William J. Woodward, Jr.

Volume 66, Issue 4, 915-936

Forms that purport to govern consumer transactions are a central component of our modern consumer economy. They are routinely enforced because consumers are said to “manifest assent” to them, despite the fact that they are not read and not intended to be read. Recent empirical work shows that virtually no one reads or understands consumer forms. This has cast into substantial doubt the conventional explanation for enforcement—that enough people are reading the forms to cause vendors to worry about lost sales resulting from nasty terms, that “market discipline” will thus limit vendor excess. Given the empirical findings, “assent” (in any common understanding of the word) cannot explain why we enforce terms found in forms; our attempts to reconcile enforcement with some version of knowing, voluntary action characteristic of “contract law” simply confuses the analysis. Policy choices would be substantially clarified if the confounding idea of “assent” were simply removed from the analysis. Removing consumer forms from the assent-based law of contracts—that is, changing how we teach and speak about this area of law—could be a first step towards reform.

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