Literacy and Contract
Alan M. White
CUNY School of Law
Cathy Lesser Mansfield
Drake Law School
Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002
Contract law imposes on consumers a "duty to read", shorthand for a set of related doctrines including the statute of frauds, the parol evidence rule, and the reasonable reliance element of fraud as a contractual excuse. Moreover, consumer protection statutes have placed heavy emphasis on information disclosure, usually provided on additional documents, as the preferred method to deter abuses in the marketplace. The duty to read and the myriad of disclosure laws rely on unfounded assumptions about the ability of ordinary consumers to read and use written documents.
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) provides sobering data on the document literacy and quantitative skills of the American public. A surprisingly small percentage of the adult population has the ability to extract key information from lengthy and complex consumer contract documents and disclosure forms. Contracts and disclosures for mortgage loans, automobile leases, and other modern transactions are accessible to fewer than 10% of the consumers for whom they are intended.
The present state of the law, regarding contract formation and enforceability, and the various disclosure statutes, take no account of the literacy problem. New approaches are needed to protect consumers and police the marketplace, using means other than the doctrines of fraud, unconscionability, and technical disclosure statutes, and based on the reality of the gap between adult literacy and the readability of contract forms.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 35
Keywords: literacy, contract, unconscionability, disclosure, consumer
JEL Classification: K12
Date posted: August 28, 2007