Rant of the Week



I used to be in charge of benefits administration at a small social service agency. It was my job to evaluate and understand all the provisions of our benefit package, in order to explain them to new employees and file claims.

I must have been more stupid than most: I got out the policies and actually tried to read them. Every word. Well, not exactly every word. I figured it would take two months or more to read every word, and another ten years to fully understand it. But I did read a lot of inscrutable text about all the subtle little conditions and notwithstandings and wherewithals and provisions. I discovered that our liability coverage had so many exceptions to it that I doubted that it actually covered anything. Sometimes I couldn't believe what I was reading. It sounded so contrary to good sense that I thought I must have misunderstood it.

I phoned our agent and asked him to explain. In the back of my mind, I think I expected him to say that the small print didn't mean anything because, of course, no reasonable person could ever find enough time to read it and, therefore, no one could ever really agree to it. That's not what he said. He said that of course the small print applied. It's all part of the agreement. He tried to convince me that all insurance companies had the same basic agreements. I called some of those other agencies and found out that that was not true. When I told him we intended to cancel the policy, he offered to cut our rates in half. Just like that! So much for the assumption that they were making a "reasonable" profit.

We cancelled anyway and switched to another company with more agreeable small print.

Did you ever think about the fact that the biggest agreements of all, God's covenant with us, is phrased in the plainest, most straightforward language you can imagine? I will be your God. You will be my people. I will send a Redeemer. I will never again destroy the earth with a flood. He who believes in me shall never die.

The small print exists because lawyers write most of these agreements and, like many other professionals, they, consciously or not, want to ensure that they will always have plenty of work. It is there because insurance companies want to be able to protect themselves against having too many claims filed. It is there because banks don't want you to know how obscene the interest rates on charge cards really is, or how much power they have to destroy your life if you forget to make a single payment on a loan.

Did you know, for example, that a lot of home-owner's policies have a provision that during any extended absence by the homeowner, the insured house must be entered and inspected by someone every day? And there you were in Florida in your lawn chair feeling so comfy and reassured.

A lot of people won't believe this, but there is no need in the universe for small print. It should be abolished, banned, exiled, censored, shredded. The law will not collapse. The courts will not be inundated with frivilous claims. Injustice will not prevail. In fact, I am quite sure the opposite will happen.

A holding company in Toronto which rented 30,000 apartment units tried to eliminate all the small print in their leases. The new lease agreements basically said "You agree to pay so much money every month so you can live in this apartment at this address. You agree not to damage the apartment. We agree to maintain the apartment. If you don't pay the rent, you have to leave. If we don't maintain the apartment, you don't have to pay the rent." Done. In plain English. What happened? The company saved thousands of dollars in legal fees every year because everybody understood the agreements and, as a result, were far less inclined to challenge or break them. The tenants loved the agreements. They understood them. They had the wonderful feeling that they weren't about to be tricked or cheated because they didn't have the time to read twenty pages of incomprehensible legalese.

The only drawback... ahem... is that most lawyers would be put out of business.

All Contents Copyright Bill Van Dyk
 1999 All Rights Reserved