Omit needless T&Cs

How many legal documents should a website include?  This depends to an extent upon the nature of the website, but just as important are the inclinations of the website operator.

Where possible, I try to limit the legal documents to two: a terms and conditions document and a privacy policy.

The privacy policy is kept separate from the T&Cs because: (i) it is not a contractual document, and (ii) the Information Commissioner's guidance says that it should be kept separate.  (If there was such a thing as a Product Returns Commissioner, no doubt his or her guidance would say that product returns information should be kept separate...)

There are a number of advantages to limiting the number of legal documents.  Fewer documents are easier to maintain, and users know where to go to answer any particular question they may have about a site.  Links to two or three documents can be included on every website page; many more documents and you will need a special legal documents section or menu.  The use of fewer documents may also reduce the chances of specifiying contradictory terms.

There are also disadvantages. It may be harder for a user to find information within a longer document, and a longer document can be more conceptually complicated.  One common complication is having to specify different contracting and termination mechanisms for different parts of the document.  Another possible disavantage is that when you ask users to agree to the T&Cs and only some of the T&Cs are relevant to those users, they must agree to the whole document - or you must include clumsy caveats in the agreement statement or the T&Cs themselves.

T&Cs may need to cover a range of different relationships and transactions.  Consider, for instance, the relationships between:

  • website operators and casual users;
  • website operators and registered users;
  • website operators and customers;
  • website operators and subscribers; and/or
  • users and other users.

In some cases it will make sense to separate out particular relationships.  For instance, an ecommerce store will commonly have a set of T&Cs relating to the use of the site and a set of T&Cs relating to sales.  In addition, stores often have distinct returns policies, because this is the one set of rules that customers are likely to want to read!

This tendency for legal documents to proliferate is taken to extremes on eBay.  There are so many different sets of rules governing the use of the eBay website, that they are listed in a special A-Z, and extracting information from them can be difficult.

So, just as good writers should omit needless words - and good philosophers needless entities - so good websites should omit needless legal documents.  That isn't to say that every site should have only two documents; rather, additional legal documents should be considered an evil, albeit one that is sometimes not needless.

Comments

It's not just returns policies that users read.  They are also interested in shipping / delivery policies, so these shouldn't usually be buried in the T&Cs of sale.

I would minimise legal content - most people read a few words then tick the box. It is also very unlikely that any transgression is noticed, reported and acted upon.

Provide no one is physically injured then in the unlikely event that a deficiency is identified and enforcement actions are taken plead ignorance and demonstrate committment to addressing the identified issue effectively.

If physical injury is a possibility as a result of someone following your website advice then ensure the injury risks are covered by disclaimers and if necessary, insurance.

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