We British aren’t very good at complaining, perhaps because most of us don’t understand our consumer rights. Here are our Top Ten tips for consumer complaints.
Our unwillingness to stick up for our consumer rights is often made worse because many retailers and service companies don’t understand consumer law either, or pretend not to – it’s quite common for them to make it up as they go along in the hope that the customer doesn’t know their consumer rights.
But don’t be fooled – as a consumer you have all sorts of rights, and the legal backing to enforce them.
So whether you’ve been sold a faulty product, refused a return you’re entitled to or charged for a service you didn’t get, read on for our essential list of the top 10 consumer rights you maybe didn’t know you had.
Your bible in all things consumer law is the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This replaced three major pieces of consumer legislation, the Sale of Goods Act 1979, Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.
Under the Consumer Rights Act all products must be:
• Of satisfactory quality – neither faulty or damaged (unless used)
• Fit for purpose, including any specific purpose you made known to the retailer
• As described, or matching any models or samples you are shown
If what you have bought doesn’t satisfy any of these criteria you have a claim under the Consumer Rights Act against the retailer – not the manufacturer. You can still make a claim against the manufacturer if you have a guarantee or warranty, or if the product has caused additional damage or injury.
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Your consumer rights have not changed because of the coronavirus crisis. Don’t accept any claim that a retailer ‘isn’t accepting returns during the pandemic’. In fact many retailers are offering extensions on return periods and voucher validity because of the difficulties caused by shop closures.
In March 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority set up a COVID-19 Taskforce with the key objectives of scrutinising market developments and identifying harmful practices as they emerge in areas such as consumer contracts, cancellation terms and refunds, and pricing practices.
The travel and hospitality sector, gym memberships and travel have been the focus for much of the CMA’s attention as most complaints have been in this area.
Contact the CMA if you have a complaint specifically relating to the coronavirus crisis.
1. CAN I GET A REFUND JUST BECAUSE I’VE CHANGED MY MIND?
Retailers are under no legal obligation to take your goods back just because you’ve changed your mind, only when they’re faulty. Exceptions to this are when you are buying on the internet or by mail order, or for financial agreements, when you often have cancellation rights.
The 30 Days rule
You have a right to reject unsatisfactory goods for 30 days after you take ownership. This is counted as either when you collect from the store, or when the goods are delivered. The 30-day period may not apply to perishable goods such as foodstuffs.
Your consumer rights entitle you to a full refund if you have a valid claim during this period. After this period, you may not be entitled to a full refund if your product develops a fault, though the retailer may choose to offer an extended refund period.
After 30 days you have to give the retailer a chance to repair or replace goods, at their discretion. If the attempt to repair or replace is unsuccessful you can then claim a refund, or a price reduction if you wish to keep the product.
2. CAN I GET A REFUND ON A GIFT?
Legally, the retailer only has to refund the buyer. If you want the receiver of a gift to have the option of taking it back, it’s worth writing ‘given to so-and-so as a gift’ on the receipt, as this transfers your rights to them.
If you discover a fault within six months of buying a product, it is presumed to have been there since you bought it, and it is up to the retailer to prove otherwise.
If an attempt at repair or replacement has failed, you have the right to reject the goods in favour of a full refund, or a price reduction if you wish to keep the product.
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The retailer can’t make any deductions from your refund in the first six months following an unsuccessful attempt at repair or replacement.
These consumer rights may not apply in full to downloaded goods, though you can ask for a repair or replacement, or may be entitled to a partial refund.
3. CAN I RETURN GOODS BOUGHT ONLINE?
Yes, actually you have more consumer rights buying online than you do in person. You have 14 days to cancel an order after receiving the item and a further 14 days to return goods for a full refund including outward delivery costs, even if there’s no fault. You will normally have to pay for the return delivery.
One major exception to the 30 days consumer rights rule is motor vehicles, where the retailer may make a reasonable reduction for the use you’ve already had of the vehicle after the first 30 days.
Some dealerships and garages have signed up to a Trading Standards backed code of practice that means if your dispute isn’t getting anywhere you can refer it to an impartial third party to resolve it – the Motor Ombudsman.
You have six years to take a claim to the Small Claims Court for faulty goods in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and five years in Scotland.
4. DO CONSUMER RIGHTS APPLY IF I BUY FROM eBAY?
Yes and no – if you buy from an eBay ‘shop’ you are covered, but if you buy from a private individual, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.
If a retailer fails to deliver your goods in 30 days, unless a longer period has been agreed, your consumer rights include the option to cancel the purchase and get a full refund.
5. CAN I RETURN CLOTHES JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE THE WRONG SIZE?
Many shops allow it, but they don’t legally have to, unless they have a published returns policy allowing it.
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 also covers the provision of services. A service can involve no goods – such as a haircut, drycleaning or legal work – or it can involve a product, such as fitting of a new kitchen.
All these services are covered by a contract which has minimum standards, including:
• The trader must perform the service with reasonable care and skill.
• Spoken or written information that the consumer relies on is binding
• If the price is not agreed beforehand, the service must be provided for a reasonable price.
• The service must be carried out in a reasonable or agreed time.
If the service you receive doesn’t meet these standards, your consumer right entitle you to the following:
• The trader should redo the service in part or whole at no cost or significant inconvenience to the customer
• If this is not possible the customer can claim a price reduction of up to 100 percent of the cost, which should be made within 14 days.
The Consumer Rights Act made it easier to challenge terms of a contract if they are not prominent and transparent. This would cover, for instance, charges hidden in small print, excessive early termination charges, disproportionate default charges or limits placed on your legal rights.
