Is “fit for purpose” fit for purpose?

Channel 4 News’s Michael Crick issued an impassioned cri de coeur on Twitter last night:

I had to agree with him:

This led to an interesting discussion on Twitter, which got me thinking more about this increasingly ubiquitous expression.

“Fit for purpose” is a phrase that frequently gets bandied about in business circles, particularly in relation to technology contracts. Disgruntled buyers will protest that the software wasn’t “fit for purpose”, or that the hosted service they are using isn’t “fit for purpose”. And, as was pointed out in the discussion on Twitter, politicians are also fond of the phrase – ever since John Reid declared in 2006 that the Home Office wasn’t “fit for purpose”.

John Reid may have pushed the phrase out to a wider audience, but the explosion in popularity of “fit for purpose” had started some years before this, as this Google Ngram shows:

Google Ngram of 'fit for purpose'

As I said in my reply to Michael Crick, though, I’m not sure that people who use the phrase always have a clear understanding of what it means. Certainly it usually gets used in situations far removed from its original context in sale of goods law, in particular (today) s.14 Sale of Goods Act 1979.

The Sale of Goods Act describes two different ways in which goods can be “fit for purpose”. The first is as part of what it means for goods to be of “satisfactory quality”. This includes:

fitness for all the purposes for which goods of the kind in question are commonly supplied. (s.14(2B))

The second (and what is normally meant by “fitness for purpose” in the context of the sale of goods) is in s.14(3), which applies where the buyer makes known to the seller “any particular purpose for which the goods are being bought”. In that case:

there is an implied term that the goods supplied under the contract are reasonably fit for that purpose, whether or not that is a purpose for which such goods are commonly supplied.

So those are two fairly narrow and specific meanings. And before anyone runs away with the idea that these are just two statutory underlinings of a more general concept, s.14(1) slams the door firmly shut on this, at least as regards the sale of goods:

Except as provided by this section and section 15 below and subject to any other enactment, there is no implied term about the quality or fitness for any particular purpose of goods supplied under a contract of sale.

So the use of the phrase “fit for purpose” to describe services or software, let alone government departments, is some way removed from that original meaning – though, to be fair, it can also be seen that the wider use isn’t wholly at odds with the legal meaning.

But why is this a problem? Why shouldn’t people, in a business or technological context, use a phrase that has meaning for those in the discussion, even if it annoys legalistic pedants? There’s no reason at all why they shouldn’t – provided the pitfalls are recognised. In particular:

  1. “Fit for purpose” is often used in a rather imprecise sense and, like a lot of business jargon, may often be a symptom of imprecise thinking – which may come back to bite people later on.
  2. People who say “fit for purpose” often think they are talking in “legal” terms, which can cause confusion when the legal position turns out not to support them as they’d expected.

The biggest problem comes when the buyer ends up dissatisfied with what they’ve got out of an IT contract, and protests that the software or service wasn’t “fit for purpose” – only for the seller to point out that they’ve complied with what the contract actually said they’d do, even if this turns out not to be what the buyer wanted; perhaps because the buyer thought they’d be able to rely on some general principle of “it has to be ‘fit for purpose'”.

In any event, whether lawyers (or Michael Crick) like it or not, “fit for purpose” is here to stay. How should commercial lawyers handle this phrase? The best thing is to find out what our client’s “purpose” is, what “fitness” for that purpose looks like, and then put that into the contract – rather than the vague phrase itself.

Though I hope we can be forgiven for occasionally wanting to let off steam on Twitter about it, too. 😉 

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2 thoughts on “Is “fit for purpose” fit for purpose?

  1. I would have thought that, in everyday terms, “fit for purpose” is fairly expressive and readily understood. I take it to mean “capable of doing what it’s supposed to do”, except rather less clumsily. As such such I regard it as a useful phrase, even if it’s now a bit of a cliché.

    • Hi Stephen: yes, I agree, which is no doubt why the phrase has taken hold (like bindweed… 😉 ).

      But the problem is that its quasi-legal aura often masks a vagueness and imprecision about “what it’s supposed to do”.

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