Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Forget small print, it's all about trust

Bridgecorp founder Rod Petricevic. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Bridgecorp founder Rod Petricevic. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Whatever else you may think of him, it was hard not to sympathise with Bridgecorp director Rod Petricevic when he admitted he had not read in full before signing a document over which he faces charges. Those documents are bastards to read.

Petricevic almost certainly has that much in common with many of the out-of-pocket investors in his company who also did not read in full the documents they signed when agreeing to hand over their nest eggs.

The world is full of small print that goes unread. How many times have you ticked the box confirming you have "read and agree to the terms and conditions" after actually reading and agreeing to the terms and conditions?

The terms and conditions for the online purchase of a child's $9 ticket to a film at a Rialto cinema are 3292 words long. A reasonable estimate of the number of people who have ever read them in full before clicking "next" would be zero.

For all we know, thousands of cinema-goers have been agreeing to offer their first born as a sacrifice when and if required, and to make themselves available for light housework for two hours a week commencing January 1, 2013.

It's worse if you do read the fine print. I recently had to sign a terms of trade agreement for a small job I'm getting someone to do. I read it, more out of politeness and curiosity than any sense that I would be on firmer legal ground for having done so in the event of a dispute.

It included a phrase which I took to mean that if I didn't pay him he could come into my house and take my stuff to the value of the services rendered. And if I tried to hide that stuff by mixing it up with other stuff he could take all the stuff.

I say "took to mean" because legal agreements are designed to be misunderstood. Don't take my word for it. I was once told by an entertainment industry lawyer that the whole purpose of artists' contracts was that the people who signed them shouldn't be able to understand them.

Modern life is so complicated that no amount of terms and conditions can possibly do what they claim to. Consequently, the world stumbles along as it always has - relying on trust and human nature, not Clause 39b, to get things done.

If someone wants to break a contract they will do so. No matter how thoroughly you try to shield yourself with the armour of small print, what matters is whether the parties involved can be relied on. Most people can be. Others cannot. What is written on a page makes little difference, as Bridgecorp investors know to their cost.

* * *

A storm in a latte glass has broken out in Ponsonby over an Auckland Council decision to stop local Lyn Burroughs using a Leys Institute building to hold gymnastics classes for kids.

It would hardly be worth mentioning but for the fact that the so-called explanation from a council functionary was a masterpiece of its type:

"The aim is to provide common arrangements across the region that are fair and transparent ... Currently there is a myriad of different arrangements ... and we need ... some clarity and consistency."

Nowhere in there will you find any attempt to provide a reason to stop Burroughs giving her lessons. But "fair", "transparent", "clarity" and "consistency" are all words which should ring alarm bells. They mean "We can't justify what we're doing, but we're going to do it anyway."

* * *

On a visit to Mataura Primary School recently, the PM was asked by a precocious tot: "Why are you selling New Zealand?"

"We need money for schools and other things your mum and dad want," he responded.

Isn't that just typical? Instead of giving a straight answer he went and blamed the poor mite's parents. You'll note he also, significantly, didn't attempt to refute the "selling New Zealand" charge.

- Herald on Sunday

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