September 20, 2020

Heeding the Archers ‘watch what you sign’ plea

The Archer’s ‘young guns’ Pip, Rex and Phoebe may have found out the hard way when it comes to failing to scrutinise a contract properly, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should be so complacent, says Southampton specialist contract lawyer Amy Peacey.

One of the BBC soap’s current story lines involves the trio and their plans to rewild a site in Ambridge and how omitting to study the small print has left them at the mercy of the landowner when it comes to any future plans.

“Although this is a fictional story, it’s an excellent way of illustrating the importance of reading a document before signing on the dotted line and the impact this could have on a business,” said Amy, a senior associate at Clarke Willmott LLP.

“In this case it means the three have signed away their ability to have full control over their fledgling project and given the landowner the ability to ‘greenwash’ the environmental damage of a planned development elsewhere.”

The Archers’ storyline involves a bid by the young farmers, dubbed the ‘Rewilding Three’’, to return an area of land back to its natural uncultivated state.

“Every business will at some point enter into a contract-based relationship, whether it be with suppliers or customers, contracts relating to land, utility contracts or employment contracts, which will all be very different,” added Amy.

“Even where the contract appears to have “standard language” this can still have significant consequences.

“Agreements come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are painstakingly negotiated over the course of months, while others consist of the fine print on the back of a scribbled-out quotation.

“Contracts can include onerous obligations which could have potentially catastrophic implications on your business, if enforced or breached.

“Disputes often arise due to imprecision and ambiguity in contract terms. A contract needs to be clear as to what each party has agreed to do for the other.

“It seems obvious, but if you cannot work out what has been agreed by looking at the words of the contract, it is probably not clear.

“You cannot expect an independent third party such as a mediator or judge to be able to find in your favour if what has been agreed is not clear.”

Amy says people should also take heed where a contract references other documents and to be sure not to agree to the terms of documents that they have not seen.

This may be common with suppliers or customers where you are required to abide by their company policies when providing goods and services to them.

Clarke Willmott is an NFU Legal panel firm in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset working with the union to deliver its contract checking service to its farmer and grower members.

The firm has seven offices across the country in Southampton, Taunton, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and London.