To stand your ground as a 21st century champion consumer, you need to be as smart and clever as the companies themselves.
So read the Consumer Rights guide first, then if things go wrong, this guide's here to show you how to push your complaint to the max. It includes free template letters for faulty goods and shoddy services.
In this guide
While every effort's been made to ensure this article's accuracy, it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to your individual circumstances. If you act on it, you acknowledge that you do so at your own risk. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any damage or loss which may arise as a result of your reliance upon it.
Know your rights
Everyone needs to know their basic statutory rights for shopping – in other words, the rights you have by law which a shop can't change.
The nitty-gritty of these laws depend on what you're buying. For goods, it's...
And for services it's that they should be carried out with...
See the main Consumer Rights guide for full details, or download our special wallet-sized print-out, which details and explains your basic rights, so you're always armed.
What compensation do you want?
While our statutory 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, and you often need to sort out your own problems. If you're on the warpath, check the three complaint rules first...
Decide what you want to happen
When complaining, don't get mad. You're more likely to get results being cool, calm and rational than if you are ranting and raving. Throw a temper tantrum and the company may be perfectly happy to lose your custom to get rid of you which makes the fight tougher.
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 so be reasonable and be sure you genuinely feel you've been unfairly put out.
Check the compensation timeline
When you act can determine what help you're entitled to. There are three key points to bear in mind.
Did you know?The EU Guarantee Directive
An EU law gives the right of a two year guarantee on goods, but technically, it hasn't been adopted in the UK. Here, our rules actually trump the European Directive as we can challenge retailers for six years after purchase (five in Scotland). Yet if you're having problems getting goods dealt with within two years, mentioning the rule could help you persuade sellers to replace faulty goods outside the usual period. Again, success is likely to depend on your negotiating skills, though.
Follow the complaining DOs and DON'Ts
Taking some time to plan your case now is likely to save time and hassle later.
Before you start, go though a few simple dos and don'ts to help make your complaint as easy as possible.
DO act as soon as possible
How long you have to check if goods are shoddy, or if a service has been carried out properly, depends on what's reasonable for that specific item. It's best to use the timeline above as a guide but 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
The longer it's been and the less durable the item, the harder it'll be to fight for a full refund. Yet 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.
DON'T carry on using it
This could be tricky, especially if it's a car or your bank. But the less you use something because of your annoyance, then greater weight is added 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, which may hit your Credit Rating.
DO keep a diary and log of extra costs
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.
Also record 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. With holidays or fun activities, it's possible to get extra cash for inconvenience or distress.
DON'T lose paperwork or 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 usually is, such as a cheque book stub, bank statement or credit card statement. Don't post the originals to sellers, because you'll need a back-up.
DO say you're 'doing it under protest' if made to spend
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 for repair, is to say you are 'paying under protest'.
This will help your case if you need to take your complaint to court. If you do pay under protest you should send a letter by registered post as soon as possible explaining the reasons you have paid under protest, or write it on the company's copy of the receipt.
Step-by-step complaining help
Once you've prepared your case, there are several options you can use to try to put right a complaint. Follow the steps below to find the best route to fight for your rights.
Step 1: Complain in person
When starting a complaint it's best to not 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.
If you need advice on what to say, see the organisations that can help in the Free One-on-One Help section below.
Step 2: Complain in writing
If the store won't help, pen a complaint letter and send it to the head office. If it needs to go to a local office, it'll be passed on.
Send all letters by recorded delivery, so you can prove they received it, and always save a copy.
Your letter should mention any statutory rights you think have been broken. Also check the Advanced Consumer Rights section to see if there are other areas you can use to add weight to your complaint. Here are some template letters to help:
If you meet silence or the response is rubbish, write again and be persistent. If the seller offers to fix the fault and it still isn't resolved, you can ask for a refund later.
You don't have to accept a deal you're unhappy with. Yet always weigh up any offers against the headache of continuing – and it can sometimes be a real headache! – as if you can't get agreement with the shop, you may need to get legal.
Step 3: Do you have extra protection?
If complaining directly isn't working, check whether you have extra cover.
Section 75 for credit card purchases
If you used a credit card to pay for all or part of a purchase that costs between £100 and £30,000, your card issuer's equally liable for anything that goes wrong, thanks to Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. Read more
What's crucial to understand here is the way the law is phrased.
You've identical rights from the card company as the retailer, so if it says "go to the retailer first" it's wrong; there's no need
Having said that, often it's easier and quicker to deal with the retailer. Yet if the retailer goes kaput, it means you can claim the money back from the card company. Plus, even if the problem's just non-delivery or faulty goods, you've the same rights from the credit card company as from the retailer.
This also applies to purchases abroad, including things bought online, as well as in the UK, so simply claim directly from the credit card company and save yourself the hassle of contacting a company overseas. See the Section 75 guide for more details about how it works including free template letters.
