Caveat subscriptor – let the signer beware Law Corner

2016-05-04 06:00

THE law states that a person who signs a contractual document does by his signature assent to the contents of the document, and if the contents turn out not to be to his liking he has no one to blame but himself.

The principle of the caveat subscriptor rule is that one’s consent is indicated by one’s signature to the document, irrespective of one’s true intentions. For this reason only an excusable mistake will allow you to escape any liability which may arise. You will not succeed in arguing that you did not read what you signed or that the contents do not reflect your intention.

It is implied that you agree to be bound by signing a document with an attitude of “I haven’t read this document, but I am signing it because I am prepared to be bound by it without reading it”.

A court case in the fifties demonstrates the caveat subscriptor rule. An experienced business man, who could not read or write English, was held to be bound by the conditions of a flight ticket, which he had signed without reading after jokingly asking whether he was signing his death warrant.

In this case the court decided that by signing he elected to take the risk. Another example of how the rule operates was seen in a case where a sick man, who couldn’t concentrate, was held bound by his signature on a document which contained Latin phrases he obviously wouldn’t have understood, as he signed the document without having someone explain the terms to him in a language he would understand.

In a Rhodesian court case a businessman signed a consent to judgment without reading it or having it explained to him by his attorneys, and he was held to be bound by his signature. In South Africa and in relatively recent times, our ex-Police Commissioner Bheki Cele bound the South African Police Service where he confirmed that he signed a number of documents without reading them.

It is in certain cases possible to raise defences to the caveat subscriptor rule such as misrepresentation, fraud, illegality, duress, undue influence and mistake. These defences are universally recognised. None of these defences are valid if it can be shown that the signatory was negligent. In a case of negligence, the person signing is bound by his signature.

Good advice to any person who is required to sign a document is - beware before you sign.


• R. H. Christie “The law of Contract in South Africa” 5th Edition 2006.

• www.cliffedekker


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