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What are your rights to a refund if you need to change or cancel a wedding?

What are your rights to a refund if you need to change or cancel a wedding?

With wedding and civil partnership ceremonies now (or soon to be) allowed to go ahead in some form, things have got a little more complicated than when you just couldn't marry. Now smaller ceremonies can take place, what are your rights if you can get hitched, but can't have the day of your dreams?

Around 250,000 marriages and civil partnership ceremonies take place every year in the UK. Yet those due to get hitched between March and June saw their big days cancelled due to lockdown. As that eases, people can once again stand in front of their partner and say "I do". But for many couples, it won't be that simple...

The problem is that ceremonies can take place... BUT receptions can't

As part of the easing of lockdown, all four governments in the UK have allowed (or will soon allow) wedding ceremonies to take place in one form or another. As the table below shows, you can now have your ceremony regardless of where you live, yet receptions are still subject to the normal lockdown rules on social gatherings.

Here are the current rules in different parts of the UK:

TABLE_CELL_STYLE What's allowed for the ceremony? What's allowed for the reception?
England From 4 July, up to 30 people provided they're socially distanced (this includes the wedding party, officiants, registrars, photographers etc). Up to two families if held indoors or up to six people from different households if outdoors.
Scotland From 29 June, up to eight people at an outdoor ceremony. Those eight people should be from no more than three households (the officiant/registrar does not count towards this household limit). Eight people can meet outdoors provided they are from no more than three households. 
Wales Ceremonies can take place in registry offices and places of worship if they choose to open. No numerical limit on guests, but must be appropriate for the size of venue to maintain social distancing. Two households can meet outdoors.
Northern Ireland Ceremonies can take place outdoors with up to 10 people present. Six people can meet indoors or 30 people can meet outdoors.

For most couples, the reception is the biggest wedding expense, and these unfortunately can't take place in the way they usually do. This, and the limited number of guests allowed at the ceremony itself, will leave many couples with some agonising choices – whether to go ahead or postpone and, if going ahead, who to de-invite and whether they should try to get a refund on things they've already paid for.

Your rights - FAQs

Our Twitter feed is full of people confused about their rights now they are allowed a slimmed-down wedding, such as Helen, who tweeted: “@MartinSLewis We’ve postponed our wedding until Oct 2020 from March due to coronavirus. If we are only allowed 30 guests, are we entitled to a refund for the rest?”

There’s little you can do about the government restrictions, but here are some key questions answered … Of course, much will depend on your contract, so the advice is to check that carefully too.

  • If you do decide to go ahead, it’s likely your big day will sadly not be quite so big. Whether this entitles you to a discount, depends on the services offered.

    Pranav Bhanot, a litigation solicitor at Meaby & Co, says: “Where the cost of the service is contingent on the number of people attending the wedding or reception, it is likely to be unfair for the supplier to charge the same price when fewer guests will be in attendance. After all this would constitute an unfair windfall for the benefit of the supplier and to the detriment of the consumer.”

    So, for example, the bill for food, drinks and bar services, should reflect the lower head count. If you were paying £40 per head for catering for 100, you shouldn’t still pay £4,000. Unfortunately, the venue hire charge is likely to stay the same, as the cost of exclusive hire would be the same no matter how many guests. The same goes for a DJ or live band.  “This is because the service would need to have been supplied irrespective of the number of people in attendance,” says Bhanot.

  • Read your contract carefully here. First, never to just simply the wedding without checking your contract, as you could be in breach of contract. Ultimately, you should be able to cancel, though where the venue’s incurred costs specifically for your wedding (eg, bespoke centre pieces) they may be entitled to keep that sum.

    Emma Ward, a partner at Nelsons Solicitors, says: “If a couple wanted to cancel their wedding because of the strict limit on numbers/impact of social distancing on their wedding, they would be able to do so if they could demonstrate that this significantly changes the nature of their big day beyond what could reasonably have been contemplated when they first signed up. In such a situation, the contract could be considered to be ‘frustrated’ and so terminated.”

    It might not be that easy though. Adam Swirsky, a barrister at Lamb Chambers, says: “Given that you are not getting what you asked for (albeit not at the venue's choice) I would have thought that you could cancel. I suspect, however, that this will lead to an acrimonious argument with the venue.” If your venue isn’t helpful, see below for more information on your next steps, including if you should take it to court.

