'Give me my money back!'
Ever returned poor or faulty goods for the shop to simply dismiss your complaint? Now imagine walking down the high street, or contacting the company, this time covered in a glistening suit of consumer rights armour. Read on to find out what your consumer rights are, and what to do if your purchases go wrong.
Returning items during the coronavirus pandemic
With non-essential retailers closing across the UK, you may not be able to pop into your local store to return something.
Helpfully, a number of retailers are offering extended returns policies. For example, M&S says anything bought between 1 January - 26 March 2021 can be returned up to 30 April 2021. When we checked several of the big stores, they were extending returns for a set period from the date stores reopen. See Coronavirus Life-in-Lockdown Help for more info.
What are your consumer rights?
Your consumer rights protect you when you buy goods and services. This means you have rights by law, which a shop or service provider can't change.
Know your 'SAD FART' rights
This should be taught at school – everyone should know their basic statutory rights. 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...
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.
If you've got gift vouchers or cards, use them as soon as possible in case the store collapses. You may think that's a long shot, but a long list of firms have gone into administration in the past few years, including Debenhams, House of Fraser, Toys R Us, Maplin, and HMV.
When firms go into administration, it's perfectly legal for them to stop accepting gift vouchers, rendering them as worthless as the plastic or paper they're printed on.
What are my gift voucher rights if the company is in administration?
When this happens, the firm no longer exists in its previous form, so it doesn't have to fulfil all its promises, such as honouring gift cards.
A gift card is simply a promise that allows you to spend a certain amount in a store or on a website. Under insolvency law, it's up to the administrator whether to accept vouchers. In many cases, administrators stop accepting them.
Don't throw them away
Saying this, don't throw your vouchers away. Some administrators have changed their minds regarding gift cards, while other stores may start accepting them. With HMV, customers were given the option to exchange HMV gift cards bought at Tesco, Asda or Boots for vouchers for one of those stores.
Can I get my money back if gift cards are not accepted?
You do have a chance, but be prepared for the worst.
For purchases, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 states your credit card company must refund all purchases between £100 and £30,000 if you don't get the service or item you paid for.
However, the law is grey around gift cards. It's worth trying under Section 75, but there are no guarantees.
Alternatively, customers have the 'chargeback' option on credit and debit cards. If you claim within 120 days of something going wrong, Visa, Mastercard and American Express may give you your money back, regardless of the cost (other than a £10 minimum on Mastercard). Unlike Section 75, this is a customer service promise, not a legal requirement.
If you're not covered on plastic, you can try to claim the cash from the administrator by becoming an 'unsecured creditor'. Here, you become another person on the administrator's list of people it owes money to. But don't get your hopes up of this working.
Should I buy gift vouchers?
It's safest to stay clear of gift cards. Cash is boring, but is safer, more flexible and guarantees a gift of some sort.
With a gift voucher, if the company goes bust, there's no guarantee the voucher will be valid or accepted. Certainly, if you know or hear that a company may be in trouble, it's best to avoid buying gift cards or vouchers from them at all. Always do a Google search on the company before buying to double-check.
But we understand people want to buy them. If that's you, consider general vouchers valid at a host of stores, or just buying for mega-companies such as Amazon, Asda, John Lewis, M&S and Tesco. But even then, there's no 100% guarantee.
If something's faulty – in other words it breaks the SAD FART rules – returning it speedily is crucial.
Within 30 days.
You can usually still get a full refund due to what's called your 'short-term right to reject'. After that only expect exchange, repair or part-refund.
Within six months.
The shop must prove goods weren't faulty when they sold 'em – after that, you must prove they were.
These time limits define when you should take faulty goods back. They're totally separate to the "reasonable length of time" bit in the SAD FART rules, which define what counts as faulty in the first place.
What's 'reasonable'? It depends on the situation. Imagine asking a sensible friend's opinion. If you asked "is it reasonable for a £2,000 plasma telly to break after nine months?", they'd probably say no. But it probably is reasonable for a 50p torch to conk out in nine months.
