I’m often asked to help sort out complaints where businesses have failed to understand how certain laws and regulations work.

However, in the last two years, I’ve spotted a worrying new trend. Some businesses are blatantly ignoring the law and misleading customers. Here are three examples.

Stephanie from Manchester contacted me to say that a courier company had broken an expensive clock she had ordered, through the medium of chucking the parcel over her fence. After getting nowhere with the courier firm (she couldn’t even call them as there was no number to do so), she complained to the retailer. They offered her a credit note refund of her delivery charge, but nothing towards the broken goods.

Bryan from Inverness told me that he’d been chasing a refund for a hotel that he’d booked through an online travel marketplace. The hotel had been overbooked and he couldn’t rebook a comparable one nearby. The business offered him a credit note, rather than a full refund.

Over in Cheshire, Julia told me about a long-running dispute with a ‘posh’ catalogue shop through which she’d bought a hot tub. Not only did the hot tub not work (it leaked) the wiring was also dangerously exposed. The retailer told her to deal with the manufacturer. When that didn’t work, they told her that they didn’t have to refund her, and begrudgingly offered her a voucher for £50.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In each of these cases – and many, many more – the people who got in touch are entitled to a full refund from the retailer. No ifs. No buts. No compromising. The law is clear.

So why are firms trying it on? I simply don’t accept that these major retailers have ‘misunderstood’ the law. One company I saw recently even tried to suggest on its T&Cs that disputes over products were between the purchaser and manufacturer – a blatant fallacy. They soon changed them when the ‘error’ was spotted. But the fact that some enterprising member of staff thought they’d try it on is deeply concerning.

So let me explain how the law works so you know when you can push back when a firm tries to palm you off with credit. But let’s be clear, a lot of these issues arise because there isn’t a regulator for the retail industry and many other sectors where businesses are reluctant to issue refunds. This needs to change. Laws only work if people enforce them.

Shopping and returns – a guide

Keep this article handy – and if a business says it can’t refund you, why not send them the link and ask them to respond?

In short, a business should not offer you credit or vouchers if the goods or services you have purchased are not as advertised, broken, misrepresented or can’t be provided. You are entitled to a full refund. Here’s how it works.

What are the laws when it comes to goods and services?

The Consumer Rights Act (which came in to play on 01 October 2015) gives you the bulk of your shopping rights. For items bought prior to the act, it’s the Sale of Goods Act (1979)

The act covers goods and services (including digital goods) and whether they are ‘satisfactory quality, as described or fit for purpose’. If the goods you buy don’t fit in to these categories you can seek a refund, replacement or repair depending on when things go wrong.

What are my rights if I want to return a purchase but there’s nothing wrong with it?

If the item was bought online or on the phone then you have 14 days to return it under the Consumer Contract Regulations 2013. There are a few exceptions though, like some holidays, or items you’ve had made to order.  In-store is different though and will depend on the shop’s policy.

What if the goods are faulty?

You’ve got lots of rights when it comes to goods or services that don’t work. However, there are certain time limits you need to bear in mind.

The rules (in this case, the Consumer Rights Act 2015) say that you have 30 days from the date the goods were purchased to return the item if it’s wonky or isn’t as it was described.

You’re entitled to a full refund if the goods are returned within 30 days. Bear in mind it will go in to the account of the person who bought the item, so if you’re returning a gift, let the purchaser know.

What if it’s over the 30 days?

If goods are faulty, you have up to six months to return the items – and the burden of proof is on the retailer to prove the item wasn’t damaged, or they must refund you. They are allowed to have one crack at a repair or replacing the item, but after that, you can ask for a full refund.

Even over the six months, all is not lost, though you’ll need to prove why you didn’t realise the item was damaged or that the problem isn’t just down to wear and tear. Be prepared to compromise though. You could be looking at a repair or a replacement – and if the product has been upgraded since, you aren’t entitled to the upgraded version.

When do I get the money?

Aside from your rights buying goods online, 14 is a useful number to remember. The retailer has 14 days to refund you from the point they receive the goods (or when you tell them you don’t want them if the goods are digital). That includes delivery costs for returning damaged items (but they only have to pay the cheapest option available, so you might end up covering the difference).

What if I bought the item instore?

These rules don’t extend to items bought in store, though you have a number of rights for faulty or misrepresented items. Some stores do allow you to return items with gift receipts. A gift receipt is basically an additional receipt provided by the retailer with the price not included, so you can return and exchange items. You don’t need to be the gift-giver to redeem a gift receipt, but the retailer can set the terms if the item isn’t faulty. Shops can ask you to produce a receipt so hold on to it. The jury is out on whether a photo of a receipt counts, so speak to the store before you go in to avoid an argument over the tills.

What if the provider of goods or services says the item isn’t faulty?

The key thing here is whether the goods are ‘satisfactory quality’, ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘as described’. The latter option is pretty straightforward. Compare the item’s description with what you’ve got and if it’s misleading (not as described), make a complaint.

‘Fit for purpose’ is important to remember because you might not realise an item isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing until you’ve started using it – which might be some time after it was purchased. So if you’ve ordered blackout curtains that don’t actually black out the light, then you can argue they’re not fit for purpose.

‘Satisfactory quality’ is pretty subjective. To give you an example, if you go to a restaurant and don’t like your food after eating it all you’re not going to get very far. But if you’d asked in advance for a vegetarian option but one isn’t provided when you arrive, then you clearly haven’t been given what you wanted.

So a good starting point is asking ‘does it do what it says on the tin?’ If not, take the time to explain why you haven’t got what you thought you were getting.

When might a retailer offer a credit note or voucher?

There are very few occasions where a retailer could offer you a voucher or credit not instead of cash. If you’ve paid for something and it’s not what you wanted or doesn’t work you should get a refund.

Things get a bit more complicated if quite a bit of time has elapsed, like a washing machine packing in after 3 years. The law says that goods must last a ‘reasonable’ amount of time. I hate the use of the word reasonable in contracts – after all, what does that even mean? I’d argue a dead washing machine after 3 years is not reasonable. But given that you might have over used it or accidentally damaged it, compromise is the watchword here. Get the firm to investigate then ask them what solutions they propose. It might be a good alternative solution to accept a credit note or voucher for a new machine as a compromise if there’s no definitive answer as to where the blame lies in this instance.

Another example is where you’ve paid for an annual subscription or a specific event and key parts of the contract are not honoured. Imagine you’ve booked a luxury spa weekend but the main pool is closed. You can still take the holiday, but a key component of the trip is not available.

In this case, the legal principle of ‘Frustration of Contract’ is the basis of your legal right to seek a full refund. In short, this applies where goods or services cannot be delivered for reasons not anticipated when the contract was agreed. This applies to both a single event – like hiring a venue for a wedding – or ongoing contracts like a gym membership.

So for example if you have paid £300 for gym membership for a year (£25 a month) and the gym is closed for two months, you could be able to claim a £50.00 refund under ‘Frustration of Contact. This also means you could pause or stop a regular subscription even if you are still within an initial agreed tie-in period, though you would have to start up again once the goods and services were available to use.

However, you might find you get a better offer if you are willing to accept a credit note or voucher for a future event.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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