If you have a website, you'll need to display certain legal documents on it. This is the case whether your business trades exclusively on the Internet, whether your site is just an online presence, or whether it is just a part-time business. One of these documents is a set of terms and conditions or T&C.
We're not going to pretend that writing the "legals" on your site is going to be the most exciting part of designing your site, but spending time making sure your T&C reflect how your business works is much more important than many people think.
If you do the minimum, you might just comply with the law. If you are willing to invest time in them, they'll not only give your business additional legal protection but give your business credibility.
At the most basic, your T&C are an "Acceptable Use Policy" that tell visitors and customers what they can and can't do on your site. They also set out what you can do if the rules are broken. By and large, these rules can be made by you. So if a member of your site starts posting abusive messages to other members, you can take action to remove his posts and prevent him from using the site again.
Your T&C should also protect your intellectual property. For example, you might assert ownership of your pictures or articles in order to prevent them from being posted on other websites. Some sites go as far as to claim ownership of content posted by users.
If you take orders on your website, your terms are your contract with your customer. Contracts are formed when you make an offer and a customer accepts it. Your T&C should describe how offers are made (for example, where the price is displayed or the terms of delivery) and how the customer accepts the offer(for example, by completing the payment process). Your terms need to reflect exactly how you do business. Detail prevents misunderstandings, and makes resolving problems easier.
If you sell to consumers, you'll have to comply with consumer protection law (of which those relating to distance selling are the most well known). This law gives the consumer certain minimum rights (such as when returning goods). Technically, you don't have to acknowledge these rights in your terms - the consumer has them regardless of what is written or not - but doing so conveys openness and honesty. You might even want to better them in order to make buying from you more attractive.
Your terms are your rules about how your business works. Your business is unlikely to be identical to any other, so it would be unwise to copy the terms of a competitor and simply change the business name to yours. However, many businesses do this - amazingly enough, even some of Net Lawman's "legally aware" competitors have copied our own T&C.
There are two reasons not to copy the T&C of another business.
The first is that they might not cover the things that are important to your business. That might be because the competitor never invested in good T&C, or because what is important to your business isn't important to theirs.
The second reason is that your business is unlikely to work in exactly the same way, even if it sells the same products. There might be subtle differences in how goods are shipped or how payment is taken. Those differences might be reflected in what is not there as much as what is. Since your terms are your contract, if you run your business in a way that doesn't follow them, you'll be breaking your own contract and leaving yourself open to complaints and claims from your customers.
Net Lawman sells legal document templates, so of course we would encourage you to base your terms on website terms and conditions templates. Because we have so many variants for different business models, you should be able to find a good match for your site that considers far more points relevant to you than the more generic templates of our competitors.
If your business model is radically different to any other site, you should ask a solicitor to draw custom terms for you. In this situation, a template can act as an aide-memoire as to what to include and can save your solicitor time (and you his fees).
Above all, remember that no-one knows your business as well as you do - especially your lawyer. Most of the content of your T&C is commercial in nature, not legal. Wherever you get your T&C, you are going to be important in making sure that what is written in them reflects how your business works.
There is probably no other legal document where use of plain English is as important. Your customers must understand to what they are agreeing.
If you have international site visitors, they are more likely to understand plain English than complicated legal jargon.
Legal language may also send the wrong message about your business. Instead of giving the impression that you are transparent and friendly, overly complex terms may put people off buying from you.
Make your terms easy to find on your site. Give them their own page. You can then reference that page at the point the site user agrees to them.
You should also make sure your terms can be read easily. Your site user or customer may be able to claim reasonably that he never agreed to them if you made them hard to read. Use an easy to read font such as Arial (however boring that might be), a reasonable font size (such as 12pt) and a font colour that can be read well against the page background.
Unless your site user or customer agrees to your terms, he is not bound by them.
The best way of binding your visitor to them is to have him agree to them by checking a box when he supplies you information (for example, becoming a member of your forum, registering to post comments on your blog, or buying from you). Note - you must make your visitor check the box. A pre-checked box is not considered to be opting in.
If you don't bind the user to the terms, he may still abide by them. But you have less recourse in law if he doesn't.
You might like to read further about how you can make sure your customers stick to your terms.