For more info, see the Act as soon as possible section below.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? The 30-day 'short-term right to reject' doesn't apply – it was brought in as part of the Consumer Rights Act. Instead, you'll usually get a full refund if you take something back within four weeks of purchase.
Unless goods bought in store break the SAD FART rules, you've no legal right of return (thought the rules are different when buying online). So don't buy someone clothes assuming they can change the size if they don't fit.
Many shops will allow it, but they don't have to. Unless that is, they've got a published returns policy allowing it – then it's a contractual condition of sale, so they must obey it.
For more info, see the Can I Change My Mind? section below.
Legally, only the person who paid has a right to return faulty goods.
Yet on the receipt (preferably a bit the shop keeps, eg, the debit/credit card slip), note it's a gift and who it's for – "bought as a gift for Bob" – and the rights are transferred.
Again, some shops allow it regardless, but it's worth doing this just in case.
For more info, see the Can I return goods that are a gift? question below.
You've MORE rights buying online (or by telephone/catalogue) due to the Consumer Contracts Regulations. These give a legal right of 14 days to cancel the order after receiving it, and a further 14 days to send most goods back for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault. You'll usually need to pay for the return delivery.
For more info, see the Buying on the web, mail order or from home section below.
The "as described" part of the SAD FART rules is crucial.
Imagine you buy speakers for your TV, take them home and they don't connect to your specific television.
If you've proof (take notes if possible) the store said "it'll work with your telly", then it's not "as described", so you can return it. Yet if you didn't ask, and it's not in the literature, and the speakers still work if correctly plugged in, it's your problem – not the store's.
With faulty goods, you simply need to prove purchase. This could be the receipt, but any other legitimate record – such as a bank statement – should be fine.
However, if you've no legal right but are simply utilising a store's return policy, then you'll need a receipt if that's what the policy says.
If goods for Christmas – or another specific event – are late, you can only complain if you or the retailer specified (and can prove) it was for pre-Christmas delivery.
If that's the case, it's a breach of contract and you've a right to a refund. Though even if Christmas delivery isn't specified, things should be delivered within 30 days.
For more info see the Buying on the web, mail order or from home section below.
Pay for an item worth £100+ on a credit card and the card company's jointly liable with the retailer if something goes wrong. This gives you extra legal rights – see the Section 75 guide for more. Though only do this if you can clear the card in full next month to avoid interest.
Even if you don't have a legal right, companies' reputations depend on giving decent service. So you can always ask – and tell them you're disappointed if they don't help.
Whatever you bought, don't just quote the rights, say this… "according to the Consumer Rights Act 2015".
Saying this can make a powerful impression. 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.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Don't quote the Consumer Rights Act – it doesn't apply to things bought before then. Instead, quote the Sale of Goods Act 1979 for goods, or if it's a service, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 (common law in Scotland had a similar effect for services).
Understanding consumer rights 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'.
It's worth noting this law only applies to consumers, not to something you're buying in the course of a business (eg, from wholesalers such as Costco). However, it does apply to everything bought in the UK regardless of where the retailer is based (though if you bought something from, say, Outer Mongolia, it might prove tricky to enforce).
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? The laws only apply if the retailer is based in the UK or elsewhere in the EU – if you bought from elsewhere you're subject to the laws of that country. Digital content also wasn't covered separately prior to 1 Oct 2015 – it's just treated as a good or service.
The nitty-gritty of the law depends on whether you're buying goods, digital content or services.
1. Goods: Anything you can hold
Goods could be a T-shirt, toaster or a truck, whether new, second-hand or bought online.
Jump to the Goods buying rights section for full info on your rights.
2. Digital content: Data and anything digital
Officially described as "data which is produced and supplied in digital form" this includes things like computer games, films, downloaded music, ebooks or mobile phone apps.
Jump to the Digital content buying rights section for full info on your rights.
