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Baffled by insurance policy small print? You’re not alone – 80% of us are!

Robin Bowman

Robin Bowman
Jun 5, 2018


Insurance policies are so badly written and full of jargon that eight out of 10 of us struggle to make sense of them.

And a study by legal firm Browne Jacobson and Nottingham University found that most basic home contents and buildings insurance policies required an A-level standard of education to unravel.

The researchers asked people to read several policies then used techniques to track their eyes, plus tests to check how easily the policies had been understood.

All of the policies needed an A-Level standard of education to be understand them, the researchers found, and some needed an undergraduate or even postgraduate level of education. 

Louise Mullany, a professor of linguistics at the university, said there were a number of  problems with the policy wording. 

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“It is partly the length of sentences — there’s a tendency to use very, very long sentences,” she said. “There is also a tendency to use uncommon words such as ‘subterranean’ to mean ‘underground’”. 

Also, use of phrases such as “inasmuch as” and “in so far as” also confused people.

Tim Johnson, a partner at Browne Jacobson, said insurers often use words in ways that are uncommon in normal usage, like “insured” as a noun, meaning ‘someone who is insured.’

He said that confusing policy wording could potentially be a problem for insurers as well as the public. “Wording that is harder to understand would be harder to enforce,” he said. 

Insurers often cite legal restrictions when defending the use of obscure words and phrases.

But the research found it is quite possible to simplify policies in a way that provides the same amount of cover and stays within the rules. 

Browne Jacobson rewrote several of the policies, and these were then tested on new readers. In some cases, a policy that originally needed a postgraduate standard of education to be understood, could then be grasped by someone at the level of a secondary school student. 

Joe Ahern, policy adviser at the Association of British Insurers said: “Insurance policy wording must comply with a wide range of regulations and precise wordings are ultimately down to individual insurers to decide.”

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