Consumer Rights and the Law

Consumer Rights and the Law


When you buy something that turns out to be faulty, trying to argue your case with the retailer or manufacturer can be a testing experience. Despite strong laws designed to protect consumers from being “ripped off”, the advice given by retailers and manufacturers is often misleading or even downright wrong. This means the poor buyer is sent from pillar to post as they try to get a resolution. One of the consumer’s biggest enemies though, is lack of knowledge of the rights they have. Retail staff are often clueless about their legal responsibilities, and quote “company policy” as if it magically cancels out UK & European Laws. Be assured … it certainly does not.

I have often been asked for a definitive list of exactly which laws apply in which situation, and the action people can take. Sadly, this simply isn’t possible. All laws allow events to be judged in context, so interpretation is paramount in any situation.

What I can give you, though, is a round-up of the laws that protect you when buying from shops, online stores or over the phone. I’ll explain your main rights and responsibilities as a consumer and support it with advice from a qualified lawyer. I’ll also include some common questions we have received, with a brief summery of the legal position in each case.

Just remember that the law only protects you when you are in the right, and that a judge (if you ever went to court) could interpret a situation quite differently than you. One thing I can guarantee is that it’s difficult for a retailer to bluff someone who has researched their rights.

Consumer Laws

The main Laws that preserve consumers rights are the “Sale of Goods Act 1979” (SGA) , the “Sale & Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2003” (SSGC), the “Supply of Goods & Services Act1982” (SGSA) and the “Distance Selling Regulations 2000” (DSR). There are other related laws, which I will mention, but the above cover most situations.

The majority of your rights are protected under the SGA. This is a good one to remember. This Law states, goods must be “of satisfactory quality”. This means there should be no faults or defects in components or design at time of manufacture that affect appearance or make the product unusable or unsafe. (Example … a TFT monitor with dead pixels) . If you buy from a shop, inspect the goods first (that’s right, take the things out of the box, or better still, get the shop assistant to do it for you) make sure you are satisfied.

One important aspect of the SGA is that you can’t return items to a shop because you have changed your mind, found something cheaper, or you just don’t like the colour. The SGA assumes that you have made an informed choice when buying in a shop. In practice, many shops offer a returns or exchange policy but, this is goodwill, NOT a legal obligation.

Fit for the Purpose

What you buy must also be “as described” and “fit for the purpose”. In other words, it should be capable of undertaking the task it is described as being able to do. For example; if you purchase a camera on the fact that it has a zoom lens, or could have one added, and this feature is not available, then the goods are not as described or fit for the purpose you wanted. This could also count as “misrepresentation of goods”, which you can report to Trading Standards. It then can decide to prosecute the offender under the Trade Description Act 1968. In some cases, you might have to pursue such cases yourself through the “small claims court”. (see note)

If a product fails to satisfy any of the above criteria under the SGA, it can be returned to the retailer for a FULL refund, as long as this is done within a “reasonable time” of the sale (This particular legal “term” causes a lot of confusion).Contrary to what some retailers may insist, there is NO legal limit. However, I strongly advise you to check the goods as soon as possible and return them within seven days if not satisfied with the quality.

If you have problems within the first few weeks you could probably argue you have a right to a full refund. If they appear after a couple of months, it is not likely you will automatically be offered, a full refund, until you have let the retailer or manufacturers try to repair or replace the goods.

Burden of Proof

It can be difficult for consumers to prove a fault, however, the Sale & Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002 (SSGCR) took effect in March 2003 and took care of that. This gives you, the consumer, more clout by strengthening specific aspects of the SGA.

The regulations now say that consumers no longer have to prove that items were faulty at the time of purchase, as was previously the case. This shifts the burden of proof in any dispute to the retailer. Since the regulations came into force, if a fault arises within six months of purchase it will be presumed to have existed at the time of delivery.

In addition, any guarantees offered by the manufacturer or retailer will be legally binding and must be written in plain language with clear details on how to make a claim. They must also be available to view before buying. For example; it you buy a monitor with a three-year guarantee, the company you bought it from is legally obliged to honour that guarantee.