3. Services: Anything from dentists to restaurants
Whether it's fixing your teeth or filling your tummy, a service is a contract where a company has carried out some work for you.
Jump to the Service buying rights section for full info on your rights.
4. Mixed contracts: A combination of any of the above
If something you buy is made up of more than one type you need to look at the rights for the part that's faulty.
For example, the delivery (service) of a compact disc (goods) containing music (digital content) could use any of the rights available depending on what's gone wrong.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? If you bought goods with a service (eg, a handset with a mobile contract), your service buying rights apply (under the Supply of Goods and Services Act, or, in Scotland, common law had a similar effect) – even if it was the good (ie, the handset) that was faulty. The protection's the same as under the Sale of Goods Act, though – it's just that you need to quote the services law.
Your rights when buying goods
The legal protection you have here is from Part 1 Chapter 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This sledgehammer cracks any nut.
At this point, it's crucial to understand each line of the SAD FART mantra and exactly how it works.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Your legal protection's under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 rather than the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
Goods must be 'satisfactory' and 'as described'
Now 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 a reasonable person would 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 and 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.
Goods must be 'fit for purpose' AND 'last a reasonable length of time'
This 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.
Something faulty? You can get a full refund within 30 days
This is a nice new addition to our statutory rights. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 changed our right to reject something faulty, and be entitled to a full refund in most cases, from a reasonable time to a fixed period (in most cases) of 30 days.
After that, you lose the short-term right to reject the goods and you'll have fewer rights, such as only being able to ask for a repair or replacement, or a full or partial refund if this doesn't work.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Under the Sale of Goods Act, an item still has to be fit for purpose – but you have a 'reasonable length of time' rather than the fixed 30-day period to get a full refund.
Other key need-to-knows
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? You have the same rights but they are under the The Sale And Supply of Goods To Consumers Regulations 2002.
This is the law BUT in reality shops usually give you more leeway (though this is often suspended in sales)
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 35 days to return it. There are some exclusions including perishable goods, made-to-order products or opened computer software, which must be faulty or not as described to be refunded or exchanged.
- Waterstones. If you're unhappy with your purchase you can return it in a resalable condition with proof of purchase within 60 days. Gift cards are excluded.
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.
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 digital content
The Consumer Rights Act introduced specific new rights to protect you when buying digital content (it's Part 1, Chapter 3, if you want to look it up).
Before the act came into force on 1 Oct 2015 (or still, for anything bought before then) you didn't have separate rights for digital content – you had to use the goods and service rights, which didn't always apply well to digital items.
The new law applies to any digital content, whether it's a Blu-ray disc containing a film that can be physically touched, or a downloaded film that can't be. It also applies to any updates and modifications made to the content for six years after you've had it.
The SAD FART rules still apply to digital content – it needs to be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for the purpose and last a reasonable length of time. But there are a few differences with digital content as well.
1. There's no automatic right to a full refund within 30 days
If the digital content doesn't measure up you can ask for a repair or replacement. If the repair or replacement doesn't work, or isn't possible, you can then ask for a reduction in price instead.
The law says that a full refund may be given "where appropriate", so act quickly and you may actually get all of your money back – but in general this is likely to be a partial refund.
2. Compensation is available if the content damages your device
If you can show the faulty digital content has caused damage to your device or other digital content you're also entitled to compensation for the damage caused, or to get the damaged item repaired.
This might apply if, for example, a downloaded music track caused your MP3 player to play up, or an updated app deleted movie files from your mobile. Any repairs needs to be done in a reasonable time and compensation paid within 14 days.
3. It doesn't cover free content, unless you paid for something else to get it
You need to have paid for the content, either with cash or something like a gift voucher, token or virtual money in a game, to be eligible to use these rights. This includes buying something that includes free digital content, like software with a computer.
