23 April 2019
How to write Ts & Cs without using the word 'liability'
As part of our consultancy service, we work with businesses to make their terms and conditions easier for their customers to navigate and understand.
A key part of the service is what we call our ‘challenge sessions’. These involve getting all relevant stakeholders from around the business around a table, and going through the document page by page, addressing any issues with the proposed wording. It’s essential to do this face to face, as everyone has to justify their position to all their colleagues at once. They can’t hide behind the veil of an email that says it has to be done the way it’s always been done.
On complex technical documents, we’ll often have four or five of these full day sessions. They’re intense and exhausting – but when we’re done, we end up with a document that everyone can live with and which, crucially, is clear for customers.
If you use it, make sure you explain it
One of our Clear & Simple principles is that jargon must be kept to an absolute minimum – or ideally not used at all. Jargon can take several forms: legal jargon, financial jargon or what we call everyday jargon – using a complicated word where a simpler alternative would do. We’d rather not see any jargon at all in financial documents. But our policy is that if it must be used, it needs to be followed or preceded by an explanation. This is often a solution that suits all parties. Words or phrases with a specific legal meaning can stay in the document – satisfying the legal department – and a customer can still understand the ‘real world’ meaning behind it.
Taking responsibility for liability
When we’re writing insurance policy documents, one of the most challenging sections to reach an agreement on is the part that concerns legal liability. The first sticking point is use of the word ‘liability’ itself. It’s clearly jargon, which is never used in casual conversation. But when it comes to the legal world, it’s a word with a clear meaning that most lawyers are loathe to replace.
Persuading legal colleagues to dispense with the word altogether tends to be very tough. But we fight particularly hard to keep it out of the contents page.
One of our principles for creating clear and simple documents is that terms and conditions – or policy documents - should be treated as manuals. We know customers don’t read them cover to cover – chances are they’ll only ever open it if they need to look up something specific. Which is why we believe all documents should have a clear contents page. That way a customer can quickly and easily find what they’re looking for. Using jargon in section headings can become a barrier to this.
The dictionary definition of liability is ‘legal responsibility’, which as a starting point is much more customer-friendly - and is likely to make sense to a greater number of people. But although the dictionary tells us that legal responsibility is synonymous with liability – the lawyers we’ve worked with did not agree.
The compromise on our latest piece of work was to replace ‘liability’ with the phrase ‘legal responsibility’ in the headings, but retain and explain ‘liability’ in the main text. We ended up with something similar to this:
“…the legal responsibility you may have as owner of your home. This is known as your ‘legal liability’.”
This was a solution everybody was happy with. The legal department was comforted by the presence of the word ‘liability’, and we were satisfied the language was clear enough to make sense to most people.
Jargon can be a significant barrier to understanding for people with a low level of literacy – and some of these are your customers. So if you must use it, just make sure you explain it too.