OFT raps mobile phone companies

The Office of Fair Trading has warned solicitors to “cut the jargon” and draft contracts that are fairer to consumers after winning improved mobile phone contracts from seven companies.

The director general of fair trading, John Bridgeman, had threatened to take legal action against the seven with what he regarded as unfair mobile phone leasing contracts.

Under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations – which came into effect in July 1995 – he is empowered to obtain court injunctions stopping companies from using unfair standard terms in contracts.

Mobile phone companies have been particularly criticised for making it difficult for customers to escape from phone leasing contracts. Some contracts have included a requirement for three months’ notice or a £50 disconnection charge.

Now lawyers from BT, Call Connections (owned by BT), Unique Air, Motorola Tel-co, Astec Communications and Peoples Phone (both recently acquired by Vodafone) and One 2 One have all introduced revised contracts, withdrawing or agreeing not to enforce unfair terms.

OFT’s legal director Pat Edwards warned solicitors at an OFT conference on 11 March: “So far the legal profession has been reluctant to relax its comforting grip on precedents and traditional contractual forms but the new law requires that regard is given to the consumer’s interests as well as those of the supplier.”

She said it was “heartening” to see the mobile phone industry coming into line. “Now others who draft contracts must accept that fairness of contract has replaced freedom of contract,” she added. “It’s time to cut the jargon and use plain English.”

Companies installing double glazing and other home improvements are also in the OFT’s firing line over certain contracts which absolve a company from any liability for delay or dealing with defects in products they have supplied.

OFT received more complaints about mobile phone contracts than any other. Home improvement contracts have the second highest number of complaints.