There's a similar, though not as strong, route for purchases on debit cards, via chargeback schemes. This allows complaints within 120 days of purchase. See the Chargeback guide for more info.
Use a guarantee or warranty
If there are problems with a seller and you've a manufacturer's guarantee, these are in addition to your statutory rights and you can use the guarantee as well as your legal rights. Read more
Your contract is with the retailer or service provider, not the product manufacturer, so it is its responsibility to sort it out, providing that the product is breaking your statutory rights. So don't let the retailer fob you off, for example, by saying you must use the guarantee first to send a duff DVD player back to the manufacturer.
Guarantees offer a repair or replacement within a fixed time, eg, one year from the date you buy/install. They're handy if a retailer goes bust (see the Company Administration Help guide) or if a pal paid for the item.
Warranties are different. They're additional contracts you usually pay for when you buy something. Most warranties are a waste of cash, as they're over-expensive and under-claimed. Yet some multi-appliance policies can make them slightly cheaper. See the Free Warranties guide for ways to get free cover or maximise protection without one.
Step 4: Can an ombudsman help?
If you need to take things further, some industries have an additional level of support via a free to use ombudsman.
Ombudsmen, and organisations with similar remits, help with individual complaints, though you must try to sort it with the company first.
They can often be confused with other consumer organisations, such as regulators and watchdogs (see a full list in the Who's who section below).
Expand the full list of Ombudsmen.
Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS)
The FOS settles disputes between UK-based financial companies and customers who think they've been treated unfairly.
Consumer Council for Water
Resolves issues with water and sewerage companies.
In April 2011 the Energy Ombudsman and Otelo, the Telecommunications Ombudsman, merged to form the Ombudsman Services. It now deals with complaints about bills for your gas and electricity services, energy suppliers sales, problems changing your supplier and issues with many telephone, mobile and broadband providers.
Link: Ombudsman Services
Helps to sort issues with members of Cisas (many telephone, mobile and broadband providers).
Investigates complaints on how pension schemes are run or administered.
Link: Pensions Ombudsman
Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
Can help with complaints against government departments (not local councils) and the NHS, including GPs or dentists.
Looks into complaints about legal service providers, from solicitors to barristers, for all service areas including will-writing, conveyancing and more.
Link: Legal Ombudsman
The following organisations are not proper ombudsmen!
There are a few trade associations that have the word ‘ombudsman' in their title.
They may be able to help - see the section below - but they aren't proper ombudsmen. They include the Removals Industry Ombudsman, Funeral Ombudsman, Double Glazing and Conservatory Ombudsman Scheme (DGCOS) and The Furniture Ombudsman.
Step 5: Taking court action
If all else fails and the shop hasn't given you a satisfactory response, don't be disheartened – you have a legal right to fair service. Though the only person who can force action is a County Court judge (Sheriff Court in Scotland).
Yet before you get legal on their butts, you're expected to try to resolve things directly. Ideally, send a ‘letter before action’ to say you are going to take them to court. If you don't try, the judge is likely to look unfavourably on your case, so always use the steps above first.
Legal action in what's usually known as the "small claims court" is limited to claims under £10,000.
If this fits your claim, check the information below.
Understanding the small claims rules
Many people talk of going to the "small claims court". Yet it doesn't actually exist – it's actually a system within the civil claims procedure where many sub-£10,000 claims are allocated, where the judge makes the process as informal as possible.
In difficult cases, or those above £10,000, you're likely to end up in what's called the 'fast track' or the 'multi-track' system, which is beyond the scope of this guide. See the PDF guide on the HM Courts site for more info.
The small claims limit is £10,000 and you have six years to claim in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and five in Scotland.
Within the small claims system…
You shouldn't have the other party's costs awarded against you.If you lose a small claim, it's rare to have to pay the other side's costs, although a judge could decide you need to pay for a limited amount of their expenses. This could be up to £90/day for loss of earnings or leave to attend a hearing, and £750 if the judge gave them permission to get evidence from an expert. This is reversed if you win, as the other party doesn't have to pay your costs. So if you pay for legal advice, you're unlikely to get it back.
It's designed so you can go it aloneIn all but the most complicated cases, you shouldn't need the help of a solicitor and the small claims system is designed with this in mind. Free sources of help are listed in the Who's Who section.
You can claim for six years (five in Scotland)Goods or services purchased within what's called the ‘statute of limitations' (six years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and five years in Scotland) can be claimed for.
Try to keep claims under £10,000If not, you've less chance of being in small claims, which is by far the preferred way to do this. If you're just above the limit, consider lowering the asking amount down to £10,000 (even if your earlier letters demanded more).
