Whenever we purchase goods and/or services we automatically receive legal rights, which are otherwise referred to as ‘statutory rights’. What this means is that traders must observe certain legal obligations when we contract with them.
What is a contract?
A legal contract doesn’t have to be in writing. For example, when you buy a chocolate bar a contract has been formed. The reason for this is because the trader had offered the goods for sale at a certain price and by taking the goods to the till and paying for them you have accepted the price and agreed to buy the goods that were offered for sale.
In offering the goods for sale, the trader must ensure that they are free from defects, are safe, are fit for their specific and common purpose and must conform to any description that has been applied. Certain goods are expected to be reasonably durable and the price of the goods can influence the expectation in terms of quality. For example, a £5 pair of shoes would not be expected to have the same level of quality as a pair priced at £100.
Contrary to buying goods, it is expected that you receive paperwork when you agree for a service to be carried out. For example, building work. The paperwork supplied should state the identity of the trader (i.e. name, address, phone number), details of the work agreed, the price agreed and details of your 14 day cooling off period (i.e. your Cancellation Rights).
Your statutory rights in terms of a service are that it is expected for the trader to be able to carry out the work with the reasonable care and skill that is expected of a person that is qualified in that field of expertise. For example, you would expect a window fitter to be able to install windows to a standard where there are no issued with the work. In addition, if no specific timeframe has been agreed it is expected that the work be undertaken within a reasonable period of time. For example, unless there are extenuating circumstances beyond the trader’s control, it is not acceptable for a job to take three months if the average time to complete is three weeks. If materials are supplied as part of the service then the same statutory rights concerning goods are applied.
If a contract for a service is agreed away from trade premises then the trader must provide you with details of your 14-day right to cancel in writing. These rights do not apply if the trader visits your home to assess what is required and then sends you a quote by post or email which you subsequently accept either by replying in writing or over the phone. The reason for this is because it would be deemed that you would have had the time to make your choice.In the event where the situation requires the provision of your cancellation rights you are permitted to waive your right to cancel if you wish for the work to commence immediately but, again, the trader must provide you with details of this in writing.
Information pertaining to your right to cancel must be provided in a legally prescribed format, an example of which can be found by clicking the link below:
For comprehensive consumer advice on a wide range of issues, including buying online, buying on the doorstep, visit Citizens Advice – Consumer Advice
Citizens Advice Consumer Service
Advice to consumers is provided by Citizens Advice Consumer Service. You can submit a query online or by calling:
0808 223 1133 (English) or 0808 223 1144 (Cymraeg).
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What can I do if things go wrong?
Goods – if a fault occurs within the first six months from the date of purchase or delivery then the law states that the goods supplied were not likely to have conformed to contract. What this means is that the burden to prove that they did conform falls upon the trader. If the goods develop a fault beyond the first six months then the burden of proof falls upon us. This means that we would need to obtain evidence in writing from a suitably qualified and unrelated independent person to prove that the goods supplied are faulty as a consequence of a defect. The same rule generally applies to fitness for purpose.If the goods are not ‘as described’ then an independent report may not be required if the breach of description is simple to prove.
Services – if there is a dispute over works carried out then the burden of proof always falls upon us. This means that we need to get an independent report from a suitably qualified person to confirm if the work is substandard or unnecessary or incomplete. The courts prefer a report by a Chartered Surveyor but to get an initial idea if there is a problem, you may wish to consider opinions from other suitably qualified tradespersons.
What if I change my mind about something that I’ve bought in a shop?
If you buy something from a shop, take it home then decide to take it back because you’ve changed your mind or if it’s an unwanted gift then you are completely reliant on the shop’s returns policy. A shop doesn’t have to accept back any unwanted goods but many offer a time-limited returns policy to maintain good customer relations. We have no legal right to return unwanted goods when purchased on trade premises and we’re reliant on the shop’s goodwill.
What if I change my mind about something that I’ve bought over the internet or by mail order?
In most cases, the law provides us with a 14 day cancellation period for goods purchased by ‘distance means’. That is, if we’ve bought them over the internet, over the phone or by mail order. The reason for this is because there has been no opportunity to inspect the goods prior to purchase unlike if we went into a shop to buy something.
Do be aware that the trader has a right to charge you for return postage if this is stated in their terms and conditions.
How do I make a complaint?
In the first instance, it may be quicker to sort an issue out over the phone but if you experience difficulties then it is advisable to make a formal complaint in writing. If you are sending a letter in the post then send it by recorded delivery so that you can prove that it has been received. If you are sending an email then activate the ‘delivery’ and ‘read’ receipt options, as you will receive email notifications once your email has been delivered and read.
How do I write a letter?
It is not common for people to write a letter of complaint so they would not know how to do so. A letter of complaint should only stick to the facts and irrelevant details should be avoided.
A standard pattern for writing a letter is:
1. State what goods you purchased including the price, date of purchase and location. If it is a service contract, you describe what the work entailed and the price.
2. Describe what you have done to try and get the matter resolved. E.g. have you contacted the trader by phone? Has there been a response? Any promises made to resolve that have not materialised?
3. State what it is that you want done to get the matter resolved (e.g. repair, replacement goods, cost of having work put right);
4. Request that they respond within 14 days.When we have a grievance there is a temptation to let emotion influence our writing. Keep the tone of your letter reasonable and avoid getting into personal spats. If the trader has been rude to you then feel free to mention this and you can respond by stating that you are disappointed that the matter could not be resolved amicably and swiftly.
There are template letters available on the Citizens Advice website - please click the tab below:
What if I can’t get the matter resolved?
If the trader refuses to resolve the matter or simply chooses not to respond then you may wish to consider instigating small claims proceedings in the county court (otherwise referred to as ‘small claims court’). The claim process has been centralised and it is cheaper to make your claim online via this link:
Do be aware that the claims process is not quick and you need to ensure that you have all of your supporting paperwork in order together with any reports that would be needed to prove the trader’s liability. Anyone can make a claim but it’s the party who has the most convincing argument that is likely to win.
You also need to consider whether or not it is worthwhile making a claim if you are unsure if the trader has the finances to pay you back. For example, a sole trader who does not own his own home may not have sufficient assets to be seized by bailiffs. In addition, if you do not have an address for the trader you will not be able to issue a claim. It is not worth throwing good money after bad. The limit for small claims is £10,000 and you do not need a solicitor to issue a claim. If you do engage a solicitor to help you with your small claim then the judge is not likely to award you your costs.
An ombudsman is someone who has been appointed to look into complaints about an organisation. Using an ombudsman is a way of trying to resolve a complaint without going to court.
The A-Z list of ombudsman services can be found on the