Ever returned poor or faulty goods for the shop to simply dismiss your complaint? Now imagine walking down the high street, or phoning up, this time covered in a glistening suit of consumer rights armour.
We hope our guide will help you do just that. Read on to find out what to do if goods or services go wrong. Read it now and save it to your favourites for when it's needed.
In this guide
The things everyone should know
This should be taught at school. Everyone should know their basic statutory rights for shopping - in other words, the rights you have by law which a shop can't change.
Know these and you can enforce fair treatment. It's so crucial, you should actually memorise it. Our mnemonic is to call them your Sad Fart rights. When you buy goods they must be...
This applies even if you buy things in a sale or with a discount voucher. Frankly, every customer-facing member of staff should be taught these rules before they're allowed to work. Yet as they're not, we need to be polite and persistent in quoting the rights.
Consumer rights: Quick dos and don'ts
Later in the guide, you'll get a much more detailed explanation of how consumer rights work.
But let's start with a few simple dos and don'ts to help you protect yourself.
DO spend gift vouchers quickly
If you've got gift vouchers or cards, use them as soon as possible in case the store collapses. You may think that's a long shot, but a long list of firms have gone into administration in the past few years, including Comet, JJB Sports, Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster.
When firms go into administration, it's perfectly legal for them to stop accepting gift vouchers, rendering them as worthless as the plastic or paper they're printed on.
What are my gift voucher rights if the company is in administration?
When this happens, the firm no longer exists in its previous form, so it doesn't have to fulfil all its promises, such as honouring gift cards.
A gift card is simply a promise that allows you to spend a certain amount in a store or on a website. Under insolvency law, it's up to the administrator whether to accept vouchers. In many cases, administrators stop accepting them.
Don't throw them away
Saying this, don't throw your vouchers away. Some administrators have changed their minds regarding gift cards, while other stores may start accepting them. With HMV, customers were given the option to exchange HMV gift cards bought at Tesco, Asda or Boots for vouchers for one of those stores.
Can I get my money back if gift cards are not accepted?
You do have a chance, but be prepared for the worst.
For purchases, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 states your credit card company must refund all purchases between £100 and £30,000 if you don't get the service or item you paid for.
However, the law is grey around gift cards. It's worth trying under Section 75, but there are no guarantees.
Alternatively, customers have the ‘chargeback’ option on credit and debit cards. If you claim within 120 days of something going wrong, Visa, Mastercard and American Express may give you your money back, regardless of the cost (other than a £10 minimum on Mastercard). Unlike Section 75, this is a customer service promise, not a legal requirement.
If you're not covered on plastic, you can try to claim the cash from the administrator by becoming an 'unsecured creditor'. Here, you become another person on the administrator's list of people it owes money to. But don't get your hopes up of this working.
Should I buy gift vouchers?
It's safest to stay clear of gift cards. Cash is boring, but is safer, more flexible and guarantees a gift of some sort.
With a gift voucher, if the company goes bust, there's no guarantee the voucher will be valid or accepted. Certainly, if you know or hear that a company may be in trouble, it's best to avoid buying gift cards or vouchers from them at all. Always do a Google search on the company before buying to double-check.
But we understand people want to buy them. If that's you, consider general vouchers valid at a host of stores, or just buying for mega-companies such as Amazon, Asda, John Lewis, M&S and Tesco. But even then, there's no 100% guarantee.
DO take things back as quickly as possible
If something's faulty - in other words it breaks the Sad Fart rules - returning it speedily is crucial.
Within four weeks.
You can usually still get a full refund as you're unlikely to be seen as having 'accepted' the goods. After that only expect exchange, repair or part-refund.
Within six months.
The shop must prove goods weren't faulty when they sold 'em – after that, you must prove they were.
These time limits define when you should take faulty goods back. They're totally separate to the "reasonable length of time" bit in the Sad Fart rules, which define what counts as faulty in the first place.
What's 'reasonable'? It depends on the situation. Imagine asking a sensible friend's opinion. If you asked "is it reasonable for a £2,000 plasma telly to break after nine months?", they'd probably say no. But it probably is reasonable for a 50p torch to conk out in nine months.