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If you are forced to take a trader to court, and the court decides a contract term is unfair, you may be able to ignore that term, or the entire contract.
6. DO MY CONSUMER RIGHTS CHANGE DURING SALES?
Many shops will apply the strictest interpretation of consumer rights to sale goods, so, for instance, you may be told that an item is reduced in price because of a fault, and so you don’t have a right to return it. But if goods have undisclosed faults, you may still have the right to return them.
Proof of Purchase
It may speed things up if you have a receipt for your faulty product, but it isn’t essential, and in some cases, particularly if a fault develops after several months, it wouldn’t be reasonable of the retailer to expect you to have one.
Any proof of purchase such as a bank statement should be enough to show that you have purchased the goods. If the retailer doesn’t cooperate you should take your complaint to the Trading Standards department.
Refunds and credit
In law the seller’s returns policy cannot require customers to take store credit or a voucher when an item is returned as faulty. The Consumer Rights Act specifies the rights that consumers have if products develop a fault, and the seller cannot remove or reduce these rights.
7. DO I HAVE TO ACCEPT A CREDIT NOTE FOR RETURNED GOODS?
Unless the item is faulty, the retailer is not obliged to offer you a refund, and is within its rights to offer a credit note or vouchers instead.
Out of business
If a retailer has gone out of business by the time you register a complaint, your best bet is if you have paid by credit card to claim against the card company. If the item cost more than £100 you should be able to claim a refund under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.
Airline flights represent one of the most confusing and complex aspects of consumer rights, partly because no-one seems to agree on when a flight delay is the airline’s fault, and partly because of the huge number of claims that have to be dealt with after disruptive events like the Icelandic volcano of 2010 or the coronavirus shutdown.
To try to summarise some of your basic consumer rights:
- If your flight is delayed you may be able to claim compensation under the Denied Boarding Regulations 261/2004 EC, which apply to passengers departing from an airport within the EU, except in extraordinary circumstances.
- If your flight is cancelled, your rights to compensation vary according to the circumstances
- If your flight is delayed by a strike your airline has to offer you assistance, but your right to compensation depends on the circumstances of the strike
- If you miss your flight due to the time being changed, you can claim compensation
- If your flight is overbooked, the Denied Boarding Regulation says the airline must ask for people to volunteer not to fly ‘in exchange for benefits’, but there are no hard guidelines as to what benefits the airline should offer
- If you choose not to take a flight due to health worries, the travel company may argue that they have no duty to refund your money. You can try raising a complaint with them, but if that fails, contact the Civil Aviation Authority. Your case will be stronger if you have medical advice not to fly.
- If your bags are lost or damaged after being checked in, the airline is liable, but to a limited extent
- If your airline goes bust, your consumer rights guarantee a refund and a flight home if you are ATOL protected
8. WHAT ITEMS ARE NOT COVERED BY RETURN RIGHTS?
There are several areas where return rights do not necessarily apply, such as:
- Perishable goods, like fresh food and flowers
- Personalised goods, such as specially mixed paint: DIY outlets often have an exclusion clause along the lines of B&Q’s “We are unable to offer refunds or to exchange products that have been cut to size, made to measure or mixed to your individual requirements.”
- Newspapers and magazines, unless part of a subscription
- Software, CDs, DVDs, BluRay discs that have been opened
- Medical products and services
- Foreign exchange currency
- Items reserved online, but paid for in store
- Dead parrots
Many consumer complaints are against insurance companies, often because of rejected claims. If you have a complaint against an insurer, you should write to them in the first instance. Complaints should be dealt with within eight weeks. If the situation is not resolved in that time you have two main courses of action:
- The Financial Ombudsman
The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) has the power to award up to £150,000 against an insurance company. Claim forms can be downloaded from the FOS website.
- The Small Claims Court
If you’re not happy with an FOS ruling, you can take the matter to the Small Claims Court if you are claiming £10,000 or less in England and Wales or £3,000 or less in Scotland and Northern Ireland. You can find information on the claims process at your local County Court or online.
9. DO I HAVE TO ACCEPT EXCLUSION CLAUSES IN T&Cs?
Some retailers try to undermine consumer rights by including clauses in their Terms and Conditions such as ‘We do not provide refunds’ or ‘We are not responsible for injury’. These exclusions are not valid, and rely on the ignorance of the consumer. Consumer rights always apply, and the only way a retailer can vary them is by adding to them.
Complaints against utility companies are common, with billing queries coming out top, followed by problems switching service providers. General guidelines to making complaints about gas, electricity of water providers are:
- First contact your supplier in writing, and keep a copy of everything you send
- Include evidence to support your cases including copies of bills, photos of meters or records of previous letters.
- If your complaint has not been resolved in eight weeks, complain to the Energy Ombudsman.
10. CAN I INSIST A SHOP SELLS TO ME AT THE PRICE SHOWN?
Customers often assume that shops are obliged to sell goods at the price shown, even if it’s a mistake. In fact they aren’t. But they mustn’t deliberately mislabel prices to mislead the customer, and can’t force you to pay the difference later if they mistakenly sell you goods at the wrong price.
Complaints concerning mobile phone services or broadband should be addressed to the service provider in the first place. If you can’t resolve the dispute, ask for a ‘letter of deadlock’ to show you have done all you can to resolve the complaints, then go to the relevant ombudsman; either CISAS or the Ombudsman Services: Communications to escalate your complaint.
Did you know all our Top Ten consumer rights? If we British aren’t very good at complaining, perhaps it’s because most of us don’t understand our consumer rights. Check them out the next time you have a consumer complaint.