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How to complain Know your consumer rights

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Don't get mad, get evenTo 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.

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...

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

And for services it's that they should be carried out with...

Reasonable care & skill, within a reasonable time & at a reasonable cost

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 happenStep one

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 timelineStep two

When you act can determine what help you're entitled to. There are three key points to bear in mind.

Have you accepted the goods?

While it can depend on the individual item, a good rule of thumb is: spot a problem in under a month, and you're unlikely to be seen as having accepted the goods.

It could take six weeks to check that repairs have fixed 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 you'll have fewer rights.

What to expect: A full refund, unless you've altered something. Examples include unlocking your phone handset to switch it to another network or taking up the hem of a dress.

Proving a fault later on

Since 2003, consumers have had extra benefit from The Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations. When goods are faulty, if you return them within six months then the shop has to prove they weren't faulty when you bought them.

What to expect: Your choice of repair, replacement or a partial refund. Whether to ask for a repair or replacement is your choice. Yet the retailer can say no if the cost for it is too high. Instead, it can offer compensation; usually a partial refund or credit note.

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. If the item is still dodgy, you can ask for a refund at a later date.

More time to complain

Over six months, and it's more important for you to prove the good or service was faulty when you bought it. Yet there's another piece of legislation called the Limitations Act (it's the Prescriptions and Limitation Act in Scotland) that can help you out.

This says you have up to six years (five years in Scotland) after you bought a good to complain.

What to expect: Here, you're asking for damages, which generally means you should be put back into the same position you were in before things went wrong. This is likely to mean a partial refund, but can also include compensation for your time and other expenses incurred.

Above and beyond

If you have an old item that's faulty and over six years old, your chances of winning a complaint are slim, unless you have a longer guarantee. Yet if you think something should last longer, such as a car or a new roof, you still have the right to complain - but success is likely to come down to your negotiation skills.

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'TsStep three

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.

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

Complain in personWhen 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

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

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.

Step 5: Taking court action

This article is based on the process for England and Wales. We've included the basics for other jurisdictions, but for more, see Northern Ireland Courts and Scottish Sheriff Small Claims.

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.

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...

Misleading information

Watch out for crossed fingers!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.

Banned practices

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.

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

Be aware of unsafe goods and foodAll 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

Free individual help with any consumer rights question is available from...

Citizens Advice Bureau logoCitizens Advice consumer service

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 or search for your nearest local bureau to get face to face advice.

An adviser will give you specific info for your case on how to complain, but may not be able to intervene on your behalf.

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

Ombudsmen

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

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

Regulators

Regulators have the power to force companies to follow the law, but they don't usually help with individual cases. See the full list


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