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Consumer Rights

"Give me my money back!"

Consumer rights: Your knight in shining armourEver 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.

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...

Satisfactory quality As Described Fit for Purppose And last a Reasonable length of Time

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

DO take things back as quickly as possible

DON'T assume you can exchange it if it's the wrong size

DO write 'it's a gift' on receipts

DON'T think buying online means fewer rights

DO check suitability before buying

DON'T think 'no receipt' means 'no return'

DO return it to the store, not the manufacturer

DON'T think eBay's different

DO ensure Christmas delivery's specified

DON'T think you've no rights with freebies

DO consider paying by credit card if it's over £100

DO remember it's about expectations as well as rights

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 definiton; 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

Services definiton; anything from dentists to resaurants

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'

Polar sweater as describedNow 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

Car light bulbThis 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 guides for more.

Second hand car sellers and your consumer rights

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".

So if the seller says nowt or little about the goods and you buy it, then that's it. Even if it's shoddy, you weren't mis-sold, so have no comeback. Though if they lie to you – you do.

Know who's responsible

Can you prove it?

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.

This is the law BUT in reality shops usually give you more leeway (though this is often suspended in the sale)

Many of us have bought something only to later decide it's unsuitable or not needed and shops are under no obligation to take your goods back, just because you've changed your mind.

But even when you don't have legal rights, plenty of companies do STILL give refunds even if the item isn't faulty. These are mainly high street stores allowing you to simply take back whatever you want within a set timeframe. Here are some examples:

* John Lewis. If you're unhappy with a purchase, you have up to 90 days to return it. There are some exclusions including perishable goods, personalised or made-to-order products, opened computer software or iTunes giftcards, which must be faulty or not as described to be refunded or exchanged.

* Next. If you're unhappy with a purchase you have 28 days to return it, but it must be returned in a resalable condition, with its receipt. Unless faulty, pierced earrings, food, alcohol, toiletries or made-to-order goods are non-returnable.

* Waterstones. If you're unhappy with your purchase you can return it in a resalable condition with proof of purchase within 30 days. Book tokens and some specially ordered items are excluded.

However, every store will be different so the key is to check the policy BEFORE you buy.

So what about my 'extra rights' during sales?

Many shops often revert back to the basic statutory rules during sales, so you may not be able to enjoy any extra rights if the item you bought has been discounted. For example, Next only allows you 15 days to return a sales item, compared with 28 days for a non-sales item.

But remember, if goods are faulty you can still use your Sad Fart rights. This applies whether you bought something in a sale or not, unless the retailer told you about the fault before you bought it and part of the reduction in price was due to this. Plus, online orders always get the 14 day cooling-off rights from the Consumer Contracts Regulations, subject to the standard exclusions, wherever and whenever you bought them.

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.

  • Reasonable time

    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.

  • Reasonable cost

    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:

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).
What's the protection called? The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 - or just the Consumer Contracts Regulations (used to be called the Distance (or Doorstep) Selling 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). Once you've cancelled an order you then have a further 14 days to send the goods back.

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.

Before you go though, there's some rules to follow...

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.

    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?

  • 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.

  • Collect evidence

    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.

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?

If I've bought something, can I change my mind?

If I pay in Scottish notes, do they have to take it?

If goods are mispriced – can I force them to sell it me at that price?

Do I have rights if a freebie was faulty?

Can I return goods that are a gift?

Do I have to accept a credit note if a shop offers it?

Can a company ever say my rights don't apply?

Are terms allowed to be unfair?

Do I have the same rights with financial companies?