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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

11. Ways to sort out your problem

If you have a problem with a service, and the service provider refuses to put the matter right or even answer your letters, there are several ways of trying to get matters sorted out. Work through the options given below. You should at least think about each one, even if you don't follow it up, before moving on to the next.

For more about using these and other ways of dealing with problems without going to court see the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet, ''.

1. Conciliation and mediation
If the service provider belongs to a trade association, ask whether the association can help consumers who have a problem, or whether they have a conciliation service. Conciliation is an informal system where the association tries to find a solution that you and the service provider can agree on. It may not be legally binding, so the service provider wouldn’t necessarily be breaking the law if they didn't do what they said they would.

Mediation is similar, and involves an independent mediator who helps you and the service provider work out a solution between you. See the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet '' for more about this.

2. Arbitration
Arbitration is another way of finding a solution that both you and the service provider agree with. Any disagreement can be dealt with through arbitration if both of you agree to it. With arbitration, you and the service provider each put your side of the story to an independent person (the arbitrator), who then makes the decision. The arbitrator generally looks only at written evidence, so there is no hearing to go to.

Some trade associations have arbitration schemes, which are run by an independent arbitrator. Otherwise, you can find an arbitrator yourself through the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (see 'Further help'). If you choose arbitration, the arbitrator's decision is binding, so both you and the provider must do what the arbitrator has ruled. You cannot then go to court if you are not happy with the result.

3. Ombudsmen
Some services are covered by an ombudsman scheme (for example, the Legal Services Ombudsman and the Financial Ombudsman Service). Such a scheme:

  • won't cost you anything; and
  • aims to be quicker and less complicated than legal action.

Ombudsmen will usually say that you must have first tried all other dispute systems, except for legal action, before they will look at your case. These could include, for example, a company's own complaints procedure, or, in the case of a complaint about a solicitor, their professional body's independent Legal Complaints Service. Some ombudsmen can award you compensation if they agree with your complaint, but others can only recommend that the company you are complaining about pays you compensation.

There are time limits for taking your case to an ombudsman: usually six or 12 months after you've gone through a company's own complaints system.

4. Legal action
If you haven't gone to arbitration and other options have failed, you could take your case to court. If your claim is for less than £5000 it can usually be dealt with as a 'small claim'. (However, if your claim is for a personal injury, the most you can claim under the small claims procedure is £1,000). The small claims procedure is a quicker, simpler and cheaper way of using the courts than a full court hearing.

Dealing with a 'small claim'
Making a small claim is fairly cheap because you don't need to use a solicitor to help you prepare your case or to put your case for you. However, you may still want some guidance from a legal adviser.

The small claims procedure is informal and is organised so you can put your own case. You can get forms and more details from your local:

  • county court;
  • Citizens Advice Bureau; or
  • legal advice centre

You can also get information from the Court Service website (see 'Further help').

Advice centres will also be able to help you prepare your case. You will have to pay a court fee and fill in an 'allocation' questionnaire. A judge will then decide whether your case can be dealt with as a 'small claim'. The court will also encourage you to look at using 'alternative dispute resolution' (including conciliation and mediation) if you haven't already done so.

The service provider you are complaining about may make an offer that you are happy to accept before your case gets to court. But if your case does get to court, and you lose, you will normally have to pay only:

  • the travel expenses of the defendant (the person you have taken to court) and their witnesses to get to court, within reason; and
  • experts to prepare evidence (for which there are fixed maximum amounts).

If you win your case, you will usually get back your court fee plus any travel and witness fees. But the court may decide not to award you these costs if it thinks you did not make enough effort to sort out the disagreement in other ways.

Even if you win, you may still have to take further legal action to get the other side to pay up. The court will not do this for you. You can get a booklet explaining the different ways of doing this, from your county court or the Court Service website.

Dealing with larger claims
If your claim is for more than £5,000 it will probably be dealt with under the:

  • 'fast track', if your claim is for up to £15,000; or
  • 'multi track', if your claim is for more than this.

In these situations, you will need a solicitor to prepare your case. And if you lose, there aren't the same limits on the costs you will have to pay. This means you may have to pay the other side several thousand pounds in legal fees. Alternatively you may be able to get a solicitor to deal with your case on a 'no-win, no-fee' basis. See the Gurkha Free Legal Advice leaflet '' for more information.

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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