The draft version of legislation to strengthen the existing unfair contract term protections in the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) was recently released for public consultation, giving us a peek into what is to come. The proposed changes are significant, including potential penalties of AU$10 million, and businesses trading in Australia will likely need to review their contract terms.
The current unfair contract term protections under the ACL have sometimes been described as a “toothless tiger”. Currently, the protections are quite limited in application and where a term is found to be an “unfair contract term”, it is simply void. Only parties who prove to a court that they have suffered loss or damage as a result of the unfair term can be compensated. No penalties currently apply.
This is set to change and businesses trading in Australia will need to prepare.
In August 2021, the Exposure Draft Legislation and accompanying Explanatory Materials were released for public consultation. The changes proposed are intended to provide fairer allocation of risk in standard form contracts and improve consumer and small business confidence when entering into such contracts. We provide a summary of the changes proposed in the Draft Legislation below.
Increased scope of application to larger businesses and no limit on contract value
The scope of application of unfair contract term laws will likely be broadened. It will continue to apply to standard form contracts which are “consumer contracts” or “small business contracts”, but those definitions would be expanded.
Currently, one of the requirements for a contract to be a “small business contract” is that at least one party to the contract is a business employing fewer than 20 persons. The Draft Legislation increases this to either 100 employees or alternatively, for the company to have an annual turnover threshold of less than $10 million.
Also, the requirement that the upfront payable price of the contract must be below a certain threshold is to be removed. This brings many more companies within the ambit of the legislation.
We can also expect some increased clarity around the definition of a “standard form contract”. The Draft Legislation specifies that courts must not take into account opportunities to negotiate minor or insubstantial changes to the terms of the contract, opportunities to select a term from a range of options, and the extent to which parties to another separate (but perhaps similar) contract were given opportunity to negotiate its terms. This further solidifies the need to provide the other party with an effective opportunity to negotiate the contract if the unfair contract term provisions are to be avoided.
Terms declared by court to be unfair cannot be used
The Draft Legislation provides that if a term has been declared by a court to be unfair, there will be a presumption in subsequent proceedings that terms which are the same or have a substantially similar effect will also be unfair. This will require businesses to stay abreast of changes to the law in this area by actively reviewing and amending the terms in their standard form contracts in accordance with the court’s decisions.
Growing “teeth” – significant civil penalties and potential remedies
There are currently no penalties for parties using unfair contract terms in their standard form contracts. The Draft Legislation would introduce penalties not only for proposing an unfair term but also for relying on the term. Further, it creates separate contraventions for each term which is unfair. This means that a business may breach the prohibition multiple times in a single contract (and therefore, attract multiple penalties), when they propose the term and again when they rely on it.
For a company, the maximum amount of the penalty will be the greater of: AU$10 million; three (3) times the value of the benefit the company obtained from the breach of the law (if that can be determined; or, if the court cannot determine the value of that benefit, 10% of the company’s annual turnover.
The Draft Legislation also introduces some new remedies specifically for unfair contract terms. A court can now make orders to void, vary or refuse to enforce part or all of a contract if the court thinks this is appropriate to prevent or reduce loss or damage that may be caused (or to remedy loss or damage that has occurred). Unlike other orders the court can make under the ACL, there is no need to show that loss or damage has occurred, only that it may.
A court can also make some new special orders on the application of the regulator, including orders injuncting the offending party from using an unfair term (or terms similar to it) in any future contracts. These orders can be made up to six (6) years after the court declares a term is unfair. This gives the regulator significant power to crack down on unfair terms on an ongoing basis.
Other proposed changes
- It would be expressly stated that remedies for the breach of unfair contract term provisions are also available to non-parties to the contract, and regardless of their status as a consumer or small business.
- The Draft Legislation would also clarify that if a law of the Commonwealth, State or Territory requires or reads in certain terms into a standard form consumer or small business contract, even if the law does not require or expressly permit those terms per se, it still cannot be considered an unfair contract term under the ACL.
Key takeaways for businesses
If you’d like our assistance with conducting a review of your standard form agreements, please contact us.