A quick post about contracts and whether you should be paid for your work

I’ve joined a few freelance groups lately and seen a lot of questions from people wondering if they have the right to get paid for work they’ve done.

Here are the facts.

A legally enforceable contract requires four basic elements: offer, acceptance, intention to create legal relations, and consideration.

Offer and acceptance are easily explained and understood: a service or contract is offered by the first party and accepted by the second.

Intention to create legal relations differentiates between personal agreements and those which are intended for legal purposes. If I tell my 16 year old daughter I’ll give her £10 if she cleans her room, and she cleans her room, and I don’t give her £10, she can’t take me to court. I clearly didn’t intend the promise to form a legally binding agreement, I just wanted her to tidy her room. On the other hand, if I place an advert in my local paper saying: “Wanted. Person to clean my daughter’s room. £10 fee paid,” that’s a formal offer that I want someone to accept, and if they accept it I’ve made it clear I’m going to pay them. That’s an intention to create legal relations.

Consideration is the payment or reward for fulfilling the terms of the contract: I offer you a service or contract, you provide something in return, usually cash, sometimes perks. (For the record, I don’t consider ‘exposure’ to be a perk.) On that basis, consideration is fulfilled.

If those four basic requirements are met, you have a legally binding agreement. Whether the agreement was verbal, written on the back of a fag packet or detailed in excruciatingly minute clauses, it is enforceable by law.

Unless the contract includes terms along the lines of: “We will commission you to write this piece/take these photographs, but only agree to pay you if we publish the piece/use the photographs on our website,” and you were made aware of those terms and agreed to them (this is important, they can’t be hidden somewhere), you are legally entitled to be paid and can pursue remedy through the courts if necessary.

If the clause is something more like, “We reserve the right not to pay you if we don’t like it/don’t get the results we want/the topic blows over before we publish it so we spike it/get some better photographs in the meantime,” that’s an unfair term and unlikely to be upheld in a court. It’s subjective, and therefore unable to be defined, and therefore unenforceable.

Whether you choose to exercise your right to legal redress is another matter entirely. Your relationship with the person who commissioned you may be more important than getting paid for that one particular piece of work. You may have a lucrative contract with this particular client, and this may be a one off that you’re willing to overlook.

But if you routinely agree to not be paid for work you’ve been commissioned to do and then delivered as agreed, you’re not only diminishing your own value and therefore the value of future work you may do for the same or other clients, you’re diminishing the value of everyone else who delivers the same service.

At the risk of trotting out lots of tired old analogies (I’m gonna), you wouldn’t hire someone to come and fit a new bathroom then refuse to pay them because you didn’t use the bath. You wouldn’t hire someone to come and landscape your garden but refuse to pay them because the sun didn’t shine that summer. You wouldn’t buy a new sofa on HP but not honour the payments because you decided to change the colour of your living room and it didn’t match anymore.

When you agree to do a piece of work – whether it’s fixing a toilet, baking a cake, or writing 2000 words about tax breaks – agree the terms in writing. You don’t have to do that to make it legally enforceable, but it helps to avoid any mess later on. Drop the person an email, as informal as you like, saying, “Just to confirm, you’ve asked me to do x, we’ve agreed the fee will be y, and I’ll submit my invoice on delivery/completion, which will become payable immediately/within 7 days/within 30 days.”

But please, please stop asking yourself if the work you’ve completed and submitted at someone else’s request should be paid for.