Changing the law to protect and strengthen our rights can be a long and lengthy process. But the way we live, communicate and shop is changing rapidly, so it’s vital that the laws we have keep up with society.

In the coming months, the Online Safety Bill and Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill will finally become law, providing us with protection from everything from the domination of massive online businesses to banning scam websites and reigning in subscription traps.

But laws only work if businesses obey them. By far, the most common complaint I hear from readers is about retailers failing to sort out wonky or misrepresented goods or services or not bothering to refund people. This is outrageous, because we have two laws – the Consumer Rights Act and the Consumer Contract Regulations – that not only protect us in these circumstances. They spell out exactly what businesses are legally obliged to do.

So if you’re being given the runaround by a shop that isn’t playing ball, keep this article handy. Because these are your rights.

Your shopping rights in a nutshell 

As a general rule, if you buy something and just don’t like it, you’re at the mercy of the retailer’s own return policies. But if what you’ve bought is not as advertised, rubbish, poor quality or simply broken, then you’ve got a ton of rights. Here’s what you need to remember.

  • If you buy most goods or services online, then you usually have a 14 day ‘right to cancel’ period if you change your mind. There are exceptions though, like perishables, items made to order and most things related to holidays and travel.
  • No matter where you bought the goods or services, you are entitled to a full refund if what you have purchased online or in store is damaged, wonky, not as advertised or not fit for purpose within 30 days of purchase.
  • If you go over the 30 days, you have six months from the date you bought the item to return it for the same reasons. You must give the retailer one attempt at repairing or replacing the item, then they must give you a full refund.
  • Even over the six months, goods must last ‘a reasonable amount of time’ so you can still ask for a full or partial refund, or repairs and replacements, though the responsibility switches to you to prove that you haven’t broken the goods.

How are retailers ignoring the law?

Some of the responses to complaints that I’ve seen from retailers are so blatantly false, they’d be laughable – if they weren’t so unfair. Here are a few things to watch out for.

You don’t have to pay for returns if the goods are damaged or not as advertised. That’s the same rule for a pack of pencils as it is for a three-piece sofa set. The business must pay for the cost of returning goods that have been ‘misrepresented’ or simply don’t work.

You don’t have to go to the manufacturer if there’s a problem with an item you’ve bought. This is by far the most common breach of the law by retailers. The rules are clear. The firm that sold you the goods or services is responsible for returns and refunds.

If you buy goods through an online marketplace (anything from a book from Amazon to a holiday from an online travel firm) then things get a bit more complicated because you might be buying from a different seller via the main site. However, these businesses must have a ‘dispute resolution scheme’ so you can complain and get a refund if something goes wrong. They should also police the sellers on their sites to weed out the fraudsters.

If you’ve got a faulty ‘big ticket’ item like a washing machine or expensive TV that’s playing up, you are not responsible for paying for engineers to visit and carry out repairs, as long as you’ve complained within the first six months since purchase.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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