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13 Problems with Goods and Services

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1. Introduction

2. What is the difference between ´goods´ and ´services´?

3. Dealing with problems with goods (products)

4. What the law says a retailer must do about faulty goods

5. What if a product hurts someone or damages something?

6. What if I buy by phone or mail order, or over the internet?

7. What if something is wrong with the food I have bought?

8. What are my rights if I buy on credit ?

9. Dealing with problems with services

10. What the law says a service provider must do

The Supply of Goods and Services Act covers most problems with quality of work – from things you leave for repair with a shop to home improvements. A repairer must put things right if they:

  • use faulty parts for a repair;
  • fit parts wrongly; or
  • damage your property while doing a job.

Getting work finished and disagreeing over the cost are two common problems with services like home improvements. If you negotiate a definite completion time or charge for a service, this forms part of your contract with the supplier. A contract is still legal even if nothing is written down, but it may be hard to prove what you agreed.

Some service providers ask you to sign a ‘satisfaction note’ when they finish the work (or when they have delivered something). In this case, you should write ‘unexamined’ next to your signature unless you have been able to thoroughly check the work or the things you’ve ordered. If you don’t do this, it may be more difficult to claim for problems later on.

What is the difference between an estimate and a quotation?

‘Estimate’ and ‘quotation’ don’t have legal definitions, but an estimate is usually seen as a guide to the cost of a job, while a quotation is seen as a firm price.

If you’re given only a rough estimate or no price at all before a job is done, the service provider can still charge only a reasonable price for the work. Even if a job is urgent (a burst water pipe, for example) it does not mean you can be charged a much higher price.

Trade associations that represent different trades may be able to give you an idea of a fair price for a type of job. Otherwise, you can get quotes from several different traders to see what a fair price would be. If you can, you should get an ‘exact and firm quotation’ in writing before agreeing to a big job.

What are industry codes of practice for?

Many trade associations have a ‘code of practice’ for their members, but they don't always cover things that are useful for consumers, and some associations do little to make sure their members follow the codes. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has a scheme to approve codes, which says that suppliers must offer (among other things):

  • clear contract terms;
  • protection of your deposit, if you have to pay one;
  • proper procedures for handling complaints; and
  • a low-cost independent scheme to settle disputes without having to going to court.

An OFT-approved code will not give you extra legal rights, but if a supplier subscribes to such a code, it may make it easier to sort out any problem you have with them. And the code may promise more than the law requires – for example, the OFT-approved code of the Direct Selling Association gives you a 14-day ‘cooling-off’ period instead of a seven-day one.

Another scheme, called Trustmark, is backed by the government and covers home repairs, maintenance and improvements firms. Companies approved under this scheme promise to meet standards, sign up to a code of practice and have proper complaints procedures. The Trustmark website has more information about the scheme, and lists of approved companies (see ´Further help´).

What rights do I have when hiring something?

As with other goods and services, a hire company (including a rental or leasing company) must supply goods that:

  • fit any description given;
  • are of satisfactory quality; and
  • are fit for the purpose.

It is illegal under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 for a hirer to supply goods that are not safe or don’t have the right instructions and safety warnings.

What if someone breaks an appointment to come to my home?

If a service provider misses an appointment for a certain day, they have broken their agreement with you. You may be able to claim compensation if you had to take a day off work, for example. However, this would depend on whether you told the trader this when you made the appointment.

Gas, electricity, phone and water companies have their own customer service standards, which mean you should get a fixed amount of compensation if they don’t turn up for an appointment. The compensation amount may be stated on your bill (if it isn’t, phone the company to find out). But even if a fixed amount of compensation is quoted, you can still claim extra if you think you need to.

Remember that the law works for businesses as well as consumers. If you make a booking or appointment with someone (a restaurant or hairdresser, for example) and you don’t turn up, the trader can claim compensation for loss of business if they cannot fill your appointment.

What if I sign a contract that has hidden or unfair conditions?

The Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 protect you against anything in a contract which is:

  • unfair;
  • unreasonable;
  • unclear; or
  • ambiguous (has more than one meaning).

What is unfair depends on the circumstances. A common problem with contracts is with ‘exclusion clauses’ (such as a sign in a dry-cleaning or a photo-processing shop which says the business is not responsible if your clothes or your photos are lost or damaged). These clauses have no legal standing if they are judged unreasonable or unfair.

If you think you have a contract that has an unfair term in it, you can complain to the Office of Fair Trading (see ‘Further help’ for details of how to contact them). If they agree with you, they may ask the service provider to change the term, though they cannot force them to compensate you. You will have to take action yourself to get this.

11. Ways to sort out your problem

12. Further help

13. About this leaflet

This leaflet is published by the Gurkha Free Legal Advice (LSC). It was written in association with Sue Bloomfield, a freelance consumer affairs writer.

Leaflet Version: November 2007

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