Unfair Contract Terms – B2B Contracts Under Investigation

Unfair Contract Terms – B2B Contracts Under Investigation

Unfair Contract Terms – B2B Contracts Under Investigation

Is your business in line for an ACCC investigation?

From November 2016, business to business transactions came within the coverage of some provisions of the Australian Consumer Law. The big change was the application of unfair contract terms to business to business contracts involving small businesses, with the intention of helping small business. 

Although the law doesn’t currently make the inclusion of unfair contract terms in a contract illegal, the ACCC is pushing for updates in the law to specify that unfair contract terms are illegal, and to empower the ACCC to issue penalty notices. Until those changes are introduced, either the ACCC or a small business suffering loss, must apply to the court to seek to have the unfair contract term declared void and unenforceable – a slow and cumbersome process. 

Not every B2B contract is covered. The core elements are:

  • the contract is for goods, services or the sale or grant of interest in land
  • one party will be a small business with less than 20 employees
  • the value of the contract involved will be less than $300,000 or, if for more than 12 months duration, have an up front price of less than $1,000,000
  • the contract is a standard form contract rather than something specifically negotiated between the parties.  

Clauses highlighted as potentially unfair include:

  • the ability to end or cancel an agreement unilaterally
  • broad indemnities or excessive limitations of liability
  • unilateral right to change contract terms, including pricing
  • limits on a small businesses ability to exit a contract, including penalties for early termination
  • extended payment terms which may be of detriment to the recipient 

The ACCC has investigated the standard contracts adopted by companies in industries such as car hire, waste removal, telecommunications and agriculture and a number of businesses have agreed to change their contract terms as a result.

This is possibly also the reason for Coles and other large retailers announcing in 2017 that they would start paying small suppliers within 14 days, a big change from the 30-90 days or more some suppliers had experienced.

At present, only a court or tribunal (not the ACCC) can decide that a term is unfair. As at early 2020, the legislation was under review.  ACCC can ask for enforceable undertakings and start court action if it investigates the contract terms of a business and forms an opinion that those terms are unfair. If a court or tribunal does find a term ‘unfair’, the term will be void – this means it is not binding on the parties. The rest of the contract will continue to bind the parties to the extent it is capable of operating without the unfair term.

The ACCC sets annual priorities for investigation and successfully took action against Ashley & Martin Hair Studios and Mitolo Group potato traders in 2019. Don’t let your business become that example.

The ACCC website includes updates of recent prosecutions and enforceable agreements when made. 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

If your standard form contract hasn’t been reviewed in a few years, call us to arrange a fixed price review and update of those terms. If your standard form contracts are very old (they might still refer to the Trade Practices Act 1974 or retention of title) then we might suggest a whole new contract, starting from scratch. Either way, we can provide you a fixed price before we get started.

How to set up effective ‘terms of service’

How to set up effective ‘terms of service’

How to set up effective ‘terms of service’

 betteDo you have terms of service that help you manage client work?

One of the topics that came up at an Angel Investor and Entrepreneur breakfastwas terms of service.

One of the people I was speaking to is in the website and marketing design and development space, and the challenge that they’ve got is clients who don’t give them material they’ve asked for, like images or written content.

The problem is they have no service contract that says “if you don’t give us material in 7 days, then we can continue as if there’s no changes or we can go on and get the work done“.

The challenge for the designer is that they have a workflow they’re trying to work with and a work stream and they have staff allocated to certain projects and if you can’t move forward in a project, it messes up the whole business. You end up with staff who have nothing to do and other staff who are overwhelmed because clients simply don’t respond with the required information.

One of the things you can use terms of service for is to manage the relationship with your clients and to get them to give you information that you need from them in order for you to complete the work you need to get the job done.

You might like to do business with a handshake, but written contracts aren’t a bad thing. The reason you put them in writing is to better manage expectations and manage relationships. 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

If you would like to have a service agreement or terms of service prepared to fit your business, in a way that supports how you would like to run your buisness, let us help you. We usually start by requesting a copy of your typical work proposal and any details of any issues you’ve had in the past that you’d like to avoid in the future.  