  • Yes, you can always ask for a reduction. And remember, you’ll get further by doing this with charm and a smile. Aggression never helps - you want to win them to your side.

    Whether you’ve a right to a discount is a different thing. It’s likely it will be easier to ask for a reduction on services that are usually charged per head, such as food or table decorations. It’s also worth checking the contract to see if it lets you ask for a reduction based on the number of guests attending too.

    Ward says: “Asking for a reduction would be a request to vary the contract. You cannot insist that the venue agrees to a reduction, but I would thoroughly encourage venues and couples to talk to each other, to see if agreement can be reached.”

  • It’s likely to be considered unfair for the venue to pocket the cash if the event’s not going ahead. The Competition and Markets Authority said it would usually expect customers to be given a full refund if restrictions mean a service can't be provided or accessed, so you could use this to argue for a refund. Though as before, the venue can keep costs incurred specifically for your wedding.

    Ward says: “If the contract doesn’t address this particular circumstance, then I do not think the venue could insist on [move the reception] – it’d be a variation to the contract which the couple would have to agree to. In the unlikely event that the contract does set out a right for the venue to insist upon this, it is difficult to see how a term of contract such as this (that’d allow for the venue to unilaterally decide when the reception will take place)  would be considered to be fair.”

  • This depends on whether you were having the service and reception at the same place. Bhanot says: “Where the ceremony and reception are due to take place at the same venue and you have entered into the same contract for both, a couple may argue that on the basis that the reception was dependent on the wedding ceremony taking place, the contract has been frustrated and the parties are discharged from future obligations (including payment terms).

    “Where the wedding ceremony and reception are at two different venues and a couple are bound by different contracts, the position is more complicated, and it may not be so straightforward for a couple to avoid their payment obligations. In these circumstances, couples should check their contract terms carefully to see whether any provisions can assist them.”

Step-by-step help to try to get wedding refunds

You'll first need to decide what course of action you want to take. Provided your wedding venue has reopened (not all will be able to if they can't make it safe), you have two main options:

  1. Postpone the whole wedding to a later date
  2. Go ahead with the ceremony, but without a reception

Which one you pick will depend partly on how wedded (sorry!) you were to the day you had planned. However, it's best to be flexible, as not all venues and suppliers will be able to recreate your perfect day on a different date. Either way, there'll be lots to sort out, but the steps below should at least help you know where to begin.

Step 1: Talk to your venue and suppliers

If you're trying to postpone the whole day, then this will likely be the main step (and possibly the only one) you will need to take. Do try to be flexible with dates, as it's likely your venue, photographer, caterers and other suppliers will have bookings far into the future – so they may not all be available on the same rescheduled date. If that's the case, you may need to ask for individual refunds, or be prepared to lose deposits with some.

Anecdotally, we've heard venues and suppliers are generally doing their best to help couples reschedule. If yours aren't playing ball, follow the steps below to see if you can get your money back another way.

If you're going to go ahead with the ceremony, but not the reception, then work out whose services you'll still need and which you'll try to seek refunds from.

For example, you might still be able to use your wedding clothes, flowers, officiant, registrar and photographer. Yet you won't need the caterer, cake, reception venue (if different from the ceremony), band or DJ. So you'll need to check your contracts with those suppliers to discover what your cancellation terms are.

If you find a supplier that's not willing to engage or is demanding excessive amounts of cash to cancel, the rest of the guide's here to help with that.

Martin: 'Remember, wedding suppliers may be struggling too'

"Right now, even in our commercial relationships, we should try not to be adversarial. We want firms to show us patience, compassion and forbearance. Yet equally, when our entire economy and way of life is under threat, we must try to return it. Many firms, especially smaller ones, are struggling to cope, and this may include your hairdresser, florist or photographer.

"So even though you may have a right to a refund, if the supplier is struggling and does its best to provide a reasonable alternative, for example, offering to provide the service on a different day, do take time to consider it. It may be that meeting it in the middle is what keeps the supplier financially above ground and protects jobs.

