Two texts and a diagram

diagrams, small-print, trust
Rob Waller

Last year we received a short booklet from Thames Water about changes in the law concerning the responsibility for sewer pipes - in the past the home owner has technically been responsible for the pipe from their home up to the point where it meets the sewer in the road. Last year the water company became responsible up to the edge of your property. This is a good thing.

Page 1 has the legal text: mostly unintelligible and slightly worrying. But things look up on page 2, which is in plain English, and most importantly tells you how to feel about it: "There is nothing to be concerned about...", "This is good news for you...", "This will bring peace of mind to customers andclarity regarding ownership."

Legal documents don't tell you how you should feel about the facts they set out – it's up to you to interpret not just what they mean, what they mean to you. And to spot which seemingly innocuous clauses might one day turn around and bite you.

But lawyers often interpret when they explain documents to you. They reassure you that 'this is there to protect your rights...' or 'this stops your landlord from...'. The problem is that we don't have access to a lawyer when we sign a contract for anything less than a house.

I'd like more legal documents to be accompanied by human-to-human advice – so long as we can trust it, of course. More about trust and legal language soon, in another post...

There's another interesting feature of this brochure. I found the diagrams really helpful to understand how to apply the message to my home. It would be hopelessly difficult to describe the practicalities of sewer layout in words alone - they don't even try. A round of applause for Thames Water.

Diagrams showing how sewer pipes connect to homes Type image caption here (optional)

One reason I'm interested in this example is that a few years back a clause in some small print did turn around to bite me. And it involved my sewer pipe.My water company (Anglian Water, take a bow) had sold me a drains insurance policy. I paid a small premium every year, and the deal was that if my drains became blocked they'd send someone round to fix it. Eventually my drains did become blocked. But they wouldn't fix it because I shared a drain with a neighbour (like in the top right diagram). And there was a disclaimer in the small print for exactly this scenario – not an uncommon one. 

A diagram of what they'd cover and what they wouldn't would have communicated this fact straight away.

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