contract

Is time up for old-fashioned contracts?

Radical changes are being considered for government contracts for digital services, including removing “negative language”, limiting sentences to two lines and hosting boilerplate clauses online.

The use of “visual representations” will also be considered, such as diagrams and icons, to communicate contractual rights, obligations and dates.

In a series of blogs on the gov.uk website, Warren Smith, an assistant director at the Government Digital Service (GDS), outlined how contracts could be made simpler and clearer.

Mr Smith said government digital services contracts currently contained over 88,000 words, which, based on an average adult reading speed of 250 words per minute, would take six hours to read.

“Lots of things make current contracts hard to use and inaccessible to the people that could benefit from them,” Mr Smith said.

“Contracts are rarely designed using modern techniques to create digital content, including legal content. They’re often worded in a way that suggest an expectation that something’s going to go wrong.

“Lots of content uses negative or controlling language, e.g. termination, consequences, liabilities, penalties, prevention, safeguarding, dispute and so on.”

Mr Smith said that, as part of the digital services redesign, the government would “like to look at replacing negative language with something more neutral”, while getting rid of inaccessible aspects of the contracts such as obscure terminology and language, inconsistent and duplicate content, lack of structure, poor format and layout and the unnecessary volume of words used.

Mr Smith said the GDS had held a series of “contract design jams” or workshops, for people interested in transforming government contracts, which would involve the Government Legal Service.

Mr Smith said that, as well as drafting in plain English, the GDS was aiming for a two-line limit on sentences, as recommended by Clarity International.

To reduce the length of contracts, Mr Smith said the government could host boilerplate clauses online, “meaning that we publish them once, rather than reproducing them for every contract that’s been created”.

He said there were wider opportunities for government legal documents to use images, to help users understand contractual rights and obligations.

“During the design workshops we started to explore the use of visual representations, for example diagrams and icons, to communicate contractual elements such as rights, obligations, timelines and dates.”

Mr Smith concluded: “We believe that open, digital and visual contracts, which are easier and faster to create and implement, are needed to support building better services across government. We’ll continue to work closely with service delivery teams in departments, our suppliers and beyond.”

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