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Understanding business contracts

Dealing with contracts is part of running a small business. You will have a
number of business relationships involving some type of contractual
commitment or obligation.

You may:

 be a purchaser of goods and services - as a borrower of money, in

rental agreements and franchise agreements
 be a supplier of goods and services – retailer, wholesaler,
independent contractor
 have a partnering agreement with other businesses – partnerships,
joint ventures, consortium.

Managing your contracts and business relationships is very important.

TIP: You should be aware that the majority of contracts entered into will
have goods and services tax (GST) implications.

Verbal and written contracts

Contracts can be verbal (spoken), written or a combination of both. Some

types of contract such as those for buying or selling real estate or finance
agreements must be in writing.

Written contracts may consist of a standard form agreement or a letter

confirming the agreement.

Verbal agreements rely on the good faith of all parties and can be difficult
to prove.

It is advisable (where possible) to make sure your business arrangements

are in writing, to avoid problems when trying to prove a contract existed.

Regardless of whether the contract is verbal or written, it must contain four

essential elements to be legally binding.
Essential elements of a contract

For a contract to be legally binding it must contain four essential elements:

 an offer
 an acceptance
 an intention to create a legal relationship
 a consideration (usually money).

However it may still be considered invalid if it:

 entices someone to commit a crime, or is illegal

 is entered into by someone that lacks capacity, such as a minor or
 was agreed through misleading or deceptive conduct, duress,
unconscionable conduct or undue influence.

General terms and structure of an agreement

There is no specific format that a contract must follow. Generally it will

include some terms, either expressed or implied, that will form the basis of
the agreement. These terms may outline contract conditions or contract

Contract conditions are fundamental to the agreement. If the contract

conditions are not met it is possible to terminate the contract and seek
compensation or damages.

Contract warranties are less important terms and not fundamental to the
agreement. You cannot terminate a contract if the warranties are not
fulfilled, however, you may be able to seek compensation for any losses

When negotiating the contract terms make sure the conditions of the
contract are clearly defined and agreed to by all parties.

Contracts may follow a structure that can include, but are not limited to, the
following items:
 details of the parties to the contract, including any sub-contracting
 duration or period of the contract
 definitions of key terms used within the contract
 a description of the goods and/or services that your business will
receive or provide, including key deliverables
 payment details and dates, including whether interest will be applied
to late payments
 key dates and milestones
 required insurance and indemnity provisions
 guarantee provisions, including director’s guarantees
 damages or penalty provisions
 renegotiation or renewal options
 complaints and dispute resolution process
 termination conditions
 special conditions

TIP: In almost all cases of creative work (such as a logo you pay to have
designed) copyright will remain with the creator, regardless of whether they
created it on your behalf. If you engage a contractor to produce material
that attracts copyright protection make sure the contract includes
assignment of these protections, so that you own all the rights to the
materials you paid to have created.

Standard form contracts and unfair terms

A standard form contract is a pre-prepared contract where most of the

terms are set in advance with little or no negotiation between the parties.
These contracts are usually printed with only a few blank spaces for adding
names, signatures, dates etc.

Examples of standard form contracts can include:

 employment contracts
 lease agreements
 insurance agreements
 financial agreements
Standard form contracts are generally written to benefit the interests of the
person offering the contract. It is possible to negotiate the terms of a
standard form contract. However in some cases your only option may be to
‘take it or leave it’. You should read the entire contract, including the fine
print, before signing.

If you intend to offer standard form contracts you must not include terms
that are considered unfair. This could include terms that:

 allow one party (but not another) to avoid or limit their obligations
 allow one party (but not the other) to terminate the contract
 penalise one party (but not another) for breaching or terminating the
 allow one party (but not another) to vary the terms of the contract.

There are laws protecting consumers from unfair contract terms in

circumstances where they had little or no opportunity to negotiate with
businesses (such as standard form contracts).

Unfair contract terms and small businesses

A law protecting small businesses from unfair contract terms in standard

form contracts applies to contracts entered into or renewed on or after 12
November 2016, where:

 it is for the supply of goods or services or the sale or grant of interest

in land
 at least one of the businesses employs fewer than 20 people
 the price of the contract is no more than $300,000 or $1 million if the
contract is for more than 12 months.

For more information on unfair contract terms visit the ACCC website.

Before signing a contract

Before you sign a contract:

 read every word, including the fine print

 ensure that it reflects the terms and conditions that were negotiated
 seek legal advice
 allow plenty of time to consider and understand the contract
 don’t be pressured into signing anything if you are unsure
 never leave blank spaces on a signed contract – cross them out if
you have nothing to add so they cannot be altered later
 make sure that you and the other party initial any changes to the
 obtain a copy of the signed contract for your records.

Once you’ve signed a contract you may not be able to get out of it without
compensating the other party for their genuine loss and
expenses. Compensation to the other party could include additional court
costs if the other party takes their claim against you to court. Some
contracts may allow you to terminate early, with or without having to pay
compensation to the other party. You should seek legal advice if you want
to include an opting-out clause.

TIP: If it is not possible to have a written contract make sure you have
other documentation such as emails, quotes, or notes about your
discussions to help you identify what was agreed.

Ending a contract

Most contracts end once the work is complete and payment has been

Contracts can also end:

 by agreement – both parties agree to end contract before the work is

 by frustration – where the contract cannot continue due to some
unforeseen circumstances outside the parties’ control.
 for convenience – where the contract allows a party to terminate at
any time by providing notice to the other party.
 due to a breach – where one party has not complied with an essential
contract condition, the other party may decide to terminate the
contract and seek compensation or damages.
If a contract warranty or minor term has been breached it is unlikely that it
can be terminated, though the other party may seek compensation or

Some contracts may specify what will be payable if there is a breach. This
is often called liquidated damages.

If there is a dispute regarding the contract it is important both parties

communicate clearly to attempt to resolve the matter. You may consider
using our low-cost Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service or seek
legal advice to help resolve your dispute.