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Literacy and Contract

35 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2007  

Alan M. White

CUNY School of Law

Cathy Lesser Mansfield

Drake Law School


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.

Keywords: literacy, contract, unconscionability, disclosure, consumer

JEL Classification: K12

Suggested Citation

White, Alan M. and Mansfield, Cathy Lesser, Literacy and Contract. Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2002. Available at SSRN:

Alan M. White (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

Cathy Lesser Mansfield

Drake Law School ( email )

Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
515-271-2076 (Phone)


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