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Consumer Rights "Give me my money back!"

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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.

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 Gov.uk 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.

Your rights when buying services

Whether it's a shop, restaurant, bank, insurer, public or 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.

(No 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 from home.

RETURN REASONS ALLOWED
Type of purchase: Contracts for goods or services ordered from an EU-based business via mail order, phone or online.
Protection from: The Distance Selling Regulations.
Time to cancel: Goods: Seven working days from the day after you receive goods.
Services: Seven working days from the day after the order is provided.
Exceptions: Fresh food and flowers (for obvious reasons of decay!), personalised goods, accommodation/transport/leisure services purchased for a particular timeframe, newspapers and magazines, lottery tickets, sealed audio, video or computer software that has been opened or a service that has already started, can't be cancelled.
You also can't cancel if you've 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.
You're not covered if you reserve items (but don't pay online), then pay for them in-store. The contract between you and the seller is formed on the premises - what matters is where you pay.

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 under the Distance Selling Regulations. 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: You usually need to write to let the seller know, although some allow you to cancel by phone. As soon as you've cancelled, take good care of all of the goods in your contract, as you have to send them all back in reasonable condition (but not necessarily in the same packaging). 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.
Getting a refund: The seller must then pay back any cash within 30 days, including cost of delivery to you – although be sure to specifically ask for this to be included as some stores don't add it automatically. If it didn't tell you about your cancellation rights, you may have longer to cancel the order.
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.

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, distance selling etc), whereas auction purchases count as second-hand. For more info, see the eBay Buying Secrets guide.

TAKING OUT A FINANCIAL AGREEMENT
Type of purchase: Credit agreements, such as loans, credit and store cards.
Protection from: The Consumer Credit Act (due to changes implemented in 2011).
Time to cancel: 14 days once you've received a copy of the executed agreement or notification of the credit limit on a credit card.
Tied agreements: If you cancel a financial agreement, 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 made online or by 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 online or by phone, you only had the right to cancel within five days.

BUYING FROM HOME
Type of purchase: Buying something costing more than £35, away from a normal seller's premises (usually at your home or work).
Protection from: The Doorstep Selling Regulations (snappily called the Cancellation of Contracts made in a Consumer's home or place of work etc Regulations 2008).
Time to cancel: Seven days. If you aren't told about your cancellation rights in writing, you have longer to cancel the order.

If you want to receive the goods or service within the seven days, you will usually be asked to give your agreement in writing.
Exceptions: If you've had one of the following, you'll need to pay for the part of the order you've already received if you decide to cancel: goods needed in an emergency, personalised goods, goods that fluctuate in price (eg, foreign exchange), perishable goods, something you've already consumed, or something for a funeral.
How to cancel: Write to let the seller know. Your time to cancel starts from the day you sent the letter, email or fax, not the day the seller receives it.
Getting a refund: Outside of the exceptions above, you're entitled to get all your money back, including a deposit. You need to return any goods (and you may need to pay for delivery).
Tied agreements: Any related credit is cancelled along with your order.

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. 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 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 are 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 the problem can be fixed. 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 are 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. 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.

Be careful about payment, 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 bank or credit card statement, or a cheque book stub - 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 it takes 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

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