The advent of online contracts is nothing new, however legal professionals are beginning to see them crop up in more vexatious ways than ever imagined, and they are creating lots of business for litigation lawyers. Lawyer-drafted contracts are specifically created to legally reflect the intent of the contracting parties. Standing in stark contrast to this are on-line, third-party contracts which can be a litigation-ridden minefield of lengthy documents full of legal-ease, latin proverbs and out-of-context legal principles.
As an analogy, you can think of online contracts as you would an online source of medical information. Certainly, you can type in all of your symptoms and get a list of potential causes and remedies to better inform yourself. However, it would be unwise to self-diagnose cancer and start chemotherapy without first consulting your physician, as the impacts on your health could be disastrous. The same logic applies to online contracts. You can research the issues you intend to deal with, but without explaining the situation and factual scenario to a real, live person, there is no telling what the computer will provide, and what implications the “contract” will have on your legal, or physical, health.
In the process of investigating this blog, I created a Power of Attorney for Property for myself, using one of the many online contracts retailers. I answered a few short questions, and the document was created. No one confirmed my identity. No one confirmed my wishes. No one confirmed my capacity to make or sign the document. No one asked if I had a previously existing Attorney for Property. Anyone could make it, sign it, and empty my bank account or sell my house without my knowledge or consent. Certainly, this would be fraudulent, but on-line document creation is set up in such a way to allow perpetrators of fraud to commit their crimes unchecked. The potential for abuse, especially of our growing elderly population, is concerning.
The concerns are not limited to potentially abusive situations, either. In 2016, I argued a case in the Small Claims Court where both parties signed a contract so long and full of legal ease, even the judge concluded “no one in the room knew what the contract meant”. The parties had, unbeknownst to them, entered into a contract that governed terms far beyond what they initially intended, and it took a full trial to ascertain what the contract was intended to reflect. At the end of the trial, the judge relied on the oral agreement the parties entered into instead. This case imposed significant legal fees and headaches on the parties over the course of 2 years of litigation. Therefore, these suggestions do not come lightly: the potential cost savings on your pocket book now may seem appealing, but the ramifications down the road are large and looming.
If you have been contemplating using one of these online services, please give it some thought before diving in. Legal professionals are here for a reason, and there is no better insurance policy than good legal advice.
Annie Legate-Wolfe completed her law degree at Western University. She also an active volunteer in her community and lends her time and talents to support such initiatives as Habitat for Humanity and Goodwill. Connect with Annie on LinkedIn.