If something was free, and it damages your device, you won't be able to use the Consumer Rights Act. But you might still be able to get compensation via a different route – complain to the retailer in the first instance, but ultimately you might have to go to court.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Digital content wasn't covered separately – it was just treated as a good or service (for example, a Blu-ray would count as a good, while downloaded music would count as a service). So the usual rights for goods or services apply instead.
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 Part 1 Chapter 4 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
Quite simply, it demands that any service should be carried out with...
Reasonable care and skill,
Within a reasonable time,
At a reasonable price.
What counts as '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 is of the essence', which'll give you stronger rights if there's a problem.
- Reasonable price. 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.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Essentially you had the same rights but they were under the The Supply of Goods and Services Act (common law in Scotland had a similar effect).
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. Thanks to the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, in most cases you have the right to cancel your order and get a refund – even if you've just changed your mind.
When do I have the right to cancel?
The Consumer Contracts Regulations apply to contracts for goods or services (including digital content) of any value ordered from an EU-based business via mail order, phone or online. You're also protected if buying something costing more than £42 away from a normal seller's premises (usually at your home or work).
I got a present from someone who bought it online. Can I return it?
Importantly, these rights only apply to the person who bought the item, so it's trickier if you want to return a present you got. The store may ask that the original purchaser return it.
How long do I have to cancel?
Here it depends what you're buying:
- Goods: 14 calendar 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.
Other key questions:
- 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
The business will give you a cancellation form, which it must acknowledge receipt of . 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 send a 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.
The seller must then pay back any cash within 14 days of it receiving the goods or being told you want to cancel a service or digital contract.
Your refund 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.
If you pay online and then collect goods from a 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.
It depends whether it was reasonable for you to open the packaging.
For example, if you're sending a toy back because it was the wrong colour, it would be reasonable for you to open the parcel and take it out of the bubble wrap, but it would not be reasonable for you to remove the toy from a sealed clear plastic bag as you would have been able to see it was the wrong colour without taking it out.
The trader could knock money off your refund if they think you opened parts of the package unnecessarily, as they can claim it has reduced its value.
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.
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.
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.
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 this website for Government legislation on timeshare and your right 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 – and politely ask to speak to a supervisor.
The complaint checklist:
When complaining, don't get angry. 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/keep the digital content/continue the service? If you could get the goods fixed, the digital content replaced or have 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 you've spent sorting it or the 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.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Digital content wasn't covered separately – it was just treated as a good or service (for example, a Blu-ray would count as a good, while downloaded music would count as a service). So the usual rights for goods or services would apply.
In a nutshell return something in 30 days and in most cases you'll get a full refund. Miss this and your rights reduce.
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.
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.
What if you've taken longer to return the goods?
If you take longer than 30 days to return the item, you'll have to choose between a repair or a replacement. The retailer can veto either though if it's impossible to carry out a repair or the cost of a replacement is much higher than that of a repair.
If the item is still dodgy after just one attempt at a repair or replacement, the repair or replacement isn't possible or it hasn't been carried out quickly enough you're then entitled to ask for a refund – this could be the full amount within the first six months, or otherwise is likely to be a partial refund.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? You still need to act as soon as possible – but 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 a 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.
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 you've taken longer to return the goods? If you're deemed to have accepted the goods, you're unlikely to get a full refund although you are likely to be entitled to a repair or replacement.
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. Yet if the item continues to have problems, you can still ask for a refund at a later date.
Whether to ask for a repair or replacement is your choice. The retailer can say no to either if the cost for them is too high. Instead, they can offer compensation, usually a partial refund or credit note.
No matter what the solution, you should be put back into the same position that you were in before things went wrong. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
Here's some help with a few of the most common questions.
The sign's everywhere, but many customers and staff don't have a clue what it means. Yet every consumer should try to have at least the basic rights in their mental arsenal. The key is to understand there are two main factors at play.
Shops' own returns policy
Buy something in a store and UNLESS it's faulty, you have NO LEGAL RIGHT to return it. Yet, to protect their reputation, many stores DO allow it under their returns policies. When this is published, it becomes a legal part of your purchase and contract, so they're bound by it.
