As a freelancer, you might be asked to sign a contract or want your client to sign a contract. This is a complex area of law, so we’ve broken down the basics and given you practical steps so you can negotiate confidently

What is a contract?

A contract is an agreement, enforceable by law. It doesn’t have to be in writing – although it’s hard to prove anything if nothing is written down – it just means you’ve mutually agreed something with another person or organisation.

All transactions are governed by contract law and so if the agreement is broken, then (theoretically at least) the law can be used to resolve any dispute.

In practice, this means is that:

  • When, as a freelancer, you agree to do something for a fee, by a certain date, you’re legally bound to that – even if nothing is written down.
  • When an organisation commissions you and offers you a fee, they’re legally bound to pay you (as long as the work is to an agreed standard, delivered at an agreed time).

I’ve been asked to sign a contract. Should I?

Contracts in themselves are useful things – they outline what’s expected of you. They can be written in confusing language, so it’s crucial you question anything you don’t understand and read the whole thing.

I’m worried about my copyright

If you’re working in the creative industries, you might be asked to sign a contract that will hand over the copyright for your work for the organisation commissioning you. This is normal, but it depends how you feel about it – if you feel uncomfortable, say so, and find out whether there’s an alternative.

One thing to watch out for is where and how the contract says your work can be used. For example, you might feel it’s OK for your work to be published on a company’s website, but if they want to re-sell your work to another company, you might decide that’s not fair. Then you can negotiate – so you shouldn’t sign if you’re not happy.

Do I need to get my clients to sign a contract?

It depends on the size of your business and whether you can afford, or think you need, legal advice. As we said above, any agreement counts as a contract, so even if you’ve just got an email chain showing what’s agreed, that is legally binding. If you want a formal contract, you’d need to pay a solicitor to draw one up.

I’ve not been paid

The most common contractual problem for freelancers is not being paid on time (or, occasionally, at all). Most organisations will tell you how long it will take to pay you; take note of this, and chase them if they go over it.

There are steps you can take to protect yourself: for larger projects, split up the work in to chunks and invoice bit-by-bit. That way if your first invoice isn’t paid as expected, you can wind the work down and refuse to start again until they’ve paid you.

If you don’t get paid at all, you should send a neutrally worded letter asking for payment and setting a deadline. If you don’t hear anything, the next step is a strongly worded letter and then, after 21 days, another letter giving them a final chance. The process is outlined here. And if you get no response after letter number three, the next option is court – but this can be expensive and lengthy.