Five consumer laws you really ought to know
To mark National Consumer Week, here are five laws the canny shopper should be using in their battle to get stuff that actually works.
There is a war being fought between customers and many of the firms they have to deal with. It is an asymmetric conflict – the little man versus the faceless, bad customer service monoliths.
On the little man’s side there are only newspaper consumer pages and a rather handy selection of laws.
The Headline: You might not need that five-year extended warranty after all.
The Scenario: Your iconic white MP3 player, the totemic centre of your life, breaks down precisely 366 days after you bought it. The large electronics firm that sold you the MP3 player says that because the one-year guarantee had elapsed, there’s nothing they can do to help you. You’ll just have to buy another one.
Some items, like washing machines, are expected to last a long time
Tears drip disconsolately on to its lifeless grey screen as you ponder what to do.
But there’s some good news. The operative who spoke to you didn’t know what they were talking about
The Truth: The Sale of Goods Act says that your MP3 player must be fit for purpose.
“It must be as described. It must be of satisfactory quality, sufficiently durable, free from any defects,” says Dr Christian Twigg-Flesner, a consumer law expert at the University of Hull.
If you’ve ignored the manufacturer’s warnings and have been leaving the player out in direct sunshine and wearing it in the bath, then you probably haven’t got much of a case.
But if the player has been lovingly treated and has still conked out that suggests something may have been wrong with it at the very beginning.
It works like this. For the first four-five weeks you have a “right of rejection” – if the item you’ve bought breaks down, you can demand a refund.
For the next six months, you are entitled to replacement or repair of the goods. It is up to the retailer to prove there was nothing wrong with it if they wish to get out of having to do the work. And then after six months, there is still a duty to replace or repair faulty goods, but the onus is on you, the consumer, to prove that there was something wrong.
And the key time span is six years. That’s how long goods may be covered by the Sale of Goods Act. It all depends on what “sufficiently durable” means. If a light bulb goes after 13 months, the consumer is not going to be overly gutted. If their washing machine goes after the same time span they are going to be livid.
The government’s guidelines say: “Goods are of satisfactory quality if they reach the standard that a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory, taking into account the price and any description.”
And be aware that if you go to the washing machine repairer, spend money attempting to diagnose an inherent fault, and find out you have been using it the wrong way, then you are going to be out of pocket.
A key fact is that your relationship in the Sale of Goods Act is with the retailer, not the manufacturer.
“The retailer likes shepherding you off to the manufacturer,” says Dr Twigg-Flesner.
And there are still reasons why you might want an extended warranty – they often include loan machines and ongoing technical support that you would otherwise miss out on. But they are not always good value, says Dr Twigg-Flesner.
“I’ve never bought one.”
Where it applies: The law applies across the UK, but has numerous small differences as applied in Scotland.
The Headline: Your credit card provider is often liable.
The Scenario: You’ve picked your dream sofa. It’s an astoundingly cheap £500, you paid by credit card, and you’re very excited. The day of delivery arrives but no sofa materialises. You switch on the news and see Astonishinglycheapsofas’r’us has gone bust. It turns out £500 was too cheap for a quality sofa. They’ve been losing money hand over fist.
If the sofa firm goes bust all is not lost
You ring the company and an exasperated worker is rather unhelpful. They tell you’re not going to get your sofa or your money back. It’s all gone to the liquidators to pay the many creditors.
You quietly burst into tears. No sofa and your £500 is gone.
The Truth: The good news is it has not. This is a great case for a refund from your credit card provider under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.
Section 75 only works for credit cards. And it only works when you’re paying for things that cost between £100 and £30,000.
“The bank is… liable” says Espe Fuentes, a lawyer at Which?. “It’s as if they have sold you the sofa.”
The most obvious claim you have, and one that crops up when furniture firms go bust, is for non-delivery of goods. But if you buy an item and after 13 months it is broken, and the shop that sold you it has gone bust, you can pursue the credit card provider.
