By Calvin Lau and Josh Wingrove
They come with toys, concert tickets, cell phone contracts or sedatives. You make one when you reserve a table at your favourite restaurant, and you enter one when you accept a course syllabus. They’re contracts.
They’re not the sexiest thing in the world, but students should know their rights the next time they get taken for a ride with their cable bill. Contracts are any agreement between two parties, either in writing or, in more informal cases, through a handshake and a nod.
“Many people don’t realize how many contracts they enter into. They tend to think of a contract as a very formal legal contract that requires lawyers, documents and seals… In fact, we enter contracts every day. When we ride the bus, we enter a contract,” said Ian Kerr, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.
Some of the more common formal contracts students enter into include cell phone contracts, gym memberships and signing up at the local video store. In each case, the customer must sign a form issued by the company without any sort of negotiation.
“These kinds of contracts are referred to as standard form agreements. What we mean by that is that the consumer doesn’t really have a chance to negotiate some of the terms,” Kerr said. With standard form agreements signed in person, there is a safety net for the unassuming customer.
Both an unusual clause and a hasty agreement can save a party from being duped by a jargon-laden agreement. Some companies may now use highlighters and dictation of the form to ensure the customer is aware of the agreement, but there is no negotiation or change.
“The contract as a standard form is on a take it or leave it basis,” Kerr said. Students should be aware of the contracts they are signing. If problems arise, let the company know in writing you’d like your plan cancelled. It’s also important to know if your agreement changes.
The courts, Kerr said, have set a precedent that companies can unilaterally change agreements by simply posting an announcement on their website. “As a student, you use Rogers services. You probably read PDFs, so you use Adobe… If every company did this, your life would be spent looking at websites for service changes,” Kerr said. Documents such as assignments and course outlines are essentially more informal contracts made between an instructor and a student, and are also important to read.
Terry Gillin, a sociology professor at Ryerson, said that as the university grows, the legal world of binding, written agreements tends to replace the nod and handshake in the classroom. “We live in a world which has become more legalized, so that something like the course syllabus is a kind of contract,” Gillin said.
Students are expected to honour such agreements as they would a formal, written contract with a company. Payments are expected on time and services are expected to be provided in the manner promised.
“One of the things that has evolved is that course syllabi include extensive statements about course policies, department policies and university policies,” Gillin said. “We increasingly live in a legal world here in the university.”
Regardless, contracts are important, and are best served by legal counsel. The University of Toronto Faculty of Law runs five legal clinics for specialized demographics. If you’re a low-income student, you may qualify for free consultation. Students should ask many questions to know exactly for what they’re signing up, and it’s not a bad idea to get everything in writing. Above all, know the bottom line, how it will change, and how to get out of it.
Then, hope you don’t have to.
Offer and Acceptance
This is the oldest definition of a contract. We go into these agreements whenever we’re sold something. Often these terms aren’t on paper, so anything the store communicates to you through posters, brochures, or salespeople are considered terms of a contract.
An exception is “sales talk”, outrageous exaggerations that no reasonable person would consider as fact. For example, paying fare to get on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) puts you in a contract that lets you access the transit system.
But riding the TTC binds you to certain restrictions, like not bringing in a bike during rush hour, playing loud music or shooting video.
A contract doesn’t actually have to be expressed to be binding. Often times there are circumstances that can make an agreement implied in law.
Buying a product from a store implies that it’s of acceptable quality, and eating at a restaurant implies that you will pay a fair price for decent food.
These are products that require the customer to accept terms before opening the packaging. It’s most popular with software but it’s also found in other products, such as books.
If text of the full agreement is inside the packaging, customers are forced to accept the terms before actually reading them. For this reason, courts may not consider these as legitimate, binding agreements.
You had the opportunity to read the agreement, and will be held to the terms of the contract by the click of the mouse, which manifests your consent to the agreement. Canceling a service or returning a product to the store frees the customers of the terms of these contracts.