For more info, see the Act as soon as possible section below.
DON'T assume you can exchange it if it's the wrong size
Unless goods break the Sad Fart rules, you've no legal right of return. So don't buy someone clothes assuming they can change the size if they don't fit.
Many shops will allow it, but they don't have to. Unless that is, they've got a published returns policy allowing it - then it's a contractual condition of sale, so they must obey it.
For more info, see the Can I Change My Mind? section below.
DO write 'it's a gift' on receipts
Legally, only the person who paid has a right to return faulty goods.
Yet on the receipt (preferably a bit the shop keeps, eg, the debit/credit card slip), note it's a gift and who it's for - "bought as a gift for Bob" - and the rights are transferred.
Again, some shops allow it regardless, but it's worth doing this just in case.
For more info, see the Can I return goods that are a gift? question below.
DON'T think buying online means fewer rights
You've MORE rights buying online (or by telephone/catalogue) due to the Consumer Contracts Regulations. These give a legal right to send most goods back within a fortnight for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault. You'll usually need to pay for the return delivery.
For more info, see the Buying on the web, mail order or from home section below.
DO check suitability before buying
The "as described" part of the Sad Fart rules is crucial.
Imagine you buy speakers for your TV, take them home and they don't connect to your specific television.
If you've proof (take notes if possible) the store said “it'll work with your telly”, then it's not "as described", so you can return it. Yet if you didn't ask, and it's not in the literature, and the speakers still work if correctly plugged in, it's your problem - not the store's.
DON'T think 'no receipt' means 'no return'
With faulty goods, you simply need to prove purchase. This could be the receipt, but any other legitimate record - such as a bank statement - should be fine.
However, if you've no legal right but are simply utilising a store's return policy, then you'll need a receipt if that's what the policy says.
DO return it to the store, not the manufacturer
If it breaks the Sad Fart rules, your agreement's with the shop you bought it from, NOT the manufacturer. So the retailer MUST deal with it - don't let it palm you off.
For more info, see the Know who's responsible section below.
DON'T think eBay's different
Buy from a trader who makes some or all of their living selling on eBay and you've the full Sad Fart rights. However, buy from an occasional private seller and as long as the goods are "as described", the only rule is "let the buyer beware".
For more, see the Buying on the web section below.
DO ensure Christmas delivery's specified
If goods for Christmas - or another specific event - are late, you can only complain if you or the retailer specified (and can prove) it was for pre-Christmas delivery.
If that's the case, it's a breach of contract and you've a right to a refund. Though even if Christmas delivery isn't specified, things should be delivered within a reasonable time (usually 30 days).
For more info see the Buying on the web, mail order or from home section below.
DON'T think you've no rights with freebies
If a freebie comes as part of a purchase - eg, a laptop with a mobile broadband contract - you've exactly the same Sad Fart rights as if you'd bought it.
For more info, see the Do I have rights if a freebie was faulty? question below.
DO consider paying by credit card if it's over £100
Pay for £100+ of goods on a credit card and the card company's jointly liable with the retailer if something goes wrong. This gives you extra legal rights - see the Section 75 guide for more. Though only do this if you can clear the card in full next month to avoid interest.
DO remember it's about expectations as well as rights
Even if you don't have a legal right, companies' reputations depend on giving decent service. So you can always ask – and tell them you're disappointed if they don't help.
Too much to remember?
To help, we've designed a special print-out to keep with you. It details and explains your basic rights so you're always armed.
Don't just quote the rights, say this… "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979". Or if it's a service - technically some of the rights are different, the overall premise is similar - say… "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".
Saying these can make a powerful impression (don't worry, that's on the print-out too). Yet if you're going to complain, especially about an expensive item, it makes sense to dig into the rules in even more detail – see the section below.
Understanding the law
If you've got a dispute going on, it's important not just to know your rights, but to understand how and why they work.
Every time you buy something, be it a mobile phone from a mate or a week in Cuba from a travel agent, you make a contract with the seller.
What does this contract really mean?
Both you and the other party agree to terms and conditions. The seller has agreed to provide your 'statutory rights'.