The SSGCR also gives consumers the right to request a repair or replacement if goods are faulty (Surprised?). Until March 2003 that wasn’t one of your rights, it is now.

If you choose this route, you have to give the retailer a reasonable chance to repair or replace the goods, before demanding a full or partial refund. This is the ideal course of action if faults appear more than six months after purchase.

Related to the SGA and SSGCR is the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 (SGSA), which provides protection for services such as disputes with Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This requires a supplier of a Service in England, Wales & Northern Ireland to ensure services are delivered within a reasonable time, at a reasonable rate, and with reasonable care & skill. In Scotland, such contracts are subject to Common Law.

Contract of Sale

Goods may also come with a manufacturers’ warranty and this is an added bonus. Typically these run for 12 months from purchase, but in some cases this can be longer.

Lets clear up one common misconception about manufactures’ guarantees, one that retailers are all to fond of quoting - "Your Contract of Sale is with the company that accepts your money". More often than not that means the Shop you bought it from. If a retailer tells you that it has no responsibility for returning or repairing goods, it has misinformed its staff. It may be “company policy” but the phrase has NO MEANING or significance in LAW. Having said that, it can sometimes be easier to deal directly with the manufacturer, but don’t let retailers make you jump through their hoops.

While I’m on the subject, here is another area of misunderstanding: the SGA protects consumers for up to six years after purchase in England (five in Scotland). But that does not mean goods are expected to last this long … it is the period during which one could commence proceedings to take the matter to court. Be realistic about the life expectancy of a computer or its components, a car on the other hand is another matter.

One final Law that protects you is the Consumer Protection Act 1987 (CPA), which covers Health & Safety. If you are injured by a defective product, you may have the right to sue the manufacturer for damages, providing you haven’t used the item inappropriately.

Small Claims Court

Sometimes, the only way to resolve a situation is to take your opponent to the small claims court. Very often the threat alone will concentrate a retailer’s mind on settling the case. It can be far cheaper for a company to settle out of court even if they don’t admit liability.

Costs vary, with court fees of £30 for a claim not exceeding £300, to up to £5000 for claims not exceeding £5,000 and these are usually paid up front. If the verdict goes against you, an appeal can be lodged at £80.

Common Problems and Solutions

The company I bought my PC from has ceased trading. What happens to my warranty now?

If you paid by credit card you can get a refund under the Consumer Credit Act, depending on how long the warranty has left to run. Also, depending on the time you have had the PC the credit card company may be liable for repairs or replacements.

Somehow one of those porn diallers downloaded to my PC and my phone bill is huge. Do I have to pay?

Unfortunately, at the moment the answer is yes. You can report the matter to ICSTIC but you have little redress against the company that has infected you with this dialler, even though it is illegal. ICSTIC does levy fines of up to £5,000 per offence but it is up to you to demand your money back from the offending company, which won’t be your telephone provider. This is difficult because the porn dialler companies are usually based outside the UK.

Watchdog ICSTIS has a new licensing agreement that means that telephone networks such as BT & Cable companies cannot lease premium rate numbers to companies until they see written conformation from ICSTIS that permission has been granted.

BT has already promised to stamp down on rogue diallers by blocking the premium-rate numbers believed to be associated with them.

Why not give your Telephone provider a call - ask them what is their policy, and if you can have premium-rate numbers blocked anyway.

I bought from a private seller in an online auction and am not satisfied. What are my rights?

If the goods were not as described, you can return the product to the seller for a refund, but this must be done quickly. Other rights we’ve discussed in this article probably won’t apply unless you can prove the seller was a business (has “power seller” status or goods available at a fixed price, such as the Buy Now option on some eBay items). In that case, the usual Laws would apply to them.


As you’ll now know, consumer protection law is a complicated business, but I hope you have a better understanding of your rights after reading this article. The question of interpretation is always important when considering entering into any dispute. Whether by starting a small claims action or simply taking an item back to the shop, consider the situation objectively. Before claiming that a manufacturer or retailer has not fulfilled its responsibilities, ask yourself if you have fulfilled your responsibility as a buyer. If so, insist upon your rights.
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