There are different limits in Scotland, NI and the rest of EuropeIn Scotland and Northern Ireland the small claims maximum is £3,000. Across the rest of Europe, it's €2,000 using the European small claims procedure (get help from the European Consumer Centre).
There may be other fees to payAs well as the initial application fee (£25 to £210 to start your claim), you may need to pay a court allocation fee of £40 if your claim is over £1,500. You may also need to pay a hearing fee of £25-£325 (depending on the amount of your claim) if your case ends up in the courtroom.
Check the trader has the cash firstIf it's been a particularly bad battle and the business hasn't budged an inch throughout your complaint, it's worth taking a step back to consider if they will ever pay up. Unfortunately, even if you win in court, this still doesn't mean you're guaranteed the cash.
A small percentage of cowboy companies will do all they can to avoid paying out, even if you get the bailiffs on them. One way to check a company's history is to run a judgment search at the Registry Trust. It costs from £4 and it may help you decide if it's worth carrying on your claim.
Mediation may be offeredYou may feel like you want your day in court, but don’t rule out mediation which is likely to be offered to you once you are in the small claims process. If both sides agree to using mediation then you’ll be contacted by the Small Claims Mediation Service, which deals with monetary claims under £10,000 that are already going through the courts. There’s no charge for this as it’s covered by your initial fees. As most cases are dealt with by telephone, they save the time and the expense of having to go to court, meaning that the court will often encourage you to take this approach.
The real meat of your claim involves filling in a form called a Particulars of Claim (Statement of Claim in Scotland). This is a statement telling your side of the story. You need to include full details of what you're claiming for and why.
How to make a claim
Don't think it's always judges and wigs, this is often just a case of filling in a claim form online. Sometimes just the act of doing so will mean a company settles (assuming you've got a decent legal claim) so you might not have to go all the way to court.
The online claim systems are as follows:
In England and Wales. Use the Moneyclaim website. There's a starting fee of between £25 and £210, depending on the size of your claim, which can be paid by a credit or debit card. This fee is refunded if you win, but not if you lose.
If you don't have plastic to pay on, get the paperwork (form N1) to start the claim from your local county court and pay there, it's the same price. Fees may be waived if you're on benefits (see the EX160 Do You Have To Pay Fees? leaflet on the HMCS website).
In Scotland. You can't start an online claim in Scotland so you'll need to go to your local court.
In Northern Ireland. Use the Northern Ireland Courts online service.
What happens next?
This depends on whether the trader acknowledges your claim, which they have only 14 days to do.
It's common for claims to be undefended, which means you automatically win by default. At that point, you must request a ‘judgment by default', which can also be done online.
If the trader acknowledges, it has a further 14 days to enter a defence. Again, if this is missed you win by default and should also request a ‘judgment by default'.
Sadly, even if you win in court or by default it doesn’t mean they’ll pay up automatically. If the company doesn’t pay, you’ve a right to send bailiffs in to claim the money but it’ll cost you another £100.
As mentioned previously, always weigh up the costs and headache of continuing, before making a decision, sometimes it may be better to call it a day.
If the claim is defended, at this stage you'll be allocated a hearing date and will need to go along and explain your case.
Push it to the max (advanced complaining)
Knowing where you stand with consumer law can save you a bundle. Yet additional criminal laws also protect consumers.
Despite what you might see in The Sopranos or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, not every trader is out to steal our cash. But it can pay to be aware of criminal operations in case you run into a shadowy enterprise.
Businesses need to have "intentionally misled beyond all doubt" before they are considered criminal. If you suspect a company's breaking these laws, tell your local Trading Standards department or report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service.
You can't fight them as a consumer – only the authorities can bust these crimes – but you can use the rules to help fight your own legal battle. For example, if a trader has misled you, you can both report them and use your knowledge of the following rules in your own complaint...
The Trade Description Act, which was added to by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations in 2008, is similar to our civil consumer rights, but takes it a step further by making it a criminal offence for a company to describe goods or services falsely.
To commit a crime, the seller must know the description is false beforehand, but it can also be used in extreme cases where the information was accidentally incorrect, such as selling a ‘cut and shut' car unknowingly.
Crooks' favourite crimes include car clocking (changing the mileage), duping people with fake goods or describing a holiday misleadingly.
Your local Trading Standards can probe on behalf of consumers, and may be able to help get your money back, saving multiple county court claims.
The 2008 regulations are very important and a boon to consumers. They automatically outlaw 31 unfair practices, such as saying you belong to a trade association when you don't, pretending to be a customer (see the Ban for firms posing as happy customers online MSE News story) and competitions with no prizes.
Read the full list of offences
It's also illegal for a company to do something misleading, withhold information to try to mislead you or act aggressively towards you (for example, harassment or even physical force) so that you make a different decision to the one you would have otherwise made.