The Killer Fact: Even if you only paid for a small part of the price of the goods with your credit card, the provider is still liable. But bear in mind that the act only applies to single items worth more than £100, not five items of £20.
The Headline: Services are like goods.
The Scenario: The garage repairs your car. You get it out on the road and three days later the same fault crops up again. The garage refuses to redo the work or compensate you, saying it’s all a matter of opinion
This car is broken. But whose fault is it?
“[The act] does the same for services as the Sale of Goods Act does,” says Ms Fuentes. “The service provided has got to be provided with reasonable skill and care. The goods bit means the widget has got to be of satisfactory quality.”
In essence, you have rights to put the bad service right. Either the offending persons must do it, or they must pay for someone else to do it.
Where it applies: England, Wales and Northern Ireland are all covered, but common law in Scotland gives similar rights to the consumer.
The Headline: Airlines cannot mess you around with impunity.
The Scenario: A budget airline, Acme Airlines we’ll call them, cancels your flight to a historic eastern European capital. Oh, and it’s not going to compensate you either.
The Truth: The EU has brought in some regulations that have caused wailing and gnashing of teeth in some sectors of the airline industry.
If you are denied entry to a flight where you met all the boarding criteria – prompt check-in, valid ticket and in a fit state to board – or the flight is cancelled, you now have rights.
Many people have slept in airports over the years
Firstly, you get “reimbursement of the cost of the ticket within seven days or a return flight to the first point of departure or re-routing to their final destination”.
You are also entitled to “care”. The EU’s summary mentions “refreshments, meals, hotel accommodation, transport between the airport and place of accommodation, two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails”.
And you’re in line for compensation of 250 euros for all flights of 1,500km. You get 400 euros for all flights within the EU of more than 1,500km, and the same for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500km. All other flights get you 600 euros. Compensation only applies to cancellation, not delay.
The airline can avoid compensation if passengers are notified at least two weeks before departure. And if they are notified less than two weeks before, and are re-routed with only minor delays, they will also not be compensated.
There are rights for people who are delayed. Different levels of delay entitle customers to different levels of care, while any delay of more than five hours allows a refund to be obtained, although obviously, you will not be any closer to your destination.
But the legislation contains a glorious get-out for airlines. In “extraordinary circumstances”, they do not have to compensate passengers.
There is a great temptation for airlines to say that staffing shortages or technical faults are “extraordinary circumstances”. But this get-out may not continue much longer.
“The European Court of Justice has cracked down,” says Dr Twigg-Flesner. “Technical problems are not extraordinary circumstances.”
Where it applies: The regulations are European law, so apply across the whole of the EU.
The Headline: When it comes to buying over the web, you’re allowed to change your mind
If this is involved, it may be a job for the Distance Selling regs
You buy an iconic white MP3 player from an online retailer as a birthday treat for yourself and, stone the crows, your aunt has only gone and bought you an iconic white MP3 player herself.
Yours is unopened so you try and return it, but the online retailer refuses to give you a refund.
The Truth: The Distance Selling Regulations allow customers a cooling-off period of seven working days. For goods, this counts from the day after the goods are delivered. For services, it’s seven working days from the contract being agreed.
This applies to all transactions carried out over a distance, not just to online transactions.
In a nutshell, you can get your refund. But there are some things you should be aware of, says Ms Fuentes.
“You do have to bear in mind who pays the postage.”
And, she says, there are a range of things that are excluded: newspapers, magazines, personalised goods, flowers, food, software where the seal is broken, clothes that have been worn other than just to try them on, hotel bookings, and transport tickets.
Where it applies: The law applies across the UK, but has some differences as applied in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Obviously, the preferred course of action for most people is that the errant firm admits its mistake and settles your claim after the first letter. For some people, writing to a newspaper consumer page offers an avenue to encourage haste on the company’s part.
But the ultimate recourse for most people – when the company is not budging an inch – is the small claims court, which costs a small fee to use, but can be used without the need for a solicitor.