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Your Rights as a Consumer

If you have a complaint about a product or service, it's a good idea to have an understanding about your Rights as a Consumer. Armed with this knowlege, it will provide you with the added advantage of quoting the 'riot act' to the seller or supplier if they have not complied (or refuse to comply) with the letter of the law!

If you buy anything from a shop, catalogue or even off the internet and there's something wrong with it, then you've got a right to do something about it. This also can apply to a service, such as a service supplied by a builder, plumber and, with some exceptions, most other services.






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What does the law say?

One of the most important laws governing your rights as a consumer is the Sale of Goods Act 1979.

Like many laws it has evolved to keep up with changes in society so the Act now includes the 'amendments' the Sale and Supply of Goods Act 1994 and the Sale of Goods (Amendment) Act 1995.

This is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that applies to both new and second-hand goods. It protects consumers by ensuring that:

  • Goods are of 'satisfactory quality' - products must last a reasonable time and be free of defects
  • Goods are 'as described' - a trader or advertisement must honestly describe the product. If, for example, you buy a CD that turns out to be counterfeit then you have a case against the trader that sold it.
  • Fit for purpose - products must do what the supplier says they do.

If you buy something that doesn't meet any of the conditions stated above, it's your right to demand your money back from the trader (the person/shop who bought it from), not the manufacturer, wholesaler or importer.

Traders also have a duty to supply products that are safe. If they knowingly supply unsafe goods they are committing an offence. If you buy an unsafe product, contact your local Trading Standards Office who will investigate the matter and prosecute the trader if necessary. If the faulty goods cause injury to yourself or damage to your property of more than £275, you may be able to claim against the manufacturer or importer under 'product liability' rules set out in the Consumer Protection Act 1987.

Just as importantly, you have no grounds for complaint under these terms if you:

  • Were told about the fault when buying the product
  • Inspected the product and should have noticed the fault
  • Damaged the product yourself
  • Bought the product by mistake
  • Have changed your mind

Some other problem areas when buying goods

Private sales

When you buy goods from a private individual, you don't have the same rights as when buying from a trader. All the goods are required to be is 'as described'. The legal principle of caveat emptor or "buyer beware" operates.

Second hand goods

You have full rights under the Sale of Goods Act when you buy second hand goods, although the law does say that you must consider the price paid, and if necessary be prepared to lower your expectations about their performance.

Sale goods

Again, you have full rights under the Sale of Goods Act. However, if the goods were reduced in price because of a fault that was either brought to your attention at the time, or should have been obvious to you on examination, then you would not be able to have your money back later for that particular fault- so, check sale goods carefully before you buy.

Buying services

Services, such as those provided by tradesmen and professionals, are covered by The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

Service providers have a 'duty of care' to those they work for and work carried out must be 'to a reasonable standard at a reasonable cost.' If you feel you've been overcharged you have a right to pay what you think is a 'reasonable price' (what you would expect anybody else to do the job for), although you may be sued for the full cost by the provider.

When work is carried out by a trader, the law says that you can expect it to be done:

  • With reasonable care and skill (the standards of skill is that of an 'average practitioner in that field', unless otherwise agreed).
  • In a reasonable time (if there is no specific time agreed).
  • Or a reasonable charge (if no fixed price was set in advance).

Any goods or parts fitted as part of the contract must be of :

  • Satisfactory quality
  • Fit for their purpose
  • As described

When you find that work carried out is not satisfactory, does not conform to the contract, costs more than was agreed or takes too long, you may be able to claim compensation.

Shopping from Home

You're protected under consumer legislation wherever you choose to shop, but there are specific rules that affect products you buy from your home.

It's much easy now to buy things from home, compared to the past. Besides catalogues, mail order firms and buying online, you can be visited by salesmen selling everything from vacuum cleaners to double-glazing.

You can't always see what you're buying, so the need for an effective way to sort out problems is probably much greater than when you shop on your local high street.

Home consumers

You have special rights as a home-consumer under the Consumer Protection (distance selling) Regulations 2000.

You are entitled to:

  • Clear information before placing an order
  • Written information about a purchase
  • A '7 day cooling off' period during which an order can be cancelled without any reason and a full refund made
  • a full refund if goods or services are not provided by an agreed date or within 30 days of placing an order if no date was agreed
  • Protection against credit-card fraud

If you've got a problem with something you've bought:

  • Inform the supplier quickly and let them know why you're complaining
  • Keep a written note of phone calls or emails you've sent and received
  • You should always send a Recorded Delivery letter if you do not receive satisfaction

When buying online you're entitled to the same rights covering any other home-purchase.

A website must display:

  • Clear information about goods or services before you buy
  • Written confirmation of any order
  • A 'cooling off period' allowing the buyer to cancel the order for any reason
  • Your home shopping rights only apply to goods or services you buy from traders who are organised to sell to you without face-to-face contact. They do not apply to financial services like insurance or banking (the Financial Services Authority FSA regulates financial services businesses). Auctioneers, unlike other sellers, can refuse to accept responsibility for the quality of the goods they auction. Read the conditions of sale with care. But, unless the seller is a private individual, the standard terms of the contract set out in the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations 1994 still apply. They do not apply to vending machine purchases or contracts involving the sale of land.

Most of these rights – and particularly the right to cancel – do not apply to:

  • Unsealed audio or video tapes
  • Unsealed computer software
  • Betting games or lottery services
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Food, drink or other goods intended for everyday consumption delivered by regular roundsmen – for example, deliveries of milk
  • Contracts for accommodation, transport, catering or leisure services, which are arranged for a specific time or date eg, train, airline or concert tickets, or hotel bookings
  • Timeshare and package holidays

You have some extra rights when you shop from home for some of these products and there are other consumer protection rules that apply.