The nitty-gritty of these laws depend on whether you're buying goods or services. It's also worth noting they're also only for consumers, so they don't apply if you're buying something in the course of a business (eg, from wholesalers such as Costco). They also only apply if the retailer is based in the UK or elsewhere in the EU, buy from elsewhere and you're subject to the laws from that country.
Goods: Anything you can hold
Goods could be a T-shirt, toaster or a truck, whether new, second-hand or bought online.
If the good has been provided with a service - a handset with a mobile phone contract or a window supplied by the glazing firm that fits it - you've a service contract.
Jump to the Goods buying rights section for full info on your rights.
Services: Everything from dentists to restaurants
A service is a contract where a company has carried out some work for you.
If you get goods with a service (ie, a mobile phone with a contract) the same rules apply.
Jump to the Service buying rights section for full info on your rights.
Your rights when buying goods
The legal protection you have here is from the Sale of Goods Act 1979. This sledgehammer cracks any nut - it's where the Sad Fart laws come from.
At this point, it's crucial to understand each line of the mantra and exactly how it works.
'Satisfactory As Described'
Now the latter part of this, as described, might sound pretty obvious. For example, a blue jumper either is or isn't. But other goods, such as a silk shirt or a cashmere sweater, must be made of that material, while a multi-region DVD player must play international DVDs.
It's easy to buy goods that don't measure up to what the label says. So "as described" is the foundation that makes sure you get what you pay for. Dangerous goods always break this rule, though.
Satisfactory quality is harder to define. The law says "satisfactory" is what you would reasonably be happy with, looking at all of the information easily available to you, such as its price and condition. See more later on second-hand goods.
But what's reasonable? Now there's a question lawyers have rowed about for years. Reasonable means what a reasonable person would think is fair. So, there's no set answer.
In a legal context and in a dispute with a shop, it means goods must be in a state that you, or any other normal, reasonable person would think was reasonable. Easy, eh?
Certainly if you bought an expensive music player and the sound was virtually inaudible, most people would almost certainly say it wasn't satisfactory. But let's say you bought a cheap garden trampoline, where you could bounce on it, but it moved around as it wouldn't bed into the soil. Would that be satisfactory?
Ultimately if you and the shop couldn't resolve it, you'd need to take it to court for a judge to decide. But hopefully, it wouldn't get that far.
Fit for purpose AND last a reasonable length of time
This means stuff must work and not fall to bits after an hour's use. This might sound pretty basic common sense, but without it, you can find yourself exposed.
Say you buy some new car headlights without checking which car they're for – if you get the wrong ones, that doesn't make them faulty. Yet if you get them having asked the shopkeeper if they'd work in your car – even though the box didn't say yes or no – then they aren't 'fit for purpose' and you can get your money back.
Second-hand or 'on sale' doesn't mean second-rate
Even if the item's second-hand or reduced, it doesn't mean you get second-rate consumer rights, except where the seller pointed out the specific problems before you bought.
The same consumer rights rules apply to second-hand and sale goods from shops. They must be of satisfactory quality and, if they're faulty, you can return them.
If you buy a used motor from a trader or grab a £700 'sale' telly with 30% off and it goes kaput once you get home, then take it back and complain.
It's worth stressing that the second-hand price will be taken into account. So if you buy a car for a fiver, you wouldn't expect it to run normally. Second-hand cars are one of the most complained-about issues - see these Citizens Advice and Gov.uk guides for more.
Watch out too if the goods were uber-cheap because of a blindingly obvious flaw. In this case, the shop could refuse to refund you.
The rules change with private sellers
If you're buying second-hand goods from a private seller (someone who doesn't sell goods for all or part of their living), your rights are nowhere near as strong as when buying from a shop.
The only protection is that it's correctly described and the owner has the right to sell it. Here, it really is a case of caveat emptor or "let the buyer beware".
Know who's responsible
When returning items, beware shops trying the oldest trick in the book: saying they're not responsible for the shoddy goods and you must call the manufacturer. This is total nonsense!
If a company fobs you off by saying “go to the maker instead”, it's wrong. It's the retailer's job to sort it.
