Legal Information Centre

28 July 2008 by Mary Heaney

Consumer disputes

The good news is that consumers in the UK have greater protection than ever before - and an increasing range of weapons they can use to get financial redress.

According to the Office of Fair Trading, unsatisfactory goods and services cost British consumers more than £8bn per year. The good news is that consumers in the UK have greater protection than ever before - and an increasing range of weapons that they can use to get financial redress.

At the same time, the methods available to claim your rights against the suppliers of dud goods and services have increased too – from the small claims court to arbitration – but in all cases, your first port of call should be the retailer or service provider that sold you the goods and services in the first place.


If you have no joy here, and the value of your claim is less than £5000, then one relatively inexpensive option is the small claims court (link to small claims court section) while an increasingly popular alternative is mediation or arbitration, which avoids the cost of full court hearing and is often quicker than formal litigation.


Many arbitration and mediation schemes are operated by trade associations which publish codes of conduct against which their members can judged and binding orders made. One of the most successful of these is the Association of British Travel Agents's arbitration scheme. A similar scheme is operated in the motor industry (which is the single biggest source of consumer complaints) by the Society of Motor Manufacturers for new cars and those still covered by warranties and the Retail Motor Industry Federation for other used cars. Membership of trade associations is not compulsory, however, so it may be worth checking whether a company is a member of one or not before you buy.


Finally, if you feel that a particular market or product is unfairly rigged against the interests of the consumer, then it may also be worth making a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (the OFT). The OFT can investigate market-rigging, rip-off unfair products and other scams that leave consumers out of pocket and have the power to levy very heavy fines on transgressing businesses. Recently, the OFT (and its sister organisation, the Competition Commission) have looked into supermarkets' trading practices, extended warranties, payment protection insurance and the price of replica football kits, among others. On a more local basis, if you feel a particular trader is engaging in unethical practices, then you can report them to trading standards at your local council.


By definition, according to the Sale of Goods Act, any goods you buy from a shop should be 'fit for purpose', in a satisfactory condition and as described when they were sold to you. If not, you are entitled to replacement or repair (but not a refund, unless the the retailer can't replace or repair it), regardless of any additional warranties on the goods, return policies or disclaimers. The same applies to goods bought from a website or by mail order, provided that the selling company is based in the UK, and buying this way also gives you the additional right to return any goods - whether satisfactory or not – within seven days if you change your mind.


The length of time goods should be expected to last for depends on the item, but one important aspect of the law is that it is the retailer, not the manufacturer, that is responsible if anything goes wrong, again whether or not there is manufacturer's warranty attached. Another common fob-off is that a receipt is required – again, not true as long as you have some proof of purchase such as bank statement or credit card bill.


In the event that the shop is unhelpful (which is often the case as many shop staff are not fully aware of the the law), then the next step should be the retailer's head office. If they still dispute your claim, then the only remaining recourse is the small claims court (for claims under £5000) or the county court, in which case legal advice is essential. In England and Wales, any court claim for faulty goods must be made with six years of purchasing the goods. Another point worth noting is that for the first six months after a purchase is made, it is up to the retailer to prove that the item wasn't faulty – after six months, it's up to you to prove that it is faulty, for example by getting an independent report from a repairer.


One last thing to be aware of: if buying privately (including through auction sites such as ebay) these rights do not apply – it's a case of 'buyer beware'.


The law covering the supply of services is similar in principle to that covering physical goods. Services sold to you should be carried out with reasonable care and skill, completed by the date you have agreed or within a reasonable time and at the cost you agreed beforehand, or at a reasonable cost if you haven't agreed one. Proving that a service provided is unsatisfactory can be more complicated than for physical goods.


As with physical goods, your initial complaint should be taken up with the supplier of the service and then its trade association (if any) before taking court action.

Some of the more complex claims for services involve disputes over building work and other trades such as plumbing and window installation. There are quite a number of trade associations covering these trades and some, such as the Federation of Master Builders, have binding dispute resolution schemes.


If you do end up in dispute with your builder, and your claim is above the small claims court limit of £5000, then taking legal advice will be essential as litigation will probably involve getting expert opinions and you will be responsible for the builder's legal costs if the case reaches court and you lose. If it is not clear who is responsible for a problem, action would normally be taken against any sub-contractors used by the builder and if you have paid by credit card or arranged a credit agreement, you may also have a claim against the credit provider.


As ever, it pays to be wise before the event too. In particular, get quotes, start/finish dates and completion dates in writing, ensure that the work is satisfactory before making the final payment and get a receipt. Finally, most tradespeople will provide a warranty for their work, but these will be worthless if the company stops trading. An increasing number of builders and other tradespeople offer warranties that are backed up by an insurance company in the event that the original company disappears before a warranty has run out.


Services disputes

Faulty goods

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