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What does my contract say?

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"I wanted a new phone and decided to switch to a cheaper network. I still had quite a bit of credit left on my old phone so I rang my old provider and asked them to refund it. I was surprised and upset when they refused. They pointed out a bit in their terms and conditions which said that once you pay for top up vouchers you cannot get a refund of any credit you don't use. In other words, I had to use it or lose it. I wish I'd read the terms and conditions in the first place because then I wouldn't have kept so much credit on my phone".
Savita, Norwich

What are Terms and Conditions?

'Terms and conditions' is a phrase often used to mean the rights you have under the contract and also what obligations your have. For example, if you order a new cooker, it might be in the terms and conditions that the cooker will be delivered within a week (that's your right) but it might say that someone has to be at home to take the delivery (that's your obligation). Terms and conditions might be individually negotiated, for example if you bargain with each other over the price. Or they might be already set out, like when a company has a standard set of terms and conditions, which are the same for every customer. Every contract has terms and conditions - whether it's in writing or not!

If you've got a written contract you'd think it would be pretty easy to find out what the terms and conditions are. Sometimes it is, because all of the terms and conditions are usually written down in one place. But often, they are hidden away in "the small print".

The small print often contains the most important bits of your contract - for example, what you can do if you change your mind about what you've bought.

If the small print has been drawn to your attention, when you make an agreement, it will usually be part of your contract.

If you feel that you have been duped into a bad deal because you missed something in the small print, have a look at the section on Unfair contract terms in the menu on the right.

Read before you sign

Sometimes we're in too much of a hurry or too embarrassed to read through pages and pages of small print before signing something.

But if you sign a contract you will normally not be able to claim later that you didn't agree to what is in it, even if you hadn't read it at the time.

Reading before you sign is the only way to make sure you're not agreeing to something you don't want to.

Sometimes, as well as being in small print, terms and conditions are found in places you might not think of looking.

For example, if you turn a football ticket over you may find some of the terms and conditions on the back of it - it may tell you whether you are entitled to a refund if the match is postponed, or whether the club can throw you out if you get too rowdy.

art college

Where to check for terms and conditions:

  • If you are buying from a catalogue, the small print is often separate from the booking form - you may find it elsewhere in the catalogue.
  • The back of an order form.
  • On the Internet, the booking page may well have a link to standard terms and conditions - as long as they are mentioned on the booking page and are easily accessible they will be part of your contract.
  • If you buy a ticket, check the back of it. There may be some terms and conditions printed on it, or it may refer to some that you can find elsewhere.

Notices displayed in places like shops, hotels, theatres and car parks can also be terms and conditions. Here are a few examples:

  • "Refunds given only for returns made within 14 days of purchase"
  • "We cannot accept liability for any damage to your vehicle while parked in this car park"
  • "Latecomers will not be admitted until the interval"

Provided the notice is clearly visible when you are handing over your money, or parking your car, it will form part of your contract.

Updated March 2011

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