It doesn't matter if it's an iPod from a high street shop or a designer frock from a department store. If something's broken, torn, ripped or faulty, the seller has a legal duty to put it right as your contract is with it.
What proof do you need?
Consumers get extra benefit from The Sale And Supply of Goods To Consumers Regulations.
When goods are faulty, if you return them within six months, then it's up to the shop to prove they weren't faulty when you bought them. After this, the burden of proof shifts and it's up to you to prove they were faulty when you bought them.
But that's not all. There's another piece of legislation called the Limitations Act (it's the Prescription and Limitation Act in Scotland) that can help you out.
You have up to six years after you bought a good to complain. (In Scotland, it's five years after you first realised there was a problem.)
This comes in handy if you buy goods, but don't use them for a few months or if something breaks after the six month rule and the fault was likely to have been there all along. Yet the longer it's been and the less durable the item, the harder it'll be to fight for a full refund. In such a case, you might have to accept a partial refund or credit note.
Your rights when buying services
Whether it's a shop, restaurant, bank, insurer, public and private transport or healthcare (we could go on!), top-notch service is the least you should expect in today's super-competitive climate.
Of course, things still go wrong and when they do, you've powerful protection from the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.
Quite simply, it demands that any service provided in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (common law in Scotland has similar effect), should be carried out with...
Reasonable care and skill,
Within a reasonable time and
At a reasonable cost.
(We don't have a mnemonic for this yet – if you think of one, do email us.)
What is 'reasonable'?
In a legal context, and in any dispute that you might have with a retailer or company over standards of service, it means the level of service must be one that you or any other normal reasonable person would also consider to be reasonable.
The best way to think of it is to imagine what a sensible, unbiased, friend would say who knew both you and the person providing the service – would they agree it was reasonable?
Of course this can stray into difficult territory. If you get a mobile phone in Scotland and have told them you'll use it there, but it only gets a signal in Wales – no one would consider that reasonable. Yet if you get the phone and the only place it doesn't get a signal is in your home – is that reasonable?
But what do the 'reasonable' rules actually mean?
Care and skill
This means a business should look after you and your property properly as, by being a business, it is saying it is capable of doing so. So a hairdresser would be expected to NOT ruin your hair and a builder NOT to forget to lay foundations.
If the time taken to complete a job is unclear, it should be carried out as soon as possible and not drag on for years. If you need something doing by a certain date, eg, a wedding cake to be made in time for your special day, you can make your contract 'time of the essence', which'll give you stronger rights if there's a problem.
This is about the price of work that hasn't been agreed in advance, not the overall price of the service. If you get an estimate to fix your boiler for £200, have the work done and problems mean you end up being charged £2,000, the trader would need to prove this was reasonable, usually meaning what other plumbers would charge.
Do note you can't be unreasonable and also expect rights. So if, at the start of a new conservatory job, you agree a price and timescale, you can't come back later and substantially change your order – although you can if there were new charges, or the work was taking longer than agreed.
If you get goods with the service, the same rules apply
When you buy goods on their own, with no service attached, you're protected by the Sales of Goods Act.
Yet if you buy goods as part of a service, eg, a handset with a mobile contract or a boiler that you ask a gas company to fit, you're protected by the Supply of Goods and Services Act.
And if the goods supplied as part of the service become faulty, it's the service provider that's responsible for sorting the problems, not the supplier of the goods.
The protection's the same as the Sale of Goods Act, though - in short, the Sad Fart rights. It's just that complaints must be made under the service law instead.
Buying on the web, mail order or from home
On top of all the other protections described above, there are major advantages to buying on the web, mail order, or simply from home. In most cases this means you have the right to cancel your order and get a refund, even if you've just changed your mind. See the full rules below.
These rules changed slightly in June 2014, they used to be called the Distance Selling Regulations and the Doorstep Selling Regulations. See the Your consumer rights are now boosted MSE news story.
|Type of purchase:||Contracts for goods or services (including digital content) of any value ordered from an EU-based business via mail order, phone or online.
