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How to Complain

Bad service or dodgy goods? Don't take it lying down

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Wendy | Edited by Martin

Updated November 2017

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, dodgy digital content and shoddy services, plus a new free online tool which helps draft your complaint and manage it too.

The law changed. The Consumer Rights Act came into force on 1 Oct 2015. This guide focuses on your rights for items purchased after 1 Oct 2015 - but where the rules differ for items bought before then we've made it clear.

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 and digital content, 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 and skill,
Within a reasonable time,
At a reasonable price.

What can I get?

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...

how to complain

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/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 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.

Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Digital content wasn't covered separately prior to 1 Oct - 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.

Check the compensation timeline

When you act can determine what help you're entitled to. Here's what to bear in mind:

Are you returning the goods within 30 days?

how to complain

Under the Consumer Rights Act you now have the right to reject something faulty within 30 days of buying it - and in most cases get a full refund. (This is called your 'short-term right to reject'.)

This right applies to all goods unless they are likely to perish within 30 days, when the time limit becomes the date the item is expected to perish, for example the use-by date for food.

If you act within this time, and you send the goods back if asked by the trader, you’re entitled to a full refund. The refund needs to be paid without any delays and within 14 days at the most. After 30 days have elapsed though, you lose the right to reject the goods and you'll have fewer rights.

What to expect: A full refund, unless you've altered something - for example, if you've taken up the hem of a dress or unlocked your phone handset to switch it to another network.

Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Under the Sale of Goods Act you have a 'reasonable length of time' rather than the fixed 30-day period to return items and get a full refund.

Proving a fault later on

When goods are faulty, if you try to return them within six months then the shop has to prove they weren't faulty when you bought them.

What to expect: You can ask for either a repair or replacement, though the retailer can say no if it's impossible to carry out or the cost of your choice is much higher than them for the alternative.

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. Within the first six months this could be the full amount.

Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? You're able to choose repair, replacement or a partial refund. Whether to ask for a repair or replacement is your choice. Yet the retailer could say no if the cost of repair or replacement is too high and they could instead offer compensation; usually a partial refund or credit note.

More time to complain

how 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 Limitation Act (it's the Prescription and Limitation Act in Scotland) that can help you out.

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

What to expect: Here, you have the same rights as above, ie, your choice of repair or replacement or a partial refund if this doesn’t work out. However, the partial refund can be reduced to take account of the use you’ve had of the item above and beyond six months, so you’ll get much less back if you’ve had something for five years rather than one year.

There’s one exclusion to the ‘deduction for use’ rule and that’s for motor vehicles. If you’re returning a car, motorcycle or other vehicle the partial refund can include time prior to the six-month deadline.

In both cases – before and after six months – you’re also entitled to ask for other remedies or damages. This generally means you should be put back into the same position you were in before things went wrong. As well as your partial refund this can include compensation for your time and other expenses incurred.

Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? You are asking for damages, which generally mean you should be put back into the same position you were in before things went wrong. It is likely to mean a partial refund, but it could 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.

Quick question

I heard I will also be protected by EU laws, is that true?

The Complaint Checklist

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

DON'T carry on using it

DO keep a diary and log of extra costs

DON'T lose paperwork or evidence

DO say you're 'doing it under protest' if made to spend

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.

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 or on credit cards under £100 spending, via chargeback schemes. See the Chargeback guide for more info.

how to complain

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.

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, two years 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-by-step complaining help

Once you've prepared your case, there are several ways you can 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 - or use a free online tool to help

ResolverIf the company won't help over the phone, the easiest way to take your complaint further is using this free online tool which helps draft your complaint and manage it too.

It's totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much, we work with it to help people get complaints justice. What's more, if your complaint isn't resolved by the firm you're complaining too, where possible Resolver will help escalate it too.

Alternatively, if the firm you're complaining about isn't covered by Resolver - or you prefer to complain direct - you can write your own complaint letter and send it to the company's 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:

Free goods and services template letters: Download and alter them to fit your complaint.

Complain about goods | Complain about digital | Complain about services

Bought something prior to 1 Oct 2015? Use these letters instead:

Complain about goods | Complain about services

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: 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).

If you’ve used the Resolver tool in Step 2 above your complaint will be sent straight to any relevant ombudsman at the right time. If you complained directly, find the best ombudsman for your complaint in the list below.

Expand the full list of Ombudsmen.

Step 4: 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.

Understanding the small claims rules

Push it to the max (advanced complaining)

how to complain

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 report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service and they will pass to the relevant trading standings office.

You can't always use these rules to fight bad practice alone – in the main it’s for the authorities to bust these crimes – but you can use the laws to help fight your own 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 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, is similar to our civil consumer rights, but takes it a step further by making it a criminal offence for a company to undertake certain unfair practices or carry out aggressive and misleading actions.

The 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.

Your right to redress

Since October 2014 if you buy something from a business that used an unfair or misleading practice you have even stronger rights. As well as the criminal action the authorities can take, you can also take civil action in a county court.

If you act within 90 days and can return the goods, delete the digital content or end the service, in most cases you can ask for a full refund. After that time you can get a discount.

For items worth less than £5,000 the discount works as follows: you get 25% for minor issues, 50% for a significant issue, 75% for something that’s serious and 100% for very serious cases. You can ask for whichever discount you think applies but it may be down to your individual negotiation skills to get the trader to agree.

For items worth over £5,000 the discount is based on the difference between what you paid and what the item is worth. In all cases, if you’ve suffered distress and inconvenience as a result of the problem you can ask for extra compensation.

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 consumer service

Citizens Advice logo

The main source of help for individual consumer issues is Citizens Advice on 03454 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 (01268 886 690) 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, 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


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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