If you feel that you've entered into a contract that, on reflection, seems to be unfair you have protection under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations 1994 - even if the 'cooling off period' has expired.

The above regulations don't apply to services like insurance or financial advice, they are regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA)

If you receive unsolicited goods - that you've not ordered, you don't have to return or even pay for them under the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act 1971. If a trader demands payment for such goods they're committing a criminal offence under this law. The goods in question become your property if you keep them for six months, or one month if you have contacted the supplier.

Shopping in the EU

Always check the details before you shop. Your additional home shopping rights in the UK stem from a European Directive and they therefore should also apply in other European countries. However, it may take longer for some European countries to amend their laws to provide you with equal protection. Also, they may not be exactly the same there as those in the UK, so you should check details before you shop.

Shopping beyond the EU

In countries outside the European Union, your rights and responsibilities are likely to vary even more – so check these out too. Always try to check out the small print and be aware that your rights and responsibilities are likely to vary even more. If anything does go wrong, it might be more difficult to pursue a complaint against a trader who's based outside the UK – and particularly outside the EU.

Frequently asked questions:

What is an inherent fault?

  • A fault present at the time of purchase. Examples are:
  • an error in design so that a product is manufactured incorrectly
  • an error in manufacturing where a faulty component was inserted. The "fault" may not become apparent immediately but it was there at the time of sale and so the product was not of satisfactory standard.

Do I only have rights for 30 (or some other figure) days after purchase?

  • No. Depending on circumstances, you might be too late to have all your money back after this time, but the trader will still be liable for any breaches of contract, such as the goods being faulty. In fact, the trader could be liable to compensate you for up to six years.

Are all goods supposed to last six (or five) years?

  • No, that is the limit for bringing a court case in England and Wales (five years from the time of discovery in Scotland's case). An item only needs to last as long as it is reasonable to expect it to, taking into account all the factors. An oil filter would usually not last longer than a year but that would not mean it was unsatisfactory.

I know I can demand my money back within a "reasonable time" but how long is that?

  • The law does not specify a precise time as it will vary for most sales contracts as all the factors need to be taken into account to be fair to all sides. The pair of everyday shoes may only have a few days before the period expires but a pair of skis, purchased in a Summer Sale, may be allowed a longer period by a court.

After the "reasonable time" has passed, what can I do?

  • You may seek damages, which would be the amount of money necessary to have the goods repaired or replaced. Frequently retailers will themselves offer repair or replacement. But, if you are a consumer (not making the purchase in the course of a business) you have the statutory right to seek a repair or replacement as an alternative to seeking damages.

Is it true that I have to complain to the manufacturer?

  • No. You bought the goods from the trader, not the manufacturer, and the trader is liable for any breaches of contract (unless he was acting as the manufacturer's agent).

Do I have to produce a receipt to claim my rights?

  • No. In fact the trader doesn't have to give you a receipt in the first place so it would be unfair to say that you had to produce one. However, it might not be unreasonable for the shop to want some proof of purchase, so look to see if you have a cheque stub, bank statement, credit card slip etc., and this should be sufficient.

Can I claim a refund on sale items?

  • It depends on why you want to return them. The Sale of Goods Act still applies, but you are not entitled to a refund if you were told of the faults before purchase, or if the fault should have been obvious to you. Also, you are not entitled to a refund if you simply change your mind about liking the goods.

Must I accept a credit note instead of a refund?

  • It depends on why you want to return the goods. If you have changed your mind, then the shop doesn't have to do anything. But if the goods are faulty, incorrectly described or not fit for purpose, then you are entitled to your money back (provided you act quickly), and you certainly don't have to take a credit note. If you do accept a credit note in these circumstances, watch out, as there may be restrictions on their use. If the shop displays a sign stating they only give credit notes instead of refunds, they might be breaking the law and you could report them to your local Trading Standards Department.

What can I do to claim damages or if the retailer will not honour my rights?

  • The Small Claims Court procedure provides the means to bring a claim, for up to £5000 (in England and Wales), at modest cost and without the need for a solicitor. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can advise on how to make a claim.

The retailer has said that a repair is "disproportionately costly" and insists I accept a replacement as an alternative. Must I accept this?

  • Yes, and vice versa if you request a replacement and this is "disproportionately costly". However, remember any remedy has to be carried out "without significant inconvenience" and within a "reasonable time" for the consumer. Remember that you could also seek damages instead.

Neither repair nor replacement of the goods are possible. What can I do?

  • You may either pursue the old route of damages or a partial or full refund. Probably either would give you exactly the same amount of money. You would seek a full refund in scenarios such as those where you had enjoyed absolutely no benefit from the goods. If you had benefited from them then you would seek a partial refund as a fair remedy. This is exactly the reasoning that would be employed if you sought damages.

What does the "reversed burden of proof" mean for the consumer?

  • It means that for the first six months the consumer need not produce any evidence that a product was inherently faulty at the time of sale. If a consumer is seeking any other remedy the burden of proof remains with him/her. In such a case, the retailer will either accept there was an inherent fault, and will offer a remedy, or he will dispute that it was inherently flawed. If the latter, when he inspects the product to analyse the cause, he may, for example, point out impact damage or stains that would be consistent with it having been mistreated in such a way as to bring about the fault. This reversal of the usual burden of proof only applies when the consumer is seeking a repair or replacement. After the first six months the onus of proof is again on the consumer.

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