Buying something costing more than £42 away from a normal seller's premises (usually at your home or work).
|Protection from:||The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 - or just the Consumer Contracts Regulations.|
|Time to cancel:||Goods: 14 days from the day after you receive all goods in an order (unless it's for regular delivery such as a magazine subscription, when the first delivery counts).
Services and digital content: 14 days from the day after the order is made.
If you want to start a service within the 14 days, you will usually be asked to give your agreement in writing. This then means you can't cancel. However you are able to get a refund minus the proportionate cost of anything you have used.
If you aren't told about your cancellation rights in writing, you have up to a year and 14 days to cancel the contract. You also won't be liable for any extra costs, such as services you have used.
|Exceptions:||There are quite a few but they are usually in niche areas. Items not covered include:
Fresh food and flowers
Personalised or perishable goods
Accommodation/transport/leisure services purchased for a particular timeframe
Newspapers and magazines (unless they are part of a subscription)
Sealed audio, video or computer software that has been opened
Buying or building property or paying rent
Medical products and services
Hiring a taxi, boat or plane
Goods that fluctuate in price (such as foreign exchange)
Emergency repairs and maintenance
Financial products, package holidays or timeshares (although these have different rights, see below)
If you have examined the goods in a shop then ordered from the same retailer online and this inspection was specifically noted as part of the purchase contract
If you reserve items online but pay for them in-store
If you buy something at an auction
|What about click and collect?||If you pay online and then collect goods from the store or an outlet, you've got the same rights. Check the items on collection, otherwise if you just pick up and leave, it could be seen as accepting the item/goods as they are. It's also worth asking for a gift receipt when ordering.|
|How to cancel the contract:||The business will give you a cancellation form, which it must acknowledge receipt of. See a sample of the form. You can use this if you like, or you can write to seller instead. Some businesses may allow you to cancel by phone.
Your time to cancel starts from the day you sent the form, letter, email or fax, not the day the seller receives it. It's your responsibility to prove you cancelled on time so ensure you get a confirmation from the company.
As soon as you've cancelled, take good care of all of the goods, as you have to return them in reasonable condition (but not necessarily in the same packaging) and within 14 days. If the goods are damaged the seller can take the relevant cost from your refund.
|Getting a refund:||The seller must then pay back any cash within 14 days of it receiving the goods or it was told you wanted to cancel a service or digital contract.
It must include the least expensive delivery option but if you chose a more expensive delivery you'll need to cover the difference. Be sure to specifically ask for delivery to be included as some stores don't add it automatically.
You'll also usually be asked to pay for return delivery, unless the seller doesn't say this in its T&Cs, or the goods were faulty.
|Specific delivery:||If you or the seller specified a certain delivery date (eg in time for a birthday or Christmas) but your order wasn't delivered on time you've a right to a full refund. If a date wasn't specified at all, then delivery should be within 30 days.|
|Tied agreements:||Any related credit is cancelled along with your order.|
Buying on eBay
If you're thinking of grabbing something on eBay, the key is the difference between 'buy it now' purchases and 'auction-style' purchases.
If there's one thing to remember, it's that 'buy it now' items have the same protection as buying from a shop (statutory rights, cooling off etc), whereas auction purchases count as second-hand. For more info, see the eBay Buying Secrets guide.
Taking out a financial agreement
For credit agreements, such as loans, credit and store cards, since 2011 the Consumer Credit Act has given 14 days from receipt of the executed agreement or notification of the credit limit on a credit card to cancel.
If you do change your mind you'll need to pay back any money borrowed and return (or make alternative payment arrangements) any linked goods, eg, a cooker purchased with a store's loan.
Before February 2011, credit agreements signed online or phone with no face-to-face contact had a 14-day cancellation period, but if you had face-to-face contact at any point, eg, you went into a bank to ask about a credit card's features, but then signed up to the agreement away from the store (eg, online or by phone) you only had the right to cancel within five days.
Package holidays and timeshares
You've no right to cancel a package holiday unless the operator has made a major change to your holiday. Check your terms and conditions as you may also lose any deposit you have already paid.
Package holidays are those that have been prearranged for an inclusive price and include at least two of the following: transport, accommodation, excursions or car hire (see the Cheap Package Holidays guide).
