Crime and punishment: insurance policies complex and full of jargon

Insurance policy documents are so hard to understand that university-level reading abilities may be required to make sense of them and even industry experts struggle to cut through the jargon, a Which? investigation has found.

The consumer champion used readability software to analyse 40 policy documents from the 10 largest car, home, pet and travel insurers. It examined the length of words and sentences to estimate how well-educated a reader needs to be to understand the language used in a text.

The tests revealed the average document was more unwieldy to read than Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – a level that could cause problems for more than two in five (43%) working adults with a reading ability of GCSE grade C or below.

A Brief History of Time and Crime and Punishment require secondary or sixth form-level reading abilities. Although readability tests do not take into account the subject matter, so the concepts in A Brief History of Time may be less digestible than the subject matter of an insurance policy document.

In a separate snapshot investigation, Which? put six home and travel policy documents to the test to find out if they were practical to use.

Twenty-four participants were asked to read two policy documents each and answer a number of questions based on different scenarios, such as how to make a claim or reporting a change in circumstances.

On average, participants answered five out of 16 of questions incorrectly when reviewing the travel insurance policy documents. For home insurance, the average was three out of 12.

Even a retired insurance professional, civil servants and software engineers were unable to answer all the questions correctly in our test. One participant said they felt a document they tested was written for “lawyers and solicitors” not for “everyday people”.

While the error rate is not catastrophic, Which? believes policyholders should be able to answer all questions correctly, as any errors or misconceptions could leave them thousands of pounds out of pocket if they think they are covered when they’re not.

Which? tested policies from leading insurers and found participants answered a third of questions relating to Santander’s travel insurance policy incorrectly and approximately one in four for Axa and Insure & Go.

With home insurance, nearly a third of questions for Direct Line were answered incorrectly, one in four for Aviva and one in five for the Post Office.

Questions concerning when to report changes to a health condition were the toughest to answer, and participants failed this question two-thirds of the time. This is particularly concerning, as claims worth thousands of pounds could be invalidated due to failure to report health condition changes at the correct time.

Participants also struggled with queries concerning home insurance contents cover over the Christmas period, with this question being answered incorrectly just under half of the time.

When we asked participants with dyslexia to take the test, one said she “panicked” at the volume of text after she was asked to examine Aviva and Direct Line’s T&Cs.

Another said Axa’s travel insurance document had not been formatted for use with accessibility software, while the programme he was using also struggled with home insurance documents from the Post Office and Direct Line.

Ceri Stanaway, Which? Money Editor, said:

“Millions of insurance policies are bought every year, so it is worrying the policy documents are often far too complex for the average customer to understand, as our investigation suggests.

“Unclear insurance policies can have devastating consequences for customers, who could see their cover invalidated due to a misunderstanding.

“Customers can use their insurer’s glossary to make sense of complex terms, and should give their insurer a call if something is unclear, however, we want to see all insurance providers taking steps to cut out the jargon and make their policy documents easy for customers to get to grips with.”

Notes to editors

We used five readability tests – Flesch kincaid, Gunning Fog Index, Automated Readability Index, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook and the Coleman Liau Index – to analyse the complexity of the language in forty insurance policy documents, excluding text in the tables.

Readability tests have some limitations, as they don’t take into account pictures – which aid understanding – or the complexity of the subject matter. For example, the complex themes in a Brief History of Time may be less digestible than the subject matter of an insurance policy document.

In snapshot investigation, Which? asked 24 participants to review 6 policy documents, 3 travel insurance documents and 3 home insurance documents. Each participant reviewed two policy documents answering a number of questions about the cover such as how to make a claim, when to report a change in health, inclusions and exclusions and cover limits.

Each document was reviewed by eight participants, who had to answer 8 questions for travel insurance and 6 questions for home insurance. The scores below reflect the total number of correct answers as a proportion of 64 (Travel) and 48 (Home).

Travel insurance % of questions answered correctly
Axa 73%
Insure and Go 73%
Santander 67%


Home insurance % of questions answered correctly
Post Office 83%
Aviva 75%
Direct Line 70%

Which? shared its usability findings with the six insurers who responded:

Direct line expressed concerns with the small size of the group we used to test the different documents.

Direct Line, Insure & Go and Santander told us the information provided in policy documents is complemented by assistance from their customer support services.

Axa and Santander also told us they’d take our feedback on board, with the latter telling us “The scenarios offered by Which? Have been a helpful indicator of where the language may be simplified for use in future”.

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