"And this is especially true for weddings, after all if everyone is reasonably happy, it'll make for a better day. Having your reception somewhere where there is bad blood between you and the venue isn't a great recipe."

Step 2: If you have insurance, check if you're covered

If you got wedding insurance when you started booking your special day, check what it'll cover. All insurers say you should talk to the suppliers first to see if you can get a refund or part-refund from them.

Most wedding insurance providers DON'T cover cancellations due to Government restrictions, and the only one we spoke to covers the difference in cost between the wedding you had planned and the wedding you're able to have if you choose to go ahead with a small ceremony (and even then it's on a case-by-case basis). 

Here's what the main wedding insurance providers have told us...

Wedding insurance – what are you covered for?

Insurer (1) Covers difference in cost if you have a smaller wedding? Covers cancellation if venue can't open? Covers cancellation for illness or supplier no-shows? Will your insurer still provide cover if you postpone?
Debenhams No No Yes Yes – if rescheduled within two years
Dreamsaver No No Yes Yes – if rescheduled within two years
Emerald No No Yes Yes
John Lewis Case-by-case (2) Yes Yes Yes
WeddingPlan No No Yes Yes – if rescheduled within two years

(1) We also asked Wedding Insurance Solutions about its policies, but it wouldn't specify what cover is available in these scenarios. (2) Whether you're covered will depend on your circumstances and what Government restrictions are in place on the venue(s).

However, check your policy wording carefully – some wedding insurance policies do say in their policy wording that it covers pandemics. If yours says it does in the policy wording, but the insurer isn't paying out, then you need to complain.

In many ways, this is similar to a lot of businesses who took out business interruption insurance that should have covered them for pandemics. The insurance regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, is taking those business insurers to court in a test case to try to get claims justice for policyholders there.

While it's not directly relevant to wedding insurance, the case may have implications for other areas of insurance, including how firms treat claims.

But if making a formal complaint to your insurer doesn't get you anywhere...

... escalate your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman

The free Financial Ombudsman is an independent adjudicator which will make the final decision on a claim if you are locked in a dispute with your insurer. It can also take "industry standard practice" into account when deciding how your insurer should have treated your claim, as well as the policy wording.

Step 3: Try using credit or debit card refund services

Which route you go down here depends on whether you paid your fees by debit or credit card. If you paid using a bank transfer, these routes aren't open to you, so skip to the next section.

If you paid on a debit card, try a chargeback

There's valuable hidden protection on Visa, Mastercard and Amex credit cards, as well as debit and charge cards. It's called 'chargeback' and means if you don't receive the goods you bought, or a service wasn't provided, you may be able to get your money back.

In chargeback, your bank asks for money back from the supplier's bank, which will then try to reclaim it from the supplier itself – in this case, it could be the caterer or the band or DJ. However, the supplier will also get the chance to provide evidence to disprove the chargeback. For example, if your contract says no refunds will be provided in the event of cancellation, this would be evidence the supplier could present to get the chargeback reversed.

If the supplier has acted at all times in accordance with the contract you signed, then it's unlikely your bank or card company will be able to help – it's not there to judge whether a contract is fair or not (if this is the case, make the chargeback claim anyway, as you can then escalate your complaint to the ombudsman, which can use more than contracts or law to adjudicate).

A word of warning – you tend to get the money back fairly quickly if you make a chargeback claim. However, the supplier has about a month to challenge the chargeback, and if your bank is satisfied with the supplier's evidence that it's acted lawfully, it'll "re-present" the charge back on to your card and effectively claw back the cash.

If you want to go ahead, you can find out more and how to make a claim in our Chargeback guide, including what your options are if the money's clawed back.

If you paid by credit card, you can try a Section 75 claim (or chargeback)

Section 75 is an important UK consumer protection law made in the 1970s that means your credit provider MUST take the same responsibility as the retailer if things go wrong with a purchase.

The law means your credit card must protect purchases costing over £100 for free, so if there's a problem you could get your money back. This little-known scheme's taken on much more importance in recent weeks, as coronavirus has led to a spate of cancellations, with many asking if Section 75 could help.

The key to Section 75 is that the supplier must be in breach of its contract with you. So, for example, if a catering supplier had a clause in its contract that you could get a full refund if the reception's cancelled by events beyond your control, but then doesn't actually give you the refund you're contractually entitled to.

If it's acting according to the terms of the contract, then you're unlikely to win the Section 75 claim, as the bank's not there to decide if the contract is fair (if this is the case, make the claim anyway, as you can then escalate your complaint to the ombudsman, which can use more than contracts or law to adjudicate).

To make a claim, you need to contact your credit card company (you can still claim on an account that's since been closed), not Visa, Mastercard or Amex. So if you've got a HSBC Mastercard, you claim from HSBC, not Mastercard.

For full information on how to do a claim, see our Section 75 guide.

If you paid on a credit card, you can also do a chargeback (see the section above). It's likely the credit card issuer would be happier for you to do a chargeback than it would be for you to do Section 75 (with chargeback it gets money from the site owner's bank, with Section 75 it could be liable). Yet the warnings in the section above also apply here.

If you're turned down for Section 75 or chargeback, escalate your complaint to the free Financial Ombudsman

If the bank or lender turns you down on chargeback or Section 75, you can go to the ombudsman. The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) is free, and while it looks at your contract and the law, it also looks at standard industry practice and whether you've been treated fairly and reasonably. This gives extra hope if your case falls foul of the letter of the law, but your treatment hasn't been right.

The FOS has advised it has limited availability on its phone lines at the moment and has asked that, where possible, you contact them online instead to keep this service for urgent queries and key workers. To submit a new complaint, use its online form. If you're after an update on an existing case, send an email quoting your case reference number or send a direct message on its social media channels.

Over to Martin...

Martin: 'The Financial Ombudsman has a real advantage over court'

"If your claim is rejected, you can escalate it to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). It will then adjudicate over whether the firm should pay out. The FOS has a real advantage over court, as firstly it's free (in court, you pay and only get the money back if you win), but also, crucially, it doesn't just look at the law, it looks at standard industry practice and fairness too. See our Financial Ombudsman guide for what to do."

Step 4: Report the firm if it's not treating you fairly

On 30 April 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into firms that fail to give customers proper refunds for coronavirus-related cancellations, and will be partly focusing on wedding providers.

It's also said it would usually expect customers to be given a full refund if restrictions mean a service can't be provided or accessed, or if a firm cancels without providing the goods or service – so you could use this to argue for a refund if the provider refuses.

While this is trickier if the wedding can technically still go ahead, you could argue, for example, that your caterer should give you a full refund, as lockdown means you can't have food or drink at your wedding.

You can also report suppliers where you think the contract is unfair. For example, non-refundable deposits should be a small proportion of the total cost.

You can report a supplier that's behaving unfairly to the CMA using this online form. Bear in mind the CMA is not an ombudsman, so it won't rule on your individual case. However, if it receives a number of complaints about the same firms from different people, it may use that as the basis to take action.

Supreme Court Decision

Step 5: Take the supplier to court

If you are planning to go to court, you could set out the potential claim in writing as a "letter before action" – essentially a formal complaint stating your intention to pursue the matter through the courts. This is one final step you can take in the hope that the supplier sees that you're serious and makes you an offer to try to avoid you taking it to court.

If you do go to court, for a successful claim you'd need to show that the supplier has breached the contract you have with it, or that the contract was unfair to begin with. Know what you're asking for, and be ready with your reasoning.

Remember, if the contract said that if you cancelled you wouldn't be entitled to any money back, you wouldn't be able to go to court under breach of contract, but you may be able to contend that the contract was unfair – even though you agreed to it when you signed it. This might be, for example, if there were big fees to cancel or your non-refundable deposit was a large part of the total cost.

Going to court could be a last resort to get some of your money back – but it's a big step which should be carefully considered. If you decide to go down this route, you should be able to apply via the Money Claim Online system – see our Small Claims Court guide. It'll take work, but the process is designed to be done without a lawyer.

Should you use a solicitor?

Another option is enlisting a solicitor. This can be a costly process, so carefully consider if it’s worth it. Solicitors usually charge £250 to £700 to review the contract and send the venue a letter. If a claim went to trial, you could pay several thousand pounds in legal fees. To find a solicitor with specialist expertise, try the Law Society's Find a Solicitor tool.