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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Complaints, disputes and coronavirus

In this section you'll find information and updates related to coronavirus that are relevant to the law on complaints and disputes.

The UK's response to coronavirus is changing regularly and often very quickly. While we'll continue to make every effort to keep this page up to date, there may be short periods where what you read here is not the latest information available. Where possible we've tried to provide links to official sources, so you can check the current situation.

Consumer rights

Note that the pandemic has not changed the law on your consumer rights. See our guides on Problems with goods, Problems with services and Consumer rights and information.

Force majeure

Sometimes contracts or terms and conditions will contain something called a 'force majeure' clause (though it won't necessarily be called this). This gives the sellers the right to say they're not liable if they fail to do something if it is the result of something that is outside of their control.

These types of clauses can be allowed, but only if they are deemed fair under the Consumer Rights Act.

The Competition & Markets Authority offers detailed guidance, under section 5, on which terms that limit the liability of the seller could be regarded as unfair.

For example, simply the use of the expression 'force majeure' would already be unfair if not fully explained as the meaning of that term is not general knowledge. It would be fairer to use a term such as 'events beyond our control'.

A clause limiting the seller's liability for a delay in delivery of goods or fulfilling a contract will have the best chance of being judged fair and enforceable if it:

  • Limits liability only for those events that really are out of their control and which are unavoidably a direct cause for the delay or non-fulfilment;
  • Requires them to take all reasonable steps to avoid any delay or non-fulfilment even when faced with an uncontrollable event; and
  • Requires them to inform you as soon as possible of a delay or non-fulfilment that's expected due to an event outside their control and – if the delay is at risk of being substantial – allows you to cancel the contract with no financial penalty.

Sellers cancelling contracts

Some traders are cancelling contracts with consumers for performing services (e.g. events) due to the pandemic. In this situation, less scrupulous traders might try to keep you to particularly onerous terms in the contract.

For example, in your contract with them you might have agreed to pay a non-refundable deposit; to make advance payments for services; or even to be liable to make full payment for the services if you cancel or if they have to cancel for reasons 'outside of their control' (see above under 'Force majeure' for more on this).

The fact that a term appears in a contract that you've signed doesn't mean that it would be enforceable in a court of law. A term in a consumer contract would only be enforceable if it doesn't breach your consumer rights and is fair under the Consumer Rights Act.

If a trader cancels a service, for whatever reason, you should get legal advice if they:

  • don't provide you with a similar suitable replacement service (or only do so after a substantial delay);
  • don't want to refund you what you have paid; or
  • try to get you to pay for the services they have not provided.

It's likely that you are entitled under such circumstances to get all the money back that you have paid.

Even if you are the one cancelling, the trader can't enforce any terms of your contract that aren't fair and can't necessarily keep you liable for payment of services you will not receive.

Do not accept that you need to be financially any worse off because of a cancellation of a service as a result of coronavirus without first getting legal advice.

Help from the Competition and Markets Authority

The CMA has issued guidance on consumer contracts, cancellations and refunds in the context of the pandemic. It sets out in detail their general views on how the law should operate in these areas, and explains your legal rights. You can refer traders to this guidance during your discussions, making it clear that they are breaching your statutory rights as a consumer.

The CMA has also said that it will investigate reports of traders not respecting the law and will take action against them where necessary.

More information

There are some helpful websites where you can find more information about what's regarded as an unfair term in a consumer contract:

Travel disruption

See our Holidays & Travel section for full details of problems. Below is a summary of some of the key points.

Airlines and flights

If your flight was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, you may be entitled under the European Community Regulation EC 261/2004 ('the EU Reg') to claim either a refund of the cost of the cancelled flight or to be offered a re-routed flight to the same destination as soon as possible.

You'll have this right if your cancelled flight would have either departed from an EU airport; or, it would have arrived at an EU airport and it was operated by an EU airline. Airports located in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are regarded as EU airports and so is the UK during the transition period until 31 December 2020. To check if an airport is an EU airport see the list.

Many airlines are offering vouchers as an alternative to a refund – you do not have to accept these. Officially, airlines should refund you within 7 days but the current high demand means they're struggling to meet that deadline.

If you'd already started your journey before the flight was cancelled, you would also be able to claim a refund of certain other expenses you might have incurred, such as for refreshments, overnight accommodation and travelling to and from the airport.

If you're not offered another flight by the airline as soon as possible after the flight was cancelled to the same destination and you have to book another flight yourself, you would be entitled to claim a refund of the cost of that alternative flight.

However, other than a refund or rerouting, you would not be able to claim compensation under the EU Reg, because the outbreak of a pandemic would be regarded as 'extraordinary circumstances'.

You must be sure to check your airline's terms and conditions as they may have a prescribed procedure that you have to follow to make a claim. If they do not set out a procedure for claiming, you can write to them and set out your claim. Just be sure to keep a copy of all dealings you have with the airline, should you need it later.

If the airline refuses to refund you and pay your expenses as claimed, you could use the airline's alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme to resolve the dispute. If your airline is not a member of an ADR scheme and you're claiming under the EU Reg, you could approach the Civil Aviation Authority's Passenger Advice and Complaints Team (PACT) for help by submitting your claim to them online.

If you are not happy with the outcome you could take the airline to court if they refuse to refund you the cost of the cancelled flights and expenses. For more information on how to proceed with your claim through the court see Making a claim.

Note that you do not have a right to a refund if you decide against using a future booked flight that has not yet been cancelled. Check with the airline to see what your options are.