Your statutory rights
When goods are faulty many staff wrongly think their returns policies still rule, but the law is more important than any shop procedure. Under the Consumer Rights Act you've a legal right to a refund if you return faulty goods quickly enough.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015. All goods had to obey the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and if not, they were legally faulty. So return them quickly enough and you've a legal right to a FULL refund.
Many of us have bought something only to later decide it's unsuitable or unneeded. Yet shops are under no obligation to take your goods back, just because you've changed your mind, only when they're faulty.
The exceptions to this are when buying on the internet, mail order or financial agreements, when you often have cancellation rights.
But even when you don't have rights, plenty of companies do still give refunds. These are mainly high street stores with returns policies allowing you to simply take back whatever you want within a set timeframe. You're less likely to be able to change your mind for a service contract that's started, though.
These goodwill policies have encouraged more and more customers to expect this as a right, even though it doesn't always apply.
This doesn't mean you can't ask, though. Shops would rather keep customers happy than be sticklers for the rules. They consider all customers to be potential clients who will use their services or buy their products again and again.
Scottish bank notes aren't legal tender... even in Scotland. In fact, confusingly there are no legal tender notes in Scotland – Bank of England notes are only legal tender in England and Wales.
Yet that doesn't mean Scottish bank notes can't be used in transactions. They are a legal currency defined by the UK Parliament, and perfectly acceptable for transactions across the UK. (Though technically a shop can refuse to take any note, English or Scottish, and just not sell you the goods.)
Legal tender technically just means that by law it cannot be refused as a settlement of debt, so a store can accept any currency it likes – such as euros – if it decided to. See the Bank of England for more details.
Sorry, that's an urban myth. Shops don't have to sell anything to you if they don't want to, regardless of price. Yet deliberately misleading you is criminal.
First let's look at a genuine mistake – a £50 jacket racked up in a long line of other coats all at £500. Here, you have to accept the shop's error. (If it does take your money and later says that it shouldn't have though, it doesn't matter – the contract's made and it's yours.)
However, if the shop was intentionally misleading – let's say it ran a price promotion promising lots of goods at dirt-cheap prices that fail to emerge, or you complained and it put the goods back on the shelf at the same price – then it's a potential criminal offence and Trading Standards officers can send in their heavies to investigate.
Online is where things get slightly more tricky – your rights are the same, but when the retailer's deemed to have "accepted" your order is much less clear-cut. There's no overarching rule and it's a point which hasn't yet been fully settled in law.Don't think it's simply when you enter your card details – it could be when you get a confirmation email, some retailers reserve the right to cancel right up until delivery and others even include a specific clause in their T&Cs to cover price glitches, saying they don't have to sell if the price was low due to an error. So it all comes down to checking the T&Cs and seeing at what point the contract becomes legally binding.
Finally, if you spot a mispriced mistake, don't be afraid to haggle. Although it doesn't have to, the retailer may sell it to you at the knock-down price as a gesture of goodwill.
This is a tricky area in consumer rights. Technically when something's free there's no contract with the supplier, so you're not entitled to get a faulty item fixed.
Yet if it was a free gift as part of a purchase, eg, if you sign up for a mobile contact and get a laptop with it – that's different. Here, you've exactly the same SAD FART rights as if you'd paid for it. Most sellers are aware of this, but, if they try to fob you off, stand your ground.
On the surface, the answer is no as you've no contract with the seller – it's the person who pays for the item who has the contract and will need to sort out any problems.
Yet for faulty items this can be overcome either with a gift receipt, or (if the shop doesn't offer one) if the buyer tells the seller they are passing on the rights by "conferring the benefit of the contract" under the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties Act) 1999.
In plain English, this means you need to make it clear – ideally in writing – you're buying for someone else by stating their name or giving a particular description, such as them being a family member, eg, getting the store to write "this is a gift for Martin Lewis" on the receipt at the time of purchase. This extra term then becomes part of your contract too.