Australian Standard Contracts Need Updating

Australian Standard Contracts Need Updating

Australian Standard Contracts Need Updating

Do your eyes glaze over when presented with a written contract for review? Do your hit the ‘I agree’ button and hope the contract terms are fairly standard? You are not the only one. A survey by The Guardian back in 2011 identified that only about 7% of consumers read terms and conditions before agreeing to them.

If so few people read contracts, then why should you bother to get your Australian Standard Contracts reviewed or updated?

Quick Answer: Update your contracts to avoid $100,000 in penalties and corrective advertising costs –

  • in April 2016 Europcar was ordered to pay $100,000 in penalties to ACCC and spend more in corrective advertising
  • in December 2016 Valve Corporation (online gaming) was ordered to pay penalties of $3 million to ACCC, publish corrective information and implement compliance programs

…Not to mention avoiding having to deal with customer complaints and potentially being sued.

Its also a good opportunity to have your contracts converted to plain English and presented in a language that makes sense to both you, and your customers. I’ve had clients give feedback that their customers have been impressed with how easy it is to understand their contracts. The Virgin brand has done it for years – using real language to help people manage the legal issues instead of exhausting customers with legalese.

But getting back to Unfair Contract Terms….

If you work B2B and use standard form contracts, you’re business now falls within the Australian Consumer Law. If your business customers have less than 20 employees, or the face value of the contract is less than $300,000, then you have to comply. Companies with more employees and higher transaction values are expected to get legal advice on their contracts as a matter of course. Its considered sensible business practice. Interestingly, there are still a lot of businesses who wait until the sh*t hits the fan before they ask for help, and by that stage, its a whole lot more expensive to manage.

So, what are the key areas of your standard contracts that need review?

The courts look at a variety of different things but some of the most frequently considered –

  • whether the terms are negotiable or just ‘take it or leave it’ (click wrap agreements for software are ‘take it or leave it’ contracts)
  • if the contract was prepared by one party before any discussion between the parties
  • who has all or most of the bargaining power
  • the effect of an offending term on the rights of the affected party
  • the actual risk or damage to the contract writer
  • whether the terms of the contract are altered to take into account the specific characteristics of the other party or the particular transaction.

The Europcar case focused on the disproportionate liability to the person hiring a vehicle. In that case Europcar attempted to hold a hirer responsible whether or not they were at fault. Europcar also required the hirer to pay a damage liability fee of $3650 regardless of the actual value of damage, unless the hirer bought extra insurance. So theft of the vehicle could cost a hirer $3650, but so could a dented bumper. The court decided in that case that the contract terms were not reasonably necessary to protect the legitimate interests of Europcar, as well as being disproportionate.

It is also important that standard contract terms are ‘transparent’. This means your contracts need to be –

  • expressed in reasonably plain language
  • legible
  • presented clearly
  • readily available to any party affected before they buy

Some common contract terms that will need review are:

  • clauses that give one party the right to make changes, but not the other – like software agreements that allow the software provider to increase fees automatically
  • clauses that roll over automatically, regardless of the customers wishes
  • clauses that make it hard or impossible for one party to terminate or get out of the agreement
  • clauses that require a buyer to forfeit there deposit, even if you cannot supply the product or service
  • one sided indemnity provisions
  • clauses that disclaim all liability, including negligence
  • clauses that limit the damages a buyer can claim, but don’t limit the damage the seller can claim
  • penalty provisions – like advertising agencies that want a two year agreement with no right to terminate and claim a right to charge whether or not they provide any advertising

If you are one of the 7% of people who read contracts before you agree to the terms, you might have seen some of these provisions. If you haven’t looked at your own business standard contract for a while, NOW is a great time to review and update. We generally recommend that Australian Standard Contract forms, including terms and conditions and privacy on your website or App, should be reviewed and updated at least every two years to ensure your business remains compliant and you avoid the risk of hefting fines and time consuming legal actions.

When reviewing and updating your standard contracts, consider what is most important to your business, where you have the most issues with customers and how you’d like to communicate with your existing customers and leads. We can assist you with a strategy for implementation as well as helping you review, update or refresh your legal contracts.

Contact us now to request a contract review or to update or create your standard contract terms.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We love writing contracts. Weird, we know. But hey, some people love mountain climbing, so go figure!