Package holidays

If you booked a package holiday that was cancelled due to the pandemic, you are entitled, under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 (Package Regs), to get your money back within 14 days from the travel operator who received your payment for the holiday.

As a result of the financial implications of refunding so many travellers affected by the mass cancellation of flights and holidays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many travel operators are trying to delay actually having to make full refunds within 14 days, by offering half refunds, holiday vouchers and refund credit notes. You do not have to accept these.

There is a risk that many travel operators and airlines might go bust as a result of the impact of the pandemic, but the law in the UK requires travel businesses to financially protect their package holidays. The Air Travel Organiser's Licence (ATOL) scheme protects most air travel package holidays sold by UK travel businesses and some directly booked flights where you don't receive your tickets immediately, while non-flight package holidays will most likely have financial protection through the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

If your air package holiday or flight is covered under ATOL or your non-flight package holiday is protected under ABTA, you should be protected from losing money or becoming stranded abroad if the travel business you booked with collapses. See the Civil Aviation Authority and ABTA websites for more information.

Holiday and flight FAQs

What's the difference between a voucher and a credit note?

Refund credit notes are a particular kind of voucher that financially protect you if the operator goes bust before you can use it, provided the package holiday was protected by ATOL or ABTA in the first place.

Refund credit notes should contain an expiry date. Up to this date, your money is protected and you can use it to re-book or have your money refunded. It should be equal in value to what you paid and must include the reference and details of the original booking. See ABTA for more information.

Standard vouchers are not financially protected. Be careful not to accept a holiday voucher in full and final settlement of your claim for a refund, as then you will be unable to claim a refund later or make use of chargeback or a Section 75 claim to get your refund (see below).

How do I get my money back if the airline or package holiday firm won't refund me?

There are several possibilities:

1. Chargeback: If your flight or package holiday was cancelled and you paid the company directly with an American Express, MasterCard or Visa card, you could make use of these card companies' chargeback facility.

Whatever the amount you paid, it's worth a try to get your money back in this way, as it's intended to help you recover your money if you pay for something that you then don't get. In a chargeback, your card company will ask for the money back from the bank of the airline or package holiday operator.

However, you must claim within 120 days of buying your ticket or package holiday. And if you do get your money, it's possible that the airline or travel company could take it back again if they successfully dispute your claim (usually within 45 days).

To make a claim for chargeback, visit your card company's website.

2. Section 75 claim: If your flight or package holiday was cancelled and you paid the company directly by credit card, you could also make use of a Section 75 claim. This refers to Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which in these circumstances makes the credit card company liable along with the airline for breach of contract. You'd be claiming the money back direct from the credit card company.

Section 75 applies if the total cost of your purchase was more than £100 but not more than £30,000, irrespective of whether you only paid part of it with your credit card or only paid a deposit. You can claim a refund of all you paid to the supplier from the credit card company. You must claim within 6 years of the date of your purchase.

3. ATOL and ABTA claims: If your flight was booked as part of a package holiday you might be ATOL protected. If you are, you would normally have been given an ATOL certificate, in which case you can make a claim to get your money back if the operator goes bust.

The same would apply if your non-flight package holiday is protected under ABTA and the operator goes bust. In this case visit ABTA to make a claim.

Should I pay the balance due for my future booked holiday even if it seems likely it'll be cancelled due to the pandemic?

If you don't pay the balance due as required by your contract, the company you booked with will be able to cancel your booking and keep any deposit that you have paid. In some instances, they might also be able to apply cancellation charges.

If you do pay the full balance, you will be entitled to a full refund if the travel company cancels. However, as discussed above, it has become more problematic to get these refunds.

So, it's probably better to pay it – but be aware that you might need to wait a bit longer and/or work a bit harder than usual to get all of your money back if your holiday is later cancelled.

However, before you do decide to pay the balance, you might want to get the supplier to agree that providing the holiday won't be possible because of the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. You can then make the supplier aware of the view of the Competition and Markets Authority, which is that the supplier should offer you a full refund if:

  • they cancel without you receiving what you paid for; or,
  • you have to cancel because government public health measures mean that you're not allowed to use the services you paid for.

Rogue advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has a new quick reporting tool where you can report misleading, harmful or irresponsible advertising related to COVID-19 without requiring personal details to be provided. They also provide advice to help you avoid coronavirus-related scams. The ASA makes clear that although their offices are closed, they are still continuing to regulate advertising.

Reporting a business behaving unfairly

The Consumer and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched a new online service where you can report a trader if you encounter issues such as:

  • being misled about the effectiveness of a particular product
  • being charged a vastly inflated price
  • having problems cancelling an order; or
  • not being able to get a refund for products or services.

This is in line with a warning issued by the CMA to traders not to exploit people during the pandemic.

Court action

You can still take court action to resolve your dispute during the pandemic, provided you're not a landlord attempting to regain possession of a property. It's likely your claim will take longer than normal.

If your claim is already in progress, it is likely to be handled differently.

England & Wales

Her Majesty's Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is making use of phone and video hearings. If a particular hearing can't be carried out in this way and it's urgent, it'll be held in a priority court and tribunal building (i.e. one that's not been closed due to the pandemic).

You can still find the relevant court in relation to your hearing here.

HMCTS published and will continue to update additional guidance for all court and tribunal users during the pandemic. There are also regular operational updates.

Scotland

All claims under the simple procedure (i.e. those where you may be due a sum of money of up to £5,000) have been paused during the pandemic. New claims can be registered but won't be progressed. See Civil Online for more information, and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website for information on court arrangements generally.

Northern Ireland

For the situation in Northern Ireland see Judiciary NI.

What is the law guide

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