Therefore if the item turns out to be faulty, you as the recipient (with a gift receipt) should be able to return the item for a refund (though the retailer may insist that the payment be refunded to the same card).
However if the gift was bought online and you simply don't want it, rights under the Consumer Contracts Regulations only apply to the original purchaser, so the store may insist that they be the one who return it.
As with other rights, stores do often provide over and above their obligation. Yet there's no harm in remembering to tell them it's a gift if you buy an expensive present for someone.
If you're simply exchanging goods that aren't faulty – then yes, as you have no legal rights to exchange non-faulty items, so if that's the store policy, that's it. If you do get a credit note – watch out for the restrictions as to how and when you can spend it.
Yet if the goods are faulty (ie, they break the SAD FART rules) then your statutory rights override the store's policy. Provided you take it back in time (see Act as soon as possible) you have a right to a full refund.
Your statutory consumer rights always apply. A trader can offer different rights if it wants, but only as long as they are on top of your statutory rights.
Yet some companies do try to say your statutory rights are not valid because there's a term in your contract that says so; for example them stating "We do not provide refunds", "We are not responsible if you are injured" or "We are not liable for property left unattended". These are called exclusion clauses.
If there are exclusions, your contract should also include the words "this does not affect your statutory rights", to show that written terms are not as important as consumer laws.
Companies try to get away with these terms in their contracts relying on lack of knowledge and consumer apathy to put consumers off making a claim. But exclusion clauses are often invalid and you can still complain.
While it may sound reasonable for loss or damage to be a consumer's responsibility, and in many cases it is, providers are also responsible for providing a reasonable duty of care for you or your possessions. So, for example, while they wouldn't be responsible if a member of the public swiped your bag while left unattended, they would be at fault if the bag was locked away where only their staff had access to it.
In most cases, you need to take action yourself following the steps in this guide. But it's a good idea to report suspected problems to your local Trading Standards office as it could also be a criminal offence to try to exclude something – see our How to complain guide for full help.
The individual terms in your contract should not create an advantage for the seller and a detriment to the consumer. If they do, they can be considered unfair under Part 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
There's no better case to illustrate the issue of unfair contract terms than the Bank Charges campaign. Here, a major legal battle went through the UK courts to try to determine whether it was fair for the banks to have been levying charges on consumers of up to £39 for a breach of overdraft.
The case was based on a previous version of the law, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, but it was very similar in content. Although this test case did not win, it highlights a crucial point – you can challenge the fairness of any term you feel is unfair.
We're not saying this is easy to do – in fact it may be an uphill struggle. Yet knowing your rights and threatening action can sometimes be enough to get a complaint sorted.
There's no hard and fast rule on what is unfair, yet some examples of unfair contract terms include:
"We accept no responsibility for faults discovered after purchase."
"Non-delivery does not give the consumer the right to cancel the contract."
"The company may, at any time, vary or add to the contract as it deems necessary." (This last example is similar to the reason we are able to reclaim Mortgage Exit Administration Fees.)
If you think a term in your contract is unfair, point it out to the retailer and ask for it to be taken out, or for compensation if it causes you imbalance. Unfortunately if the supplier disagrees, only the courts can decide if a term is unreasonable and unfair so you will need to start County Court action to find this out.
There's also The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which says businesses must not mislead consumers or subject them to aggressive commercial practices such as high pressure selling techniques. Read more in the How to Complain guide and if you think you have been treated unfairly, contact Citizens Advice to discuss your individual case.
Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Essentially the same rules apply to – it's just the relevant legislation is the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, not the Consumer Rights Act.
No. You're not buying things in the same way – yet overall, you probably have more rights as under banking regulations you have a right to be "treated fairly" and this can be adjudicated by the free Financial Ombudsman Service.
If you think you have been treated badly by a financial company, write to complain.
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