As an example, companies are not allowed to quote the wrong price. Though if it's a mistake, the company does not have to sell it to you dirt-cheap (of course, there's no harm asking). Price errors must be deliberate and systematic to be a crime.
Unsafe goods and food
All products and food for consumers must be safe. There are several laws to protect our tums from hazardous grub or exploding electrical goods, but the big one's the Consumer Protection Act. To see which products manufacturers sweep off the shelves, check on the Trading Standards Institute website for recalls.
If you suspect any food is harmful, eg, you have a nasty bout of food poisoning after visiting an eatery, tell the environmental health office in your local council. If it finds the food is unsafe following an investigation, it may help you make a civil claim.
For unsafe goods - for example, if an exploding cooker wrecks your house - you can sue anyone involved with the product such as the seller, manufacturer or importer. This can be complicated, so it's best to contact the Citizens Advice consumer service to discuss your case.
Where to get help – full who's who
If you've no luck sorting the problem yourself, it's time to bring in the heavies. A raft of organisations work to protect consumers. A few industries have a regulator, some have an ombudsman, others have watchdogs. Here's a quick guide to who's who how they can assist.
Free one on one help
There are two ways to get free individual help with any consumer rights question...
By phone or email
The main source of help for individual consumer issues is Citizens Advice on 08454 04 05 06. You can also fill in an online form and get an emailed reply.
An adviser will give you specific info for your case on how to complain, but can't intervene on your behalf.
Link: Citizens Advice
Citizens Advice bureaux help people resolve their legal, money and other problems, including consumer rights, by providing free info and advice.
You can find search for your nearest local bureau to get face to face advice.
Link: Citizens Advice
Outside the UK?
If you have a problem with a trader elsewhere in the EU, the European Consumer Centre (08456 04 05 03) may be able to help.
Link: European Consumer Centre
Further free direct info and advice
There are several other sources you may be able to use for free help such as online information, trade associations or your insurance provider. See the full list
Home or car insurance legal cover
Employer, trade union or healthcare assistance
Many big employers provide free 24-hour telephone helplines for staff, giving legal advice, amongst other help. Ask your HR department if your organisation has one. Often unions (including Unison and Unite) offer legal advice, while healthcare cashplans usually include a similar perk.
(The Civil Aviation Authority also has a consumer advice line to help with complaints to airlines or airports.)
Alternative dispute resolution
Link: Ministry of Justice
Ask on the Law Forum
Link: The Law Forum
Ombudsmen, and organisations with similar remits, help with individual complaints, though you must try to sort it by yourself with the company first. See the full list
Watchdogs do not usually have the power to force action on a company or industry or solve individual complaints. Yet they do encourage consumers to submit complaints, so they can spot areas that may need further investigation. See the full list
Office of Fair Trading (OFT)
The OFT aims to promote and protect consumer interests while making sure businesses are competitive and fair. It has powers to encourage businesses to comply with competition and consumer law and make recommendations to improve issues.
Link: Office of Fair Trading
Set up in 2008 by merging Postwatch, Energywatch and the National Consumer Council, Consumer Focus represents consumers' interests on a range of policy matters.
It also has the power to investigate energy and postal complaints made by or on behalf of vulnerable consumers, while its Extra Help Unit can help those threatened with disconnection.
Link: Consumer Focus
Competition Commission (CC)
The CC investigates mergers, markets and makes other enquiries when it appears that competition is not working well in a particular market.
Link: Competition Commission
Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)
Food Standards Agency
The FSA is a Government department set up to oversee food standards law.
Link: Food Standards Agency
Regulators have the power to force companies to follow the law, but they don't usually help with individual cases. See the full list
Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)
The FCA regulates most financial service companies including banks, insurance companies and financial advisors. It sets the standards they must meet and can take action against firms if they fail to meet the required standards.
Each individual council runs a trading standards department for its residents. Each region has slightly different processes and priorities, but they all enforce criminal legislation and some advise the public about their civil rights.
Ofgem is the regulator for Britain's gas and electricity industries. It aims to promote competition between the big energy companies and provide choice and value for customers.
Office of Water Services (Ofwat)
Ofwat is the regulator of water and sewerage in England and Wales.
Office of Communications (Ofcom)
Ofcom regulates the UK communications industries (television, radio, telecommunications, postal services and wireless communications).
Office of Rail Regulation (Orr)
Orr regulates the railways provided by Network Rail in Britain. It has a ‘Customer Correspondence Team' that may be able to help with complaints.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
The CAA is the UK's aviation regulator and covers airline safety and ensuring civil aviation standards are met.
Link: Civil Aviation Authority
Previously known as Icstis, Phonepayplus is the regulator for premium-rate telecommunications services charged to users' phone bills or pre-pay accounts. Here we're talking competitions, TV voting, helplines, adult entertainment, downloads, new alerts or interactive games.