Most timeshares, however, give 14 days to change your mind due to the Timeshare Regulations. See the Citizens Advice site for more info on how to cancel.
How to make 'em pay up
While the legal protection is strong, it doesn't matter what the rules are if the seller won't obey them. Yet this isn't always easy with consumer law, you need to sort out your own problems.
Don't go militant unless you have to. The first easy step is to go back to the shop or phone the call centre and explain the problem and your suggested resolution.
If you go in with gusto, saying you know what your rights are, chances are the store will sort your problem in a flash.
Sadly, many customer-facing staff in stores have no idea about the statutory rights, so you may come up against a brick wall. Stay calm, if possible find them the law (use the consumer rights print-out to help) – and politely ask to speak to a supervisor.
The complaint checklist
Know what outcome you want
When complaining, don't get mad. Be cool, calm and rational and you'll be more likely to get results than ranting and raving. Throw a temper tantrum and the company may be perfectly happy to lose your custom so it gets rid of you.
Decide the answer to these three questions before you start:
Do you want to exchange the goods / continue the service? If you could get the goods fixed, or the service improved, would you be happy to accept that? If the answer's yes, life's easier.
Do you want a full refund? While you may want a full refund, you're not always entitled to it if they can fix the problem. Having said that, sometimes it's just easier for them to pay up to have the problem solved.
Do you want compensation and, if so, what kind? Do you want money over and above just fixing or replacing a product, for the time or distress you've been caused? While this can happen it certainly complicates things. Be reasonable and be sure you genuinely feel you've been unfairly put out.
Act as soon as possible
The crucial point here is whether you've been deemed to have 'accepted' the goods. While there's no standard definition - as it depends on the circumstances - here's a couple of factors to bear in mind.
How long you've taken to respond. How long shoppers have to check if goods are shoddy, or service has been done properly, depends on what's reasonable for that specific item or service.
It could take six weeks to check that repairs fix a leaky roof. But you can tell in hours if a Blu-ray player works. After this time, you're likely to have accepted the goods and your rights are lowered.
Have you altered the goods? The 'accepted' date will be earlier if you've altered something yourself, for example if you unlocked your phone handset to switch it to another network or took up the hem of a dress.
Stop using it as soon as you can
This could be tricky, especially if it's a car or your bank. But the less you use something because of your annoyance, the more it adds weight to your complaint.
Do be careful about payment here, though. If you've not paid in full, beware cancelling payment as the company could continue to chase you for money, which may end up affecting your Credit Rating.
Keep a diary
Note down what went wrong, who you spoke to and when and what you agreed, if anything. This is more important if your original agreement was made verbally, as your complaint will be harder to prove.
Stash pics and other evidence to back up your case, such as receipts or terms and conditions. Receipts are not essential to have (or give, although nearly all stores do), but proof of purchase - a cheque book stub, bank statement or credit card statement - usually is. Don't post originals to sellers, because you'll need a back-up.
Keep a log of any extra costs
Note down any extra costs you've had to pay, such as phone calls or replacing damaged items, so you can ask for the cash back. Ask to be reimbursed for additional costs. In the case of holidays or fun activities, it's possible to get extra cash for inconvenience or distress.
If you're forced to pay, do it 'under protest'
If the seller is forcing you to pay for something you're not happy to cough up for, you have two options. One is to refuse and suggest they take you to court for the rest. The other - possibly a better option if they have something of yours, such as a PC in for repair - is to say you are "paying under protest". This will help your case if you need to take your complaint to court.
Therefore the best route is simple...
Complain the instant you realise there's a problem. The longer it's left, the more likely you'll lose your rights.
If you complain without having been seen to accept the goods, then you can usually expect a full refund. As explained, this depends on circumstances, but a good rule of thumb is within three or four weeks.
What if I've taken longer to return the goods?
If you're deemed to have accepted the goods, you're unlikely to get a full refund although you are likely to be entitled to a repair or replacement.
If you ask for a refund and the shop offers a repair or replacement, you might decide to just accept this for an easy life. Yet if the item continues to have problems, you can still ask for a refund at a later date.
Whether to ask for a repair or replacement is your choice. The retailer can say no if the cost for them is too high. Instead, they can offer compensation, usually a partial refund or credit note.
No matter what the solution, consumer law means you should be put back into the same position that you were in before things went wrong. Whatever you request, the retailer must sort it within a 'reasonable' time. So while two weeks to fix a car brake fault is acceptable, two weeks to clean it isn't.
Still not happy?
If you've followed all the tips in this guide, hopefully things have been resolved. Yet if your complaint to the seller has fallen on deaf ears, there are several other steps you can take to fight back. See the full How To Complain guide to see which is best for you, or the Small Claims Court guide on how to take legal action for up to £10,000.
Consumer rights Q&A
What does "this does not affect your statutory rights" mean?
The sign’s everywhere, but many customers and staff don’t have a clue what it means. Yet every consumer should try to have at least the basic rights in their mental arsenal. The key is to understand there are two main factors at play.
Shops' own returns policy.
Buy something in a store and UNLESS it’s faulty, you have NO LEGAL RIGHT to return it. Yet, to protect their reputation, many stores DO allow it under their returns policies. When this is published, it becomes a legal part of your purchase and contract, so they’re bound by it.
Your statutory rights.
When goods are faulty many staff wrongly think their returns policies still rule, but the law is more important than any shop procedure. All goods must obey the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and if not, they’re legally faulty. So return them quickly enough and you’ve a legal right to a FULL refund.
If I've bought something, can I change my mind?
Many of us have bought something only to later decide it's unsuitable or unneeded. Yet shops are under no obligation to take your goods back, just because you've changed your mind, only when they're faulty.
The exceptions to this are when buying on the internet, mail order or financial agreements, when you often have cancellation rights.
But even when you don't have rights, plenty of companies do still give refunds. These are mainly high street stores with returns policies allowing you to simply take back whatever you want within a set timeframe. You're less likely to be able to change your mind for a service contract that's started, though.
These goodwill policies have encouraged more and more customers to expect this as a right, even though it doesn't always apply.
This doesn't mean you can't ask, though. Shops would rather keep customers happy than be sticklers for the rules. They consider all customers to be potential clients who will use their services or buy their products again and again.
If I pay in Scottish notes, do they have to take it?
Scottish bank notes aren't legal tender... even in Scotland. In fact, there are no legal tender notes in Scotland. Bank of England notes are only legal tender in England and Wales.
Yet that doesn't mean they can't be used in transactions. They are a legal currency defined by the UK Parliament, and perfectly acceptable for transactions across the UK. (Though technically a shop can refuse to take any note, English or Scottish, and just not sell you the goods.)
Legal tender technically just means that by law it cannot be refused as a settlement of debt, so a store can accept any currency it likes - such as euros - if it decided to.
If goods are mispriced – can I force them to sell it me at that price?
Sorry, that's an urban myth. Shops don't have to sell anything to you if they don't want to, regardless of price. Yet deliberately misleading you is criminal.
First let's look at a genuine mistake - a £50 jacket racked up in a long line of other coats all at £500. Here, you have to accept the shop's error. Though if it does accept money and later says that was in error, the contract's made and it's yours (this isn't quite the same for internet purchases though).
So if you spot a mis-priced mistake, don't be afraid to haggle. Although it doesn't have to, the retailer may sell it to you knock down price as a gesture of goodwill.
However, if it turns out to be intentionally misleading, such as a price promotion promising lots of goods at dirt-cheap prices that fail to emerge, or you complain and it puts the goods back on the shelf at the same price, then it's a potential criminal offence and Trading Standards officers can send in their heavies to investigate.
Do I have rights if a freebie was faulty?
This is a tricky area in consumer rights. Technically when something's free there's no contract with the supplier, so you're not entitled to get a faulty item fixed.
Yet if it was a free gift as part of a purchase, eg, if you sign up for a mobile contact and get a laptop with it – that's different. Here, you've exactly the same Sad Fart rights as if you'd paid for it. Most sellers are aware of this, but, if they try to fob you off, stand your ground.
Can I return goods that are a gift?
On the surface, the answer is no as you've no contract with the seller – it's the person who pays for the item who has the contract and will need to sort out any problems.
Yet this can be overcome if the buyer tells the seller they are passing on the rights by "conferring the benefit of the contract" under the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties Act) 1999.
In plain English, this means you need to make it clear – ideally in writing – you're buying for someone else by stating their name or giving a particular description, such as them being a family member, eg, writing "this is a gift for Martin Lewis" on the receipt at the time of purchase. This extra term then becomes part of your contract too.
As with other rights, stores do often provide over and above their obligation so may help with a faulty gift. Yet there's no harm in remembering to tell them it's a gift if you buy an expensive present for someone.
Do I have to accept a credit note if a shop offers it?
If you're simply exchanging goods that aren't faulty – then yes, as you have no legal rights to exchange non-faulty items, so if that's the store policy, that's it. If you do get a credit note – watch out for the restrictions as to how and when you can spend it.
Yet if the goods are faulty (ie, they break the Sad Fart rules) then your statutory rights override the store's policy. Provided you take it back in time (see act as soon as possible) you have a right to a full refund.
Can a company ever say my rights don't apply?
Your statutory consumer rights always apply. A trader can offer different rights if it wants, but only as long as they are on top of your statutory rights.
Yet some companies do try to say your statutory rights are not valid because there's a term in your contact that says so; for example them stating “We do not provide refunds”, “We are not responsible if you are injured” or “We are not liable for property left unattended”. These are called exclusion clauses.
If there are exclusions, your contract should also include the words “this does not affect your statutory rights”, to show that written terms are not as important as consumer laws.
Companies try to get away with these terms in their contracts relying on lack of knowledge and consumer apathy to put consumers off making a claim. But thanks to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, exclusion clauses are often invalid and you can still complain.
While it may sound reasonable for loss or damage to be a consumer's responsibility, and in many cases it is, providers are also responsible for providing a reasonable duty of care for you or your possessions. So, for example, while they wouldn't be responsible if a member of the public swiped your bag while left unattended, they would be at fault if the bag was locked away where only their staff had access to it.
In most cases, you need to take action yourself following the steps in this guide. But it's a good idea to report suspected problems to your local Trading Standards office as it could also be a criminal offence to try to exclude something.
Are terms allowed to be unfair?
The individual terms in your contract should not create an advantage for the seller and a detriment to the consumer. If they do, they can be considered unfair under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999.
There's no better case to illustrate the issue of unfair contract terms than the Bank Charges campaign. Here, a major legal battle went through the UK courts to try to determine whether it was fair for the banks to have been levying charges on consumers of up to £39 for a breach of overdraft. Although this test case did not win, it highlights a crucial point - you can challenge the fairness of any term you feel is unfair.
We're not saying this is easy to do - in fact it may be an uphill struggle. Yet knowing your rights and threatening action can sometimes be enough to get a complaint sorted.
There's no hard and fast rule on what is unfair, yet some examples of unfair contract terms include:
"We accept no responsibility for faults discovered after purchase."
"Non-delivery does not give the consumer the right to cancel the contract."
"The company may, at any time, vary or add to the contract as it deems necessary." (This last example is similar to the reason we are able to reclaim Mortgage Exit Administration Fees.)
If you think a term in your contract is unfair, point it out to the retailer and ask for it to be taken out, or for compensation if it causes you imbalance. Unfortunately if the supplier disagrees, only the courts can decide if a term is unreasonable and unfair so you will need to start County Court action to find this out.
There's also The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which says businesses must not mislead consumers or subject them to aggressive commercial practices such as high pressure selling techniques. Read more in the How to Complain guide and if you think you have been treated unfairly, contact Citizens Advice to discuss your individual case.
Do I have the same rights with financial companies?
No. You're not buying things in the same way – yet overall, you probably have more rights as under banking regulations you have a right to be "treated fairly" and this can be adjudicated by the free Financial Ombudsman Service.
If your problem is with a financial company, read the Your Financial Rights guide or one of these specific guides: PPI Reclaiming, Credit Card Reclaiming, Council Tax Rebanding, Mortgage Exit Fees and Mis-sold Endowments.
If you think you have been treated badly by a financial company, write to complain.