lawyers. Some legal documents are so crammed with phrases such as ‘hereinbefore mentioned’ and ‘execute in triplicate’ they make your head spin.

Do you know anybody who actually speaks like that?

A comment I hear often while assisting with legal matters is “I didn’t bother to read the whole document. He was a family friend – I trusted him!”. The simple act of signing on the dotted line can bring about life changing consequences – and not always the happily-ever-after-kind. There is no shame in taking a document away, reading it carefully, and returning to sign it the next day.

Another comment I hear regularly goes something like: “Well I asked my Uncle Bob who used to work in insurance and knows a lot about legal documents. He told me it was fine to sign”. There are many people with a keen interest in the law, but it isn’t wise to rely solely on the advice of ‘Uncle Bob’ unless he is a qualified solicitor.

Television dramas and reality shows may also cloud our vision. I once had a client tell me she saw a case the same as hers on Judge Judy, so she of course knew what the outcome of her case would be. I didn’t know what to say, as who wants to argue with Judge Judy?

Probably the most unique reason for not reading a contract came from an elderly lady who simply said: “Well I didn’t have my glasses with me at the time and there’s no way I could read that tiny writing.”

If you aren’t sure about what you are signing, it is worth seeking legal advice. Lawyers can explain complicated legal documents to you in plain English and help you to understand your responsibilities and obligation before you sign.

So if you are confused or unsure about the fine print, ignore Uncle Bob and switch off Judge Judy, and talk to somebody who really knows. It could save you a lot of heartache and worry down the track.

For further information, contact the Commercial Litigation Team