Contract of Adhesion: Legal Definition, Standard Form, Unfair Terms and Legal Protection

What is a Contract of Adhesion?

A contract of adhesion, commonly referred to as a “standard form contract” or “boilerplate contract,” is a pre-drafted agreement presented by the party with superior bargaining power to the other party on a take-it-or-leave-it basis without providing the latter with an opportunity to negotiate its terms, potentially leading to imbalances or inequities favouring the drafter.

Contract of Adhesion | Boilerplate Contract

Contract of Adhesion Legal Meaning

In the vast world of contracts and legal agreements, one type of contract often provokes intense debate and scrutiny: the contract of adhesion.

From cell phone plans to software licensing agreements, many of us have probably encountered a contract of adhesion without realising it.

Contract of Adhesion in Context

A contract of adhesion is a standard form agreement drafted unilaterally by the party with superior bargaining power and presented to the other party—usually a consumer or individual—on a non-negotiable, take-it-or-leave-it basis, often containing terms that disproportionately favour the drafter and limit the ability of the weaker party to negotiate or modify the conditions set forth in the contract.

These contracts are ubiquitous in modern commerce. When you download software, open a bank account, or book a plane ticket, you often agree to a contract of adhesion.

Characteristics of a Contract of Adhesion

  • Standardised Form: The contract is usually pre-drafted and is standardized for all consumers or users.
  • No Negotiation: The consumer generally has no chance to negotiate terms and must accept or reject the contract.
  • Power Imbalance: Typically drafted by the party with more bargaining power, these contracts can heavily favour the drafter’s interests.

Why Do Contracts of Adhesion Exist?

Efficiency: It is impractical for companies to negotiate terms with every consumer individually. Using standard-form contracts speeds up transactions and reduces administrative burdens for many businesses.

Consistency: Companies can ensure that the terms of their agreements are consistent across the board, eliminating potential discrepancies or misunderstandings.

Risk Management: By setting the terms themselves, businesses can manage risks more effectively, often shifting more liability to the consumer.

Contract of Adhesion - boilerplate contract - standard form contracts - contract law

Potential Issues with Contracts of Adhesion

  • Unfair Terms: Given the power disparity, there’s a potential for terms that are extremely favourable to the drafter and detrimental to the consumer.
  • Lack of Awareness: Many people don’t read the fine print. They may agree to terms without fully understanding their implications.
  • Enforceability: Some jurisdictions may deem certain clauses or even entire adhesive contracts unenforceable if found unconscionable or oppressive.

Legal Protections Against Unfair Adhesive Contracts

Recognising the potential for abuse in contracts of adhesion, many legal systems around the world have put in place safeguards:

  • Unconscionability Doctrine: This common law doctrine, prevalent in U.S. and English law, allows courts to invalidate contracts or clauses that are overly one-sided or oppressive.
  • Consumer Protection Laws: Many countries have laws to protect consumers from unfair contract terms. In the European Union, for instance, the Unfair Contract Terms Directive protects consumers from unfair terms, likewise the Consumer Rights Act in the UK.
  • Mandatory Clarity: Some jurisdictions require adhesive contracts to be written in plain, understandable language, ensuring consumers can more easily comprehend their terms.
  • Voiding of Certain Clauses: Some jurisdictions automatically void certain clauses in adhesive contracts, such as those that waive fundamental rights or remedies.

Why Don’t Most People Read Or Challenge Contracts of Adhesion?

First, the contract of adhesion’s sheer length and complexity can be daunting, making them appear complex to those without legal expertise. The legal jargon and fine print often deter individuals from understanding the complete terms.

Second, there is a prevalent assumption that these contracts of adhesion are non-negotiable, fostering a sense of resignation. Consumers might feel they lack the power to contest or influence pre-drafted terms.

Additionally, the ubiquity of these contracts in everyday transactions, like software installations or online purchases, creates a sense of routine acceptance. Time constraints also play a role; individuals might prioritise immediate benefits over comprehending contract intricacies in fast-paced settings.

Furthermore, there is an inherent trust that businesses won’t incorporate egregiously unfair terms, though this isn’t always warranted. Consequently, many forego detailed scrutiny, relying on good faith or external regulatory protections.

Are There Any Industries Where Contracts of Adhesion Are Prohibited Or Restricted?

Certain industries and jurisdictions have regulations that either prohibit or restrict the use of contracts of adhesion due to concerns about potential power imbalances and the protection of vulnerable parties. For instance, in the insurance sector, some jurisdictions have laws that ensure policy terms are clear and fair, given the often complex and non-negotiable nature of insurance agreements.

Additionally, there might be restrictions to prevent predatory practices in consumer finance and lending, ensuring that consumers fully understand their obligations.

Healthcare, especially concerning patient rights, may have guidelines to ensure that individuals are not unknowingly waiving their rights through non-negotiated agreements.

Residential housing markets in some places may have limits on certain rental agreement clauses to protect tenants’ rights. However, the exact restrictions vary by jurisdiction and are influenced by local legal frameworks and societal values.

How Does Arbitration Or Mediation Work With Disputes Arising From Contracts of Adhesion?

Arbitration and mediation are alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms often embedded in contracts of adhesion as the primary methods for resolving disagreements.

Their inclusion bypasses the traditional, often more time-consuming and expensive, court litigation process.

In many contracts of adhesion, especially in consumer service agreements, a mandatory arbitration clause requires disputes to be settled through arbitration rather than court litigation.

Such clauses usually detail the arbitration rules, including the arbitrator’s appointment and the governing law.

Given the nature of these contracts, the terms are standardised and non-negotiable, leading to criticisms that they potentially disadvantage the weaker party.

Mediation, on the other hand, is a less formal process wherein a neutral third party facilitates dialogue between disputing parties to reach a mutual resolution.

It’s less binding than arbitration, and while its use is less common in contracts of adhesion, when present, it serves as a preliminary step before arbitration or litigation.

Are There Any Ethical Considerations Associated With The Drafting Of Contracts of Adhesion?

Ethical considerations arise when terms are deliberately obfuscated, making them difficult for the average person to understand, or when they surreptitiously waive fundamental rights. Also, hidden fees, penalties, or restrictive clauses can be considered predatory.

Lawyers and businesses should, ethically, ensure that such contracts are transparent, fair, and conscionable, not leveraging them as tools to advantage one party at the expense of another unduly.


Contracts of adhesion are a double-edged sword. While they are undoubtedly beneficial for streamlining business operations and ensuring consistency, they come with inherent risks due to the power imbalance between the drafting party and the consumer.

As with many aspects of law and business, the key lies in achieving a balance: allowing businesses to operate efficiently without sacrificing